Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Why School Reform Has Not Produced

obriena's picture

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson claimed that school reform efforts have disappointed for two reasons. One, no one has discovered transformative changes that are scalable. And two, shrunken student motivation.

Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.

Samuelson may be on to something here. Student motivation is rarely mentioned in education reform discussions--except, of course, as part of carrot and stick conversations about how incentives can help students do better (an idea that research both within education and in other sectors has shed doubt on). Perhaps if reform discussions focused more on getting students invested in their learning, they would be more fruitful.

But then he takes it a bit far for me:

The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded.

While I think student motivation is too often ignored in broader discussions of reform, I do not think that schools and teachers should be let of this hook so easily. As I just learned from Gallup's youth readiness survey, about 37% of students are either just going through the motions at school, or are actively disengaged. One possible reason that emerged from that report: Less than half of American students strongly believe that they will find a good job after graduation. I might not be too motivated either, if I didn’t think school would get me a good job. Perhaps schools and teachers could make classes more relevant to the student’s future.

And some other ways to increase student engagement emerge from that study as well. Students receive less praise and recognition as they age, so perhaps more praise for academic accomplishments could motivate students. Another issue? Teachers are not conveying to students the importance of their studies. By getting more engaged themselves, teachers might find that they better motivate students.

But these are not the governance changes that are so popular in education reform debates. Nor are they necessarily related to standards-based education or teacher pay, other hot topics. But maybe if more teachers had high-quality support in developing strategies to help motivate students, we would get better results. And that is a reform strategy that may even address Samuelson’s first criticism of previous reform efforts: it could be scalable.

I have taught in three

I have taught in three different high schools and they all had a different culture of achievement and different subcultures of achievement. There certainly was an aura of hopelessness around some who felt, why try, there is nothing out there for me anyway. Others knew, education was their only hope.

How do we, as a society, inculcate teenagers with these values? Do they spring from their families? From their peers? From the media? Where do they get the attitude that is is uncool to study? Where do some minority students get the attitude that is a "white" thing to study and achieve, that you are a sell-out to your race to be a scholar? I wish I knew.

Whenever I read pieces like

Whenever I read pieces like that my thoughts always go to the bright spots: What schools DO have students engaged? What is different about those schools? What is working/not working? I definitely agree that motivation needs to be part of the conversation, yet there is something defeatist about his approach.

Wait. You state that you

Wait. You state that you don't believe schools and teachers should be left easily off the hook when it comes to student learning and achievement. Then, you note that fewer than half of US students believe that they will find a good job after graduation.

Exactly what can schools and teachers do to remedy the miserable economic condition that this country is in that might make students' post-graduation job prospects seem more promising? I'm all for making school learning "relevant," but there's a bigger problem here that even the best schools and the most gifted teachers cannot effectively address.

I agree with you that education "reformers" have ignored the student motivation variable. But, from what I've read of their collective ideas, they would not have much of a clue about how to address student motivation. It is surely a target variable for which throwing money at it (i.e., incentivizing student effort) won't work.

Actually the folks at

Actually the folks at Education Evolving have spent a lot of time thinking about student and teacher motivation - "In redesigning schools, we should focus on motivating the workers: both students and teachers." What would that look like? Dr. Curtis Johnson and Ted Kolderie provided a glimpse at this at a AEI conference in 2009-


A recent "Onion" video rather

A recent "Onion" video rather tastelessy pondered, "Are standardized tests biased against kids who don't give a $%&@?" I think the question has some merit, however crassly it was posed.

I have been saying for years that student motivation is key, but also that teachers have to show why what they are teaching is important. I start my year in Language Arts class by having the students brainstorm real life reasons to read and write-- no "school" reasons allowed. They confirm for me that all they ever hear is "You will need this for the test," or "You will need this in high school." They never hear, "You need this now, and you need it for real life."

I think all the test pressure is counter productive to motivation. The generation of students in my class has been raised under the testing program of Florida, the FCAT. It is all they hear about, and as one of my colleagues has pointed out, it seems the test is all we as teachers talk about. We don't teach so they will pass a test though, or shouldn't. I try to teach for life.

Yet despite my efforts to engage students with real life reasons to read and write, and to get them find their own voices and their own topics to write about, many remain unengaged. It is all I can do to get some of them to take paper out and start to work, no matter how motivating I try to make what we are doing.

Am I battling 8 prior years of test-prep, or is it merely a culture of apathy? Or is the lack of motivation over-determined by factors I can't even determine? I don't know, but I do know that motivation is a huge, huge issue that we need to start looking at. Daniel Pink's "Drive" is a good place to start.

Jay - You raise some

Jay - You raise some interesting questions. And I join you in wishing I knew.

Allison - You raise an excellent point. There are MANY schools that get students engaged. For example, staff at Mechanicsburg Middle School in Pennsylvania got kids re-invested in math. Alabama's George Hall Elementary keeps kids interested as well. We do need to look at what works and replicate when possible.

MC Smith - You're right that teachers cannot fix the economy. But maybe they can point kids to higher-paying, fast-growing fields...and let them see what is possible there. And I would guess that more than half of kids actually would be able to get a good job after graduation, especially if they go to college, so perhaps teachers and schools can focus more on the positives, at least getting more kids to recognize what is possible.

You are also right that throwing money at student motivation won't work, especially in the long-term. But like Allison suggested, maybe we could study those places where students are motivated, and try to replicate what works. That might even be a cheaper solution than a lot of the improvement efforts getting attention today.

Tim - Thanks for the resource! It looks like a very interesting paper. I'll give it a closer read soon.

David - You seem to raise an issue I faced as a high school teacher. In many cases, it seems that kids have formed their opinion about the worth of school long before hitting the high school door. To me, this emphasizes the importance of helping younger students realize the importance of education, but it also raises the question, "What do I do with the kids I have now?" I struggled with that, and unfortunately many times was forced to point out that students needed to pass a state test to graduate, and this would help them do so. Part of the problem, for sure. I wish you much better luck!

Another perspective on

Another perspective on student motivation would say that rather than trying to make the traditional subjects more "engaging," and try to convice students that they will lead to employment, why don't we build curriculum around subjects that are already more engaging to students BECAUSE the lead to employment. in other words, why don't we make room for career/tech subjects and grant them some respect.

It is literally hilarious to me that we continue to try to force all students to analyze literature up through 12th grade (and right on through college, for that matter). Now, I don't want to disrespect literary analysis; it's been very rewarding to me. But it is not the only way to learn to think critically, and very many students of my acquaintance (and in my family) have had it with analyzing literature long before 12th grade. We should respect that preference, and allow them to use their brains on something else.

Anonymous - I agree we should

Anonymous - I agree we should build curriculum around subjects that are already engaging students, and that we could do a lot more with career/tech subjects. But I am not sure that its an either/or. The fact that these days so many students need reading remediation once they get to college lead me to believe that maybe schools need to do MORE literary analysis. But if it were around a topic they were interested in, it might not seem so much like work. Or perhaps if that analysis were done across disciplines, with "literature" more broadly defined--for example, someone in a health field would need to know how to interpret the results of a study to meet a patient's needs. It still respects the student's preferences, but makes sure they gain skills they need.

Not just student motivation.

Not just student motivation. Student cognitive ability.

Take those two together, and it's hard to see how we can improve much on what we've done thus far. Where do we have any proof that a hardworking kid with low cognitive ability can learn algebra at the age of 12--with or without incentive or desire?

Cal - Have you ever taught? I

Cal - Have you ever taught? I think one of the most discouraging parts for me was seeing students with high cognitive ability fail because they were not motivated--or being so far behind because of their previous disinterest that becoming motivated couldn't save them.

And sure, we will always have differing levels of cognitive ability, but if we can motivate kids to do the best that they can do, I think we could go well beyond what we've done so far (as a system--there are absolutely individual schools who've reached their peak, and we need to celebrate them).