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Crazy Talk

Posted: 2009-03-01

February 23, 2009
Doug Noon has been teaching in Fairbanks, Alaska since 1983. He teaches sixth-grade at Denali Elementary School, and holds a M.Ed. with a focus in language and literacy. He lives with his wife and family outside of Fairbanks. He blogs at Borderland, a featured resource on this site.

This essay appears on

Sec. of Education Arne Duncan believes that standards, incentives, and accountability will bring us to the educational promised land. He means business. Literally. Sec. Duncan now has $5 billion in incentive grants to give out, and he's relying on "help from career officers and consultants," to help him "tie teacher pay to classroom performance." He's seen amazing things happen, and he's learned a lot from his friend, Joe Klein. He wants:

...states to use other funds allocated in the stimulus package to adopt accountability-oriented reforms along the lines of some recent New York City initiatives, such as the creation of a comprehensive data system, called ARIS, and the introduction of a program that gives some teachers bonuses based on their students̢۪ test scores.

His program is doomed. It's doomed because it's aimed at the wrong target, and it can't be fairly implemented. With test scores as the standard of excellence, very few teachers will be "incented" to apply themselves. We know that standardized tests measure students' backgrounds more than real learning. And we know that students with special needs require more time and attention than the achievers. We also know that, due to the fact that poor and affluent people tend to live in different neighborhoods, some schools serve more challenging populations than others. None of that is a matter of chance.

No amount of education will improve economic opportunities for people until they can look forward to good-paying jobs, health care, and decent places to live when they leave school. The cost of narrowly focusing on incentives for teacher quality without attending to other vital educational outcomes leads to what Richard Rothstein calls goal distortion, resulting in unintended consequences. His paper, Holding Accountability to Account details the perverse results that come from using performance incentives in the fields of health care, welfare administration, and other public and private policy domains.

Some highlights from a quick read of the paper:

  • The notoriously inefficient Soviet economy used performance incentives as a regulatory mechanism (p. 13).

  • Although risk adjustment in medicine is more sophisticated than controls for subgroups in education, health policy experts still see the inability to adjust medical performance incentive systems for risk as their greatest flaw (p. 32).

  • In a variety of fields, clients more likely to be responsive to treatment are preferred. This is known as 'cream-skimming'. Schools of choice, such as charter schools, may use a variety of interview and recruitment procedures to discourage enrollment of difficult-to-educate students (p. 40).

  • It is usually not possible to tell whether subgroups in some schools outperform the same subgroups in others because a great deal of important information about students, beyond race and lunch-eligibility, is not collected (p. 45).

  • Rothstein devotes a section of his paper to a discussion about intrinsic motivation, and cites the work of Edward Deci on self-determination theory. Management theorists have concluded that public employees tend to be more motivated by the goals of the organization than private sector employees, who are relatively more motivated by monetary rewards. This finding has powerful implications for any teacher incentive system.

    Injecting business talk into the education public policy environment creates a toxic set of conditions. In Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, Neil Postman describes how certain kinds of talk contaminate our semantic environment, distorting complex situations beyond recognition, and contribute to a form of "collectivized nonsense".

    The language of the business CEO is not appropriate to the purposes of public education, and it maintains an invasive presence there. Julia Whitty's investigation into What Invasive Species Are Trying to Tell Us suggests that we, humans, may be the leading invasive species planet-wide. Global capital, and the propaganda it generates, is a primary transport mechanism.

    Whitty opens with an anecdote:

    Les Gibson takes me out to teach me how to hunt, which is what he calls fishing. Despite the fact that every public beach in Queensland, Australia, has been periodically closed this season due to blooms of box jellyfish, and despite the fearsome saltwater crocodiles living here, Les strides confidently into the bay with a pair of 10-foot-long bamboo spears and his wooden woomera, the multipurpose Aboriginal atlatl, or spear-thrower.

    When I ask him if he worries about jellyfish, he tells me Aborigines have a cure for the venom. Do scientists know about this cure? I ask. No, he says, they never ask us anything.

    Indeed. Why should the "leaders" and "experts" ask teachers anything? They know all they need to know to maintain the collectivized nonsense that supports the disintegrating status quo.

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