Editorial: Motivation Is What Counts

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By: Enterprise Editorial Board
Published: 07/20/12

As we were preparing our stories on Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis, its growth and success and how our public school districts are responding to it, we had a moment of enlightenment this week.

We had been discussing how Sturgis has managed to foster such remarkable academic achievement among its students.

David Bloomfield, of the Mashpee School Committee, has suggested that the school is "cherry-picking" the best students from surrounding public school districts. That is not the case, insofar as "cherry-picking" denotes an action taken by Sturgis to select only the best students. The lottery system used by the charter school to determine who gets in is by all accounts random and without regard to prior performance.

So, if Sturgis is not picking and choosing the best students, what is happening here?

We don't doubt that the school's "IB for all" approach to education plays a role in its success. The administration, students and parents seem to have bought into the concept, and the descriptions we've had in the paper last week and this week intuitively make sense.

But we also felt there must be more.

Is it just that only the most talented students apply? The incoming MCAS scores are, in fact, on the high end, but even higher still are the improvements made by those same students between 8th and 10th grade.

Is it that they have to spend fewer resources on special education? Is it something else to do with student diversity?

The answer was not complete until we had a conversation with a public school teacher, who summed it up in one word noted in our story today: motivation.

The students who opt to go to Sturgis may or may not be the smartest or most talented, but they are definitively students who care enough about academics to go to a different school than many of their friends, to deal with the hassles of transportation, and to pursue a school with a reputation for academic rigor. They are, by and large, students who want to work hard at school.

Everyone there has made a choice to be there. And this has far-reaching repercussions.

A motivated student is a dream student for many teachers. We have often heard teachers say that they get the most pleasure not out of seeing an already gifted student excel, but out of seeing a student who is willing to work hard improve. That, we believe, explains some of why the teachers at Sturgis are willing to work for considerably less money than their peers in traditional public schools.

From a teacher's perspective, it also means there will likely be less energy wasted on discipline and the challenges of dealing with students who would rather not be there. With time in class stretched thin already, each minute devoted to discipline is time taken away from the other students who are there to learn. We also often hear from teachers that dealing with disagreeable, even incorrigible, students is one of the worst parts of their job.

A motivated student body also helps create a culture where student achievement is supported by their peers, a sense that we know many school administrators struggle to promote.

This perspective, that the school is effectively segregating by motivation, also gives us a sense of why teachers and others in public school districts have developed such a resentment toward Sturgis and charter schools in general: they are losing some of their favorite students. That frustration is, to a degree, understandable. But of all the reactions we've heard to Sturgis, we liked that of Sandwich Superindent Richard Canfield best.

"What we're realizing, in this competitive environment, is that you can't keep cutting programs and expect people to stay. You have to offer things like engineering and technology classes, language classes like Chinese, visual and performing arts. Rather than sitting back and resting on our laurels, we're looking to expand programs—make our schools better," he said.

For in the end, there is no time for jealousy. Those in public districts should see Sturgis competition driving them to improve their own performance. But they might reach out as well. Have any of the districts asked the students headed to Sturgis why they made the decision to leave? Have they visited the school? Are they, and the rest of us, motivated enough to learn from what it is doing right?

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