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A leadership roundtable with advice to teachers from the Washington Post

Publication Date: 2011-07-20

According to the Washington Post, July 18, 2011, this series of essays a leadership roundtable on the right way to approach teacher incentives -- with opinion pieces by Duke University behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner, and Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein.

Reader Comment on Dan Ariely essay: The real history lesson from corporate America:

1. Obviously regulation is the root of the problem. End regulation of teachers. Let them teach whatever they want.

2. As with the bailouts of wall street, the second step is to shovel billions of dollars to the teachers; perhaps via ultra-low interest rate loans that they can invest in the stock market.

3. DO NOT PUNISH ANYONE. The last rule of corporate America is that no-one is ever responsible.

Reader Comment on Steven Pearlstein essay: Steven Pearlstein has never, ever, taught a public school class in his entire life. Pearlstein is not even a real reporter, but instead a cheerleader for the so-called reformers. Who in their right mind would want to be a teacher where 50% of your performance appraisal was based on test scores and where you get heaped abuse by administration and students? It is no surprise that teachers in D.C. poor schools had a great deal more marginal performance ratings than other teachers. Why would anybody want to risk their career teaching at an under-performing school? Pearlstein is another cog in wheel of idiocy.

For a right-on comment on this topic, read The greatest teacher incentive: The freedom to teach by Vicki Davis, Georgia teacher and education blogger. Predictably, Arne Duncan intones, "Competing in a global economy is the ultimate high-stakes test for American students."

Anthony Cody Comment on Arne Duncan's statement:
Mr. Duncan,
If you think a culture of intimidation is unproductive, why did you applaud the firing of the entire staff of teachers at Central Falls High in Rhode Island last year?

If you believe current tests are inadequate, how can you justify closing schools, and evaluating teachers based on the scores from them?

If you believe teachers need more autonomy, why do you support the expansion of the use of test scores for purposes of teacher pay and evaluation?

And by the way, contrary to your assertion, most of us do not oppose all testing, or even "accountability." We oppose high stakes attached to tests, because of the inevitable corruption of our mission as educators. See Campbell's Law to understand how this works.

We are still waiting for policies that actually move us away from teaching to the test, as well as cheating on the tests.

Many of us will be in DC a week from Saturday, at the Save Our Schools March. Come by and hear what we have to say!

Ohanian Comment: Duncan says it all when he insists, "Competing in a global economy is the ultimate high-stakes test for American students." How many parents want this as the educational goal for their children--starting in kindergarten?

The SchoolTechConnect.com blogger speaks for thousands of teachers and parents when he writes, "No, I don't want a ten minute phone call from Arne Duncan, unless it's the one where he leaks the news of his resignation."

Want to stop teachers from cheating? A history lesson from corporate America

By Dan Ariely

In recent years there seems to have been a surge in academic dishonesty across many high schools. No doubt this can be explained in part by increased vigilance and reporting, greater pressure on students to succeed, and the communicable nature of dishonest behavior (when people see others do something, whether it's tweaking a resume or parking illegally, they’re more likely to do the same).

But, I also think that a fourth, significant cause in this worrisome trend has to do with the way we measure and reward teachers.

To think about the effects of these measurements, let's first think about corporate America, where measurement of performance has a much longer history. Recently I met with one of the CEOs I most respect, and he told me a story about when he himself messed up the incentives for his employees, by over-measurement. A few years earlier he had tried to create a specific performance evaluation matrix for each of his top employees, and he asked them to focus on optimizing that particular measure; for some it was selection of algorithms, for others it was return on investment for advertising, and so on. He also changed their compensation structure so that 10 percent of their bonus depended on their performance relative to that measure.

What he quickly found was that his top employees did not focus 10 percent of their time and efforts on maximizing that measure, they gave almost all of their attention to it. This was not such good news, because they began to do anything that would improve their performance on that measure even by a tiny bit--even if they messed up other employees in the process. Ultimately they were consumed with maximizing what they knew they would be measured on, regardless of the fact that this was only part of their overall responsibility. This kind of behavior falls in line with the phrase "you are what you measure," which is the idea that once we measure something we make it salient and motivational, and people start over-focusing on it and neglecting other aspects of their job or life.

So how does this story of mis-measurements in corporate America relate to teaching? I suspect that any teachers reading this see the parallels. The mission of teaching, and its evaluation, is incredibly intricate and complex. In addition to being able to read, write, and do some math and science, we want students to be knowledgeable, broad-minded, creative, lifelong learners. On top of that, we can all readily agree that education is a long-term process that sometimes takes many years to come to fruition. With all of this complexity and difficulty of figuring out what makes good teaching, it is also incredibly difficult to accurately and comprehensively evaluate how well teachers are doing.

Now, imagine that in this very complex system we introduce a measurement of just one, relatively simple, criteria: the success of their students on standardized tests. And say, on top of that, we make this particular measurement the focal point of all evaluation and compensation. Under such conditions we should expect teachers to over-emphasize the activity that is being measured and neglect all other aspects of teaching, and we have evidence from the No Child Left Behind program that this has been the case. For example, we find that teachers teach to the test, which helps the results for that test go up but leaves all other areas of education and instruction (that is, those areas not represented on the tests) to fall by the wayside.

And how is this related to dishonesty in the school system? I don't think that teachers are cheating this way (by themselves changing answers, or by allowing students to cheat) simply to increase their salaries. After all, if they were truly performing a cost-benefit analysis, they would probably choose another profession--one where the returns for cheating were much higher. But having this single measure for performance placed so saliently in front of them, and knowing it's just as important for their school and their students as it is for their own reputation and career, most likely motivates some teachers to look the other way when they have a chance to artificially improve those numbers.

So what do we do? The notion that we take something as broad as education and reduce it to a simple measurement, and then base teacher pay primarily on it, has a lot of negative consequences. And, sadly, I suspect that fudging test scores is relatively minor compared with the damage that this emphasis on tests scores has on the educational system as a whole.

Interestingly, the outrage over teachers cheating seems to be much greater than the outrage over the damage of mis-measurement in the educational system and over the No Child Left Behind program more generally. So maybe there is some good news in all of this: Perhaps we now have a reason to rethink our reliance on these inaccurate and distracting measurements, and stop paying teachers for their students' performance. Maybe it's time to think more carefully about how we want to educate in the first place, and stop worrying so much about tests.

Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavior economics at Duke University and the author of "Predictably Irrational and The Upside Of Irrationality."

To improve U.S. education, it's time to treat teachers as professionals

By Howard Gardner

"What are the right incentives to have in place for teachers?" The very question itself is jarring. It implies that teachers don't want to perform well and that they need incentives, which in today's parlance translates into rewards (money) and reprimands (fear of loss of benefits or position).

Let me present a very different picture: Teachers should be regarded as and behave like professionals. A professional is a certified expert who is afforded prestige and autonomy in return for performing at a high level, which includes making complex and disinterested judgments under conditions of uncertainty. Professionals deserve to live comfortably, but they do not enter the ranks of a profession in order obtain wealth or power; they do it out of a calling to serve. Be it law, medicine, auditing, education or science, the expectation is the same: professionals should work hard to gain the requisite credentials, behave ethically as well as legally, and when they err, should take responsibility for their error and try to learn from it.

Does this sound hopelessly romantic? I have had the good fortune of working with many professionals with the attributes I've just described. And yet, I would be naive if I did not admit that this picture of professionals is not as vivid today as it was in 1950 or even 1980. The reasons for the decline of the professional are complex, but certainly the hegemony of market thinking is the dominant factor. If one thinks of professionals simply as individuals thrust into a market place, subject to supply and demand, and seeking to accumulate as many financial and other resources as possible, then they are indistinguishable from individuals who are not by definition professionals--such as business people or artists or athletes.

Back to teaching. Just as we would like our doctors and lawyers to behave professionally, we should want the teachers of our children to behave like professionals as well. But it's hardly a secret that many of our teachers do not consider themselves, and are not treated, as such. And it is even less of a secret that most people in positions of power today--whether CEOs or legislators--do not want "the teachers of another person's children" to behave like professionals. If teacher-proof education isn’t an option, these potentates at least prefer teachers who do exactly what they are told and whose rewards or sanctions are based simply on test scores or some other easily measured result.

Whether or not teachers truly did have a greater chance to be professionals a half century ago, the question is whether we have that 'luxury' today. And the evidence globally is that we do. Whatever the differences among Finland, Singapore and Korea, teachers in those countries are treated as professionals and consider themselves so. Being a teacher is a sought-after position, and providing the right cocktail of incentives and disincentives is not a major preoccupation of policymakers. Rather, as was the case in the United States decades ago, teachers' salaries in these countries are more than just a miniscule proportion of those paid to lawyers, bankers and other professionals.

Having visited these countries, which are universally admired for their systems, I have one other observation. Although there are certainly differences in wealth within each country, these differences are much less visible in the schools. Countries that are considered successful educationally try to provide high-level education across the board and, to the extent possible, direct the best teachers to the students with the least human and social capital. With rare exceptions, we do the opposite.

If you sense that I am exercised about this state of affairs, you are correct. We should not tinker with incentives. We should work toward a high degree of professionalization in education--otherwise, we are just rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship.

Howard Gardner is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and codirector of the GoodWork Project (goodworkproject.org). His most recent book is "Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century."

Teacher cheating, student testing and the great education tradeoff

by Steven Pearlstein

Try this thought experiment. Imagine I told you there was a way to improve student performance on standardized tests by 15 percent over the course of a several years, but it came with the downside that every year a small percentage of students, teachers and principals would almost certainly try to game the system by cheating. Would you take the deal?

I don't think this question answers itself. It is the kind of real-world tradeoff that leaders have to make all the time. And while they can talk until they are blue in the face about no tolerance for cheating and creating a highly ethical culture and rigorous enforcement efforts, the reality is that if you create high-stakes competitions of any sort, you're eventually going to get a certain irreducible level of cheating and abuse.

This has been true in corporate sales, with its long history of bribery and kickbacks. It has been a reality in politics and elections. It has been the case in major league and top-level amateur sports. Lord knows it has led to lots of problems on Wall Street. And if we continue to rely on high-stakes testing in education, it will also be a factor there as well.

The right reaction to the cheating scandals in Atlanta, Washington and elsewhere isn’t to declare testing a failure. It is to string up, metaphorically, the worst offenders as a lesson to anyone else who wants to give it a try. It is to spend the money on software and investigations to create a very credible threat that if you do this you’ll get caught. And it is to reaffirm, absolutely, our commitment to accountability in education and continuous improvement in the ways we measure success of students, teachers and principals.

To me, this is one of the critical tests of leadership: to be able to stand firm and stand tall when bad things happen to good ideas or policies or strategies. This is all relatively new stuff and it's almost inevitable that there will be several years of embarrassing screw-ups before school systems get it right--and even then there will be continuing risks that clever, selfish people will find new ways to game the system.

The alternative, of course, is to return to the days of virtually no accountability and no cheating, which is not preferable. The notion that there is some happy middle ground is a fantasy.

The fact that there is cheating does not prove that the emphasis on testing has gone too far. What it proves is that the performance of the education system was even worse than we thought, that teachers and principals knew it and were so clueless about being able to turn things around that they were desperate enough to take the risk of cheating. You might argue they were also rather stupid if they thought they wouldn't get caught. That the incompetent and stupid have now been smoked out and purged from the system might be viewed as an accomplishment.

Education reform is a long battle that needs to be waged here, and it calls for generals who understand how to manage setbacks and learn from them while continuing to champion the cause.

Steven Pearlstein writes a column on business and the economy that is published twice weekly in The Washington Post.

Despite cheating scandals, testing and teaching are not at odds
by Arne Duncan

Recent news reports of widespread or suspected cheating on standardized tests in several school districts around the country have been taken by some as evidence that we must reduce reliance on testing to measure student growth and achievement. Others have gone even farther, claiming that cheating is an inevitable consequence of "high-stakes testing" and that we should abandon testing altogether.

To be sure, there are lessons to be learned from these jarring incidents, but the existence of cheating says nothing about the merits of testing. Instead, cheating reflects a willingness to lie at children’s expense to avoid accountability--an approach I reject entirely.

It is also an approach rejected by the vast majority of educators, who would never participate in or excuse cheating. The Atlanta cheating scandal has been described as the worst known incident of systemic cheating, so it is worth noting that even there investigators found cheating in 44 out of 2,232 schools in Georgia.

Unfortunately, cheating does happen. The 1990s saw a rash of cases where state and school officials masked underperformance of low-income or minority students or students with disabilities by excluding or hiding their test results. No Child Left Behind helped address this problem by requiring transparency around achievement gaps, but it prompted another form of cheating by setting rigid pass/fail targets based on test scores that failed to measure progress. Several states, including my home state of Illinois, simply lowered their standards to claim "better" test scores as successâ€"essentially lying to children and parents. Now as NCLB's deadline for 100-percent proficiency approaches and performance goals grow steeper, we learn of egregious, systemic cheating in Atlanta and suspected cheating elsewhere.

Each of these instances is rooted in the pernicious notion that by resisting accountability, you can avoid it.

To deny the importance of regular, comprehensive measurement of student growth and academic progress because of cheating is to embrace that twisted ethos, sending exactly the wrong message to students.

Competing in a global economy is the ultimate high-stakes test for American students, and there are no shortcuts to success. Closing our eyes to the knowledge requirements of a 21st century economy will not make them go away.

At the same time, it is important to remember that measuring student growth is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Poorly designed tests do not advance the goal of providing every American child a high-quality, well-rounded education. They also don't tell you very much about the effectiveness of teachers. That's why the Department of Education has put $350 million toward developing a new generation of assessments, and why we support evaluations based on multiple measures--including principal observation, peer review, classroom work, student and parent feedback, and other locally developed measures.

Yet poorly designed laws are also part of the problem. NCLB has created the wrong incentives for boosting student achievement, and we are working with Congress to fix the law by instead measuring individual student growth against college and career-ready standards.

But the fundamental challenge remains--to both strengthen the teaching profession and maintain real and meaningful accountability.

The State of Georgia's investigation into the Atlanta cheating scandal found that the administration “...put unreasonable pressure on teachers and principals to achieve targets. A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread throughout the district [and]... emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics."

This is no way to motivate teachers and students. Teachers often tell me that their primary incentive is seeing their students learn; but good, effective teachers deserve much more than that. They need real autonomy to apply their expertise in the classroom, a greater role in decision making that affects their schools and students, and rewards--including salaries commensurate with their contributions.

It is time for a thorough and thoughtful reevaluation of the incentives, economic and otherwise, required to support the current generation of teachers and attract the next one. It is also time to better align those incentives with student growth and learning. Accountability cannot be a one-way street where the only outcomes are penalties or sanctions. High-performing, effective teachers--especially those who put their talent, skill and experience to work in schools and districts most in need of improvement--should be appropriately recognized and rewarded.

This is a complicated issue, and changing long-held assumptions about the worth of teachers will not be easy. But the correct response to a difficult situation is to meet it head on with hard work, fresh thinking and open, honest and respectful debate, rather than a retreat from accountability.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. secretary of education. Prior to his appointment in 2009, Duncan served as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, where he became the longest-serving education superintendent in an American big city.

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