Federal Opinion

Say No to Duncan Dollars: Rookie Reform has Run its Course

By Anthony Cody — August 09, 2011 4 min read
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Over the past decade I have served as a mentor teacher to more than a dozen beginning teachers in the challenging schools of Oakland. Most of them have been interns, fresh out of college, with just a few weeks of summer training, and a “bag of tricks” that they were given by their only slightly more experienced trainers. They are trained to focus on the data. Start testing early, and make sure the students understand how important those scores are. Set BIG goals, such as that 80% of your students will score well. Track progress using big graphs on the wall with each student’s name or number. Develop reward systems to manage behavior. Step into one of these classrooms, and you will find elaborate systems that are designed to “incent” good behavior, and impose costs on bad. You may even find a whole economy, complete with currency - the “behavior bucks,” handed out in $100 bills prepared on the school photocopier.

But as my mentees near the end of their first year, many of them have begun to question this approach. They find that after a while the novelty of the rewards offered for good behavior wears off. Students tire of being manipulated, cajoled and bribed into learning. And these systems of rewards take a huge amount of energy to maintain, and this energy is often a distraction from the real reasons we hope our students will learn. These systems foster dependence rather than autonomy. They are all about pleasing the teacher, rather than building on students’ natural curiosity.

This is a tough lesson for these novice teachers to learn, because once you discard the gimmicks, what is left? How then do you inspire students to care about the subject you are teaching? This is when we really begin to face the awesome challenge before us. This is when we begin to probe what it is that our students care about, and the reasons they are in their seats every day. This is when we start creating challenging projects that draw them into investigating - and changing -- the world in which they live. This is the deep skill of teaching, and it is one that takes years to develop.

Our Department of Education is still making rookie mistakes by trying to drive reform with Behavior Bucks. Perhaps they should be called “Duncan Dollars.” Yesterday we learned that the latest application of this principle will be applied to turn the dismally failed No Child Left Behind law into yet another set of rewards and punishments to promote the behaviors the administration has decided are good for us. The exact guidelines have not been spelled out, but all indications are we will get more recipes from the Race to the Top cookbook. The Department proposes to allow states to stop the use of Adequate Yearly Progress to label most of their schools failures, while still requiring that the bottom tier of schools be so labeled. Other “reforms” popular with the Department include tying teacher pay to test scores and evaluations, and the adoption of the Common Core standards, and tests tied to these standards when they arrive. More and more tests, and Duncan Dollars tied to each and every one, in every possible way.

Unfortunately, we are seeing the limitations of test-driven reforms manifest before our eyes. The National Academy of Sciences report offers rather a definitive conclusion. Nine years of test and standards-driven reform has yielded virtually no increase in student learning. Programs in Texas and New York designed to pay teachers more for test scores have not even yielded higher scores. The cheating scandals unfolding in “poverty is no excuse” urban districts like Atlanta, Baltimore and Washington, DC, are showing that the whole system of values we have built up around test scores is crumbling. More test security will not rescue this.

Just as in our individual classrooms, this is a crisis of values. When class management starts to get out of control, a system of behavior bucks may salvage things for a while. But our students are in school to learn, not to earn points or prizes. Our classes really perform and behave well when students have a real awareness that what they are doing is challenging them, and that they are growing stronger in their knowledge and abilities. Whole school improvement is no different. Teachers are not working for Duncan dollars for better test scores. The very idea is an insult to us. Those of us who work at high poverty schools do not need the threat of having the school labeled a failure to motivate us to improve. We need support, inspiration, time to investigate and collaborate, and resources to meet the needs of our students.

I hope states and Congress will say “no” to Duncan dollars. It is time to end the failed experiment of No Child Left Behind, and provide Federal education dollars to districts based on the needs of our students, rather than using these funds to promote policies that have not been shown to work.

What do you think? Have we learned enough from these experiments with behavior bucks?

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