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Educators vs. Economists

July 20, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

Recently, investigations found widespread cheating in Atlanta's public schools. This came just a few months after similar cheating suspicions received national publicity in Washington, D.C. While these are the most current high-profile examples of cheating by educational institutions, the phenomenon is by no means new. Similar findings have cropped up in Houston, Baltimore, and Chicago.

The thing is, these cheating incidents (and the myriad others not yet caught) were completely predictable.

History predicted them. No Child Left Behind, the federal education act infamous for its promotion of high-stakes testing, was itself based on a similar program started earlier in Texas. Unsurprisingly to us now, cheaters cropped up in Austin and elsewhere.

What's more, a social scientist predicted this cheating in 1976. Social scientists have a rule, often applied to high-stakes testing in education, called Campbell's Law. That law states, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” In other words, the more important you make a measurement, the quicker that measurement becomes corrupted.

This is a problem for those who want to treat our schools' efforts to achieve universal excellence as an exercise in economic theory. Assuming that all stakeholders are motivated by extrinsic (particularly monetary) incentives, some would-be reformers have tried to create a system that rewards educators for educating better.

This is a case of a noble goal tripped up by faulty implementation. Instead of creating a culture focused on genuine student achievement and professional improvement, the test-obsessed incentive structure uses math and reading scores on multiple choice tests as a surrogate for all student learning. In other words, NCLB and subsequent testing-based efforts walked right into Campbell's Law.

Instead of better educating students in all areas, schools and teachers were pressured into obsessing about those math and reading scores. Those who resisted these efforts found themselves demonized as opposing reform or putting their own interests ahead of students' academics. Critical thinking applied to the testing regime was labeled as ducking “accountability.”

Why, then, did the National Education Association—one of the two major teachers' unions—just adopt a policy on teacher evaluation and accountability? In doing so, they join the American Federation of Teachers—the other major teachers' union—in officially supporting teacher accountability.

The answer, of course, is that the NEA and the AFT are professional organizations of educators. Their members want to teach, and want to teach well. They do not resist being held accountable for their performance, provided their performance is actually being measured.

This is where the NEA and AFT policies chart a new course toward teacher accountability by bringing a pedagogically informed eye to teacher performance. Rather than setting up a reward/punishment scheme and sitting back to watch things sort out, the unions have crafted reasonable, nuanced approaches to evaluating teachers that respect teachers' dignity and professionalism while avoiding the trap of over-weighting a single measurement.

In other words, rather than treating teachers like rats being trained to run a maze (or like rational automatons relentlessly seeking personal gain, which is the implicit assumption of the economic incentive models for reform) the union policies reflect a teacher's critical perspective on their own practice.

By emphasizing improvement and support for new and struggling teachers, and by focusing on fair evaluations and regular non-evaluative feedback, the unions do an excellent job (as one would hope) of representing teacher accountability as a matter of reflection and professionalism rather than one of reward and punishment. In doing so, they bring an education-centric approach to education, in contrast to the economics-centric approach of the last decade's reformers.

An education-centric approach may seem intuitively obvious, but it's something that has been missing from too much of the recent debate. By abstracting school change into a theoretical exercise in incentive mechanisms, reward/punishment schemes based on test scores have drifted too far from the realities of the classroom.

Not everyone has fallen into this trap, of course. The St. Francis school district right here in Minnesota has done an excellent job of involving teachers and their union in designing the evaluation process. That level of respect for teachers is crucial to effective school change going forward. We must stress student achievement—after all, universal achievement is a new goal for our system and needs to be approached with the ambition it deserves—while trusting educators more than economists to know the ins and outs of being a good teacher.

As we do so, we must remember Campbell's Law and never let any one indicator become a substitute for comprehensively assessing our students and their teachers. We cannot let policymakers ignore or shame our teachers, and we cannot let them design a system that our educators know is bad for education.

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