Education Funding Opinion

On Treating Students & Educators ‘Like Rats in a Maze’

By Diane Ravitch — June 14, 2011 6 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Sometimes critics complain that I write too much about what doesn’t work and should focus instead on what does work. Since I am a historian, I don’t think I am the right person to tell teachers how to teach or tell principals how to run their schools. I leave that to you, since you spent so many years as both teacher and principal.

I would argue, however, that there is value in warning policymakers when they are imposing harmful ideas on children, schools, and educators. I liken it to standing on the train tracks and yelling “Stop!” when you see that the train is heading right for the precipice at full speed, with every compartment packed with children, teachers, and principals. I freely admit that I was wrong about test-based accountability and choice. I take lots of knocks because I had the audacity to change my mind, that apparently being a rare thing to do in our hyper-polarized political environment. I’d like to believe that everyone has the capacity to re-examine what they think and determine whether the facts support their ideas. If evidence accumulates saying that those ideas don’t work or have unintended negative consequences, why in the world would one proceed? Why not stop and listen and come up with a better idea?

Here is a golden opportunity for corporate reformers to reconsider their belief in carrots and sticks. The National Research Council of the National Academies of Science just released a major report about the value of test-based accountability and incentives. It appeared right before the Memorial Day weekend. It says that the train is on the wrong track. It deserves careful attention. I hope that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, members of Congress, and all the luminaries of corporate reform will read this report with care. So should every teacher and principal and parent who cares about the future of education in this country.

The NRC convened a Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability to review and synthesize research into “how incentives affect behavior and to consider the implications of that research for educational accountability systems that attach incentives to test results.” The 17-member committee consisted of a stellar cast of experts from the social and behavioral sciences. The committee’s conclusions do not support our nation’s current emphasis on test-based accountability, which is the primary idea behind No Child Left Behind. The same criticisms can be extended to Race to the Top, which relies heavily on test-based accountability as much as NCLB does, with most accountability landing on teachers.

The report contains two major conclusions: First, “Test-based incentive programs, as designed and implemented in the programs that have been carefully studied, have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest-achieving countries. When evaluated using relevant low-stakes tests, which are less likely to be inflated by the incentives themselves, the overall effects on achievement tend to be small and are effectively zero for a number of programs.”

Referring to No Child Left Behind, now in effect for nine years, the committee held that there were some school-level effects, “but the measured effects to date tend to be concentrated in elementary grade mathematics, and the effects are small compared to the improvements the nation hopes to achieve.”

The second major conclusion of the report is that high school exit examinations, as currently implemented in the United States, “decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement.” It suggests that incentives for graduation, such as rewards, might be used to increase graduation rates.

Particularly telling were remarks made by some committee members about their findings. Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at MIT, said: “We went ahead, implementing this incredibly expensive and elaborate strategy for changing the education system without creating enough ways to test whether what we are doing is useful or not.” He added, “We’re relying on some primitive intuition about how to structure the education system without thinking deeply about it.” Kevin Lang, the chair of Boston University’s economics department, said: “None of the studies that we looked at found large effects on learning, anything approaching the rhetoric of being at the top of the international scale.” He said that the most successful effects of NCLB, according to the committee’s calculations, “moved student performance by eight-hundredths of the standard deviation, or from the 50th to the 53rd percentile.”

Ariely of MIT said that the report “raises a red flag for education. These policies are treating humans like rats in a maze. We keep thinking about how to reorganize the cheese to get the rats to do what we want. People do so much more than that.” Even worse, he said, was the idea that teachers could be motivated by bonuses: “That’s one of the worst ideas out there. ... In the process of creating No Child Left Behind, as people thought about these strategies and rewards, they actually undermined teachers’ motivations. They got teachers to care less, rather than more ... [because] they took away a sense of personal achievement and autonomy.”

In another report, released on the same day, Marc S. Tucker, writing for the National Center on Education and the Economy, surveyed the practices of the top-performing nations in the world. He said that “much of the current reform agenda in this country is irrelevant, a detour from the route we must follow if we are to match the performance of the best.” These nations, he said, do not test every student every year; they do not judge teacher quality by student test scores; they do not rely on computer-scored tests; they have a national curriculum that goes “far beyond mathematics and the home language covering, as well, the sciences, the social sciences, the arts and music ..."; and they have built over time a coherent process for recruiting, educating, and supporting excellent teachers who make teaching their career. Tucker’s report deserves more space than I can devote to it here. Please take the time to read it. It is yet another clear sign that our “reform” train is on the wrong track.

Deborah, you have been saying many of the same things for years, based on your experience. Isn’t it nice to know that so many experts agree with you? Will anyone listen? Will Secretary Duncan? Will Congress? Will the Gates Foundation? Will the D.C. think tanks?


P.S. In my last post, when I discussed the results for Urban Prep Academy, I linked to the Illinois website for that school. The school had been lauded by Secretary Arne Duncan for its remarkable graduation rate and college acceptance rate. When the website opens, it appears that 17 percent of the students of Urban Prep passed the state exams, as compared with 64 percent of the students in the Chicago public schools. One of our readers wrote to say that the students at Urban Prep take only the Prairie State Achievement Examination, which is for high school juniors, so I should have clicked that link to find that only 29 percent of Chicago public school students passed PSAE. The reader was right. So, 17 percent of Urban Prep students passed PSAE, as compared with 29 percent of Chicago’s public high school juniors. This is indeed appalling, especially since these scores were registered in 2010, which was the capstone year of Secretary Arne Duncan’s Renaissance 2010 plan. When I opened other links on the same site, I discovered that Urban Prep had not made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, and was in year one of program improvement. I point this out not to criticize the teachers or students, as the secretary claimed, but to criticize the secretary for presenting an airbrushed portrait of the school for his own purposes. I just wish—no doubt a vain hope—that politicians would stop showcasing schools to advance their political agendas and instead work harder to make sure that every school has the support it needs to succeed.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.