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Commentary: “Drive” improvements to Denver Plan

This commentary was submitted by Jason Callegari, policy director for A+ Denver, a citizens group that advocates for education reform in Denver Public Schools.

In 2010, Daniel Pink wrote a book “Drive” that explores motivation, where it comes from and how to maintain it.  For the cliff notes version of the book, tune into the TED talk that he delivers on the topic here.

Pink spends a good amount of the book looking at motivation in the workplace, within businesses and at school. In the end, he questions our long-held belief in the value of extrinsic motivators, namely monetary reward. There is little question that money, praise and prestige act as strong motivators and drive better output(s) in certain left brain-oriented fields.  But Pink suggests, and I would agree, these carrot and stick motivators and the desire for material gain are overly simplistic and, in fact, the wrong tools to use to cultivate the drive for success in the field of education.

In fact, Denver Public Schools, teachers (DCTA) and voters partnered to implement a pay-for-performance program in Denver, which has seen results that are at best inconclusive.  I don’t think that this is surprising.  Of course many teachers would enroll in a program enabling them to increase their salary, but this doesn’t mean that this increased salary motivates a large percentage to do more than they currently are in the classroom.  Teachers are already working hard.

The more thought-provoking section of the book, and what seems to align more directly with education, is the section where Pink explores the relevance of three factors of motivation:  Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.  In his TED talk, he defines these as:

  • Autonomy – the urge to direct our own lives  (or our school and classroom)
  • Mastery – the desire to get better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose – yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

These intrinsic motivators have driven people for centuries and I would argue that they are the drivers of teachers and leaders in all of our districts, much more so than salary.

These motivators are congruent with the Theory of Action, Performance Empowerment, outlined in the Denver Plan.  One would assume that this could be a moment of relief; the strategic plan and the motivations that we’d like to target have aligned.

But as the new Policy Director of A+ Denver, I have recently been involved in a critique of the Denver Plan the results of which were summed up quite nicely in A+’s letter to the board. In the letter, A+ asks the school board and district leadership to redraft the Denver Plan and lists five main critiques:

  • Redraft the Plan to match the theory of action;
  • Add a section that addresses math and literacy;
  • Improve goals and their corresponding accountability measures;
  • Redraft the Plan to match current priorities;
  • Add recruitment, training and support of school leaders.

If we are to believe Mr. Pink, then the Denver Plan should be a document that speaks to the collective purpose of teachers and the district while seeking to increase school and teacher autonomy in smart ways.  The Denver Plan should also speak to the ability or inability of the district to augment teacher skills guiding them toward mastery.

I’m not sure that the Denver Plan, in its current iteration, is this plan.  And while autonomies are being pursued at the school level through innovation schools, we don’t have enough data to show whether this has been a smart use of autonomy.  It is my hope that, with a redraft of the Denver Plan, the district can move closer to a plan that aligns what drives teachers and schools with its plan.

We’ve heard positive feedback from a number of the district board members as well as superintendent Tom Boasberg, and they have agreed take a closer look at these critiques.  I hope they do.

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