‘Voluntary’ donations don’t even work

I got a rare opportunity to speak publicly today on the issue of ‘voluntary’ school donations.  The issue is currently in the media because of the outrageous donations that Rathkeale College is seeking from its students’ parents.  But really Rathkeale is simply one of the worst examples of a very widespread practice.

One of the things I find most frustrating about this issue is that the schools always claim that they are underfunded, and thus put moral pressure on parents to pay ‘donations’ so their children’s education does not suffer.  Whether this claim is true or not is, however, mostly irrelevant when you consider how school donations are spent. One of the things all the researchers, education professionals, students and parents will agree on is that the best, most effective way to improve education is to invest in high quality teaching.  How you do that is a question for political debate; merit pay vs better working conditions, national standards vs state-funded professional development etc, but the initial premise is widely accepted.

And the reality is that school donations do not go towards teachers.  They might go into computer suites, swimming pools, ski-trips or a wide range of other things that look great on the glossy brochures but they don’t go towards teachers. (Incidentally the glossy brochures main task seems to be to secure more parents who are willing to fund the next lot of things to be featured in the next round of glossy brochures.)  School principals and teachers know better, parents know better, I suspect school boards know better, but everyone is trapped in a cycle of fear; if we don’t compete for money children may miss out.  It’s time we stepped back and asked whether that ‘donation’ is the best way to invest in our children’s education.  It might turn out that it’s better spent as books at home for your children, food in the pantry or trips to see the grandparents, because if you give it to a school board, despite its best intentions, the money is unlikely to affect teaching and learning outcomes much.

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4 thoughts on “‘Voluntary’ donations don’t even work

  1. “the best, most effective way to improve education is to invest in high quality teaching.”

    – agreed, so lets create incentive with performance-based pay. Teachers – good, mediocre, and bad, will be encouraged to lift their game, at least for better pay, let alone a message from the taxpayers/parents that they expect top quality. Currently, what is their motivation? Not much considering the same old salary regardless of effort. Potential promotions always help, as does training, but they only go so far; what more can be done?

    “It’s time we stepped back and asked whether that ‘donation’ is the best way to invest in our children’s education. It might turn out that it’s better spent as books at home for your children, food in the pantry or trips to see the grandparents, because if you give it to a school board, despite its best intentions, the money is unlikely to affect teaching and learning outcomes much.” – a valid question, but let’s not get confused between funds for educational purposes (books at home) and non-educational purposes (trips to see the grandparents), otherwise it’s ‘can o worms’ time. I think you may agree, but the question is how to best spend funds from home intended for education. the current system may indeed not be ideal.

  2. I guess what i had in mind, Sean, was that I reckon my kids would learn more if I paid for them to visit and spend time with their grandparents than they would if I donated the same money to their school.

    As I said performance-based pay is a legitimate question for debate but I would argue that most of the credible research that I’ve read tends to point to performance-based pay undermining education outcomes. Note for instance Alfie Kohn’s work:

    To this day, enthusiasm for pay-for-performance runs far ahead of any data supporting its effectiveness—even as measured by standardized-test scores, much less by meaningful indicators of learning. But then that, too, echoes the results in other workplaces. To the best of my knowledge, no controlled scientific study has ever found a long-term enhancement of the quality of work as a result of any incentive system. In fact, numerous studies have confirmed that performance on tasks, particularly complex tasks, is generally lower when people are promised a reward for doing them, or for doing them well. As a rule, the more prominent or enticing the reward, the more destructive its effects.

    And, as I said above, it’s essentially irrelevant to the school donations issue unless you are making your donation straight into the teacher’s wallet.

  3. But isn’t your comment “it’s essentially irrelevant to the school donations issue unless you are making your donation straight into the teacher’s wallet.” contrary to your preference to not reward teachers on performance? (since performance related pay directly affects their wallet)

    Having read the quote, I somewhat agree with your reference (Alfie) that performance-related pay is not the be-all and end-all in improving teaching quality. Having been involved in the private sector it is clear that recognition is preferred over (often poorly defined) monetary incentives. But the current lowest common denominator system is also not ideal. I would disagree with him in that incentive systems are destructive (he appears to be politically motivated now – sad) but I believe some sort of incentive is needed, even if it isn’t monetary. It’s just human nature to achieve more when there is more to be gained (not necessarily fiscal)…surely you don’t disagree with this? Performance-based pay could be a (low, single aspect) incentive but coupled in with promotions, training, easy change of schools, increase in responsibilities, etc, so that the new graduate to teaching knows that their life ahead has promise. Sadly, too often I see good teachers rotting away in the unionist-influenced environment, and inevitably they turn to different careers, to the detriment to the education sector (and by default, our children).

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