I like to read school vision statements. By definition, a vision is a picture of the future and school vision statements always paint a picture that is optimistic and aspirational.

School vision statements are all slightly different but usually include reference to developing capable, well rounded, lifelong learners of character who will make a positive difference. That is what we are all hoping for and the future of our societies depend upon it.

When schools adopt a new vision statement or confirms an existing one, school leaders are hoping that the school community will rally behind it and turn it into reality. To engage the whole school community in the vision, the drafting of it will often be a collaborative effort drawing on the perspectives of students, parents, and teachers.

Let us use the fictitious developing capable, well rounded, lifelong learners of character who will make a positive difference vision statement. This school is hoping to develop capable, well rounded, lifelong learners of character who will make a positive difference.

“Rewarding A and hoping for B”

When a professor used this phrase during a lecture on motivation and incentives, my mind immediately went to school vision statements.

The story the professor told to illustrate his point came from the shipping of British convicts to Australia when the latter was a penal colony. The British Government outsourced the shipping of convicts to private shipping companies. The hope of the British Government was to get the convicts to Australia alive. Initially, the shipping companies were paid based on how many convicts the ships could carry. The mortality rate was very high. When the British Government started paying the shipping companies based on how many convicts actually walked off the ship in Australia the mortality rate dipped below 2 percent. The mortality rate dropped because there was an incentive that aligned with the hopes (or vision) of the British Government.

This lecture was part of a Managing Human and Social Capital paper that forms part of My Personal MBA. This story was told to illustrate the point that incentive systems must align with and promote the behaviours necessary to fulfill the vision of an organisation.

In the context of schools, the question must be asked, ‘Is there any incentive for teachers to fulfill the vision?’ That might seem a rather strange question if one considers developing capable, well rounded, lifelong learners of character who will make a positive difference to be the right thing to do. What more incentive does an educator need?

But my concern is that many schools unintentionally inhibit teachers’ motivation to throw themselves behind the vision and in some instances might unintentionally force teachers to act in outright contradiction of the vision.

Teachers might not get paid more based on the progress of their students over a year, but teacher appraisal systems (which can revert to pseudo incentive systems) certainly provide an incentive for teachers to show student progress. I do not have an issue with this. Teachers want their students to progress. However, I do have an issue with appraisal systems that measure student progress and therefore teacher effectiveness in a way that diverts teacher effort from the stated vision of the school.

Have you ever observed Kindergarten students take a Standardized MAP Test? It is two parts comic and one part tragic. Putting aside the pros and cons of the standardized testing of five year olds, an appraisal system that prioritizes standardized testing data to the exclusion or invalidation of other data does not provide sufficient incentive for teachers to develop capable, well rounded, lifelong learners of character who will make a positive difference. Such an incentive system might result in teachers understandably teaching to the test and ignoring the well rounded, lifelong learners of character who will make a positive difference bit. And getting lauded for it. This is an example of sub-optimization – teachers achieving their goals at the expense of the goal that the school has set itself in relation to each student. A student might graduate from high school a year early with a scholarship to Harvard, dropping out after a couple of years. Has the school’s goal been met in relation to that student? The standardized test scores would suggest so.

I believe that when a vision statement is developed, so must a shared understanding be developed of how teachers can fulfil that vision for the benefit of each student and how progress will be assessed. Teachers must see themselves as collectively responsible for the fulfillment of the vision in relation to each student. Teachers must hold themselves accountable for assessing, planning and teaching in line with the vision of the school for the benefit of the students and school leaders must support them to do this.

I like data and I am not against standardized testing. I actually enjoy poring over MAP testing data, finding patterns and hypothesising as to the root of them. My view is that all data must be collected, interpreted and acted upon in line with the vision of the school and may need to be complemented by more data to obtain an accurate view of progress in terms of the vision in relation to each student. This is a very complex task but if teacher efforts are not diverted from the vision, it is an achievable and very satisfying one.

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