Motivation is Not the Problem

Should we be celebrating Silicon Valley’s small educational gains this week? Are these gains scalable? Are we beginning to turn the educational tide? My answer to all these questions is a resounding “maybe.”

Most news reported to us through electronic or print media is pretty bleak. We have a system of national government that is paralyzed by partisan gridlock, a decaying infrastructure as evidenced by an unprecedented natural gas pipeline explosion ripping through an entire neighborhood, a budget/fiscal crisis in all levels of government, an endless war in Afghanistan and an ugly rising tide of bigotry and racism. For the first time in polling, we have a public that believes the future for their children will be worse than the past was for them. However, there are some glimmers of hope in our education system that could be the catalyst for constructive change. 

But not in the eyes of Washington Post/Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson who writes in an op-ed piece on Sept. 6 that “The largest cause of [school] failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail…Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well.”

Mr. Samuelson let me try to correct your assertion.

First we must learn from successful schools that motivate all students to do their best, schools that reach out to parents as equal partners, schools that eliminate bias during instruction, and schools that provide a culture of high expectations for all.  There are many Silicon Valley schools that do all of these things and have little problem motivating the learner. Their data are remarkable and their work can be replicated.

Two charter schools that come to the forefront are Rocketship Mateo Sheedy and Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy. In these two schools the free and reduced lunch count is at least 70 percent and in some cases greater. Their Academic Performance Index scores for 2010 are 925 and 886, respectively. This places these two schools at 5th and 15th place for all California schools with similar free and reduced meal counts, and they have the same funding model as all CA schools. What makes the difference? It is not more money.

According to Preston Smith, Rocketship co-founder and Chief Achievement Officer, there are three factors that make the difference. “First, we have a talented team of teachers and staff, which is strongly supported by our partnership with Teach for America, who are all committed to our mission of ensuring that each Rocketship school is a college preparatory environment. Second, we collaborate closely with parents and involve them in school governance and hiring, which creates parent-teacher goal alignment and a supportive, achievement-oriented culture for students. Third, our hybrid model combines innovative use of computers, along with outstanding teaching, which enables us to individualize instruction to meet the specific needs of each and every child.”

Now we must get unions, policy makers, elected officials, and other leaders to have the courage to equalize the playing field between charters and their traditional public school counterparts.  If we do, what Rocketship is doing so successfully can be replicated in every school in this county and the achievement gap will be eliminated by 2020. The elected leaders need to step up and act with a strong sense of urgency. Our children deserve nothing less.

That is my singular biggest beef with charter schools. The state gives them the same dollars, but they allow them to operate with more flexibility and autonomy. There is not one Charter School teacher in this state, from my knowledge, that earns tenure. I believe tenure, as currently structured, is part of the problem. All teachers in CA Charters are “at will” employees. Rocketship salaries are 20% higher than many districts because they can use their revenue more creatively. 

Since the model is working for Rocketship’s students there is no reason we should not try to make the changes needed for all children in all our schools. I am not certain we need more Charter Schools, although they are coming, we need schools that motivate the learner to perform at their highest levels, schools that make parents significant partners, schools that reward success and minimize failure.

Silicon Valley has many of these schools both traditional public and charter.  You can see a video of 12 extraordinarily successful schools from the Charter School Summit the SCCOE sponsored in January. The link is SCCOE Charter School Summit 2010. Rocketship is featured along with 11 other traditional public and charter schools. For students in these schools there is no “shrunken motivation”. We can still have a better future for our children and grandchildren than we had, but the window of opportunity goes through the school system.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

6 Comments

  1. > We have a system of national government that is paralyzed by partisan gridlock, a decaying infrastructure as evidenced by an unprecedented natural gas pipeline explosion ripping through an entire neighborhood, a budget/fiscal crisis in all levels of government, an endless war in Afghanistan and an ugly rising tide of bigotry and racism.

    Aren’t these all problems that were supposed to have been solved by Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Hussein Obama?

    I distinctly remember hearing all of these characters saying that a bigger, more compassionate government with them in charge would end poverty, end war, improve literacy, increase wages, provide universal healthcare, and end dependence on foreign oil.

    Where’s my flying car?

    • Why don’t you scrounge up your loosechange and buy an island where you can reign as King.  I’m certain you’re intelligent enough to govern a modest population of hermit crabs.

      • I’m certain that Doofinator would be a wise and fair king,  and broadly beloved by his hermit crab subjects.

        In fact, I suspect that liberal hermit crabs would be especially delighted with the historical significance of crowning their first non-crustacean king, thereby relieving the hermit crab nation of the stigma of being a crustacean supremacist society.

  2. “The state gives them the same dollars, but they allow them to operate with more flexibility and autonomy. There is not one Charter School teacher in this state, from my knowledge, that earns tenure. I believe tenure, as currently structured, is part of the problem. All teachers in CA Charters are “at will” employees. Rocketship salaries are 20% higher than many districts because they can use their revenue more creatively.”

    Tenure is a disaster for our schools.  The teachers union has abused it to provide job security for themselves and zero accountability for how well they teach our children.  Parents need to recognize this fact and push for change.

  3. “Tenure is a disaster for our schools.”

    Not just schools—colleges and universities, too.  We have tenured full professors galore who teach few, if any classes, but draw down the biggest salaries.

    In the private sector, you have to continue to produce/perform.  The same should be true of teachers at all levels.