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NCLB Outrages

Turning schools into Registry of Motor Vehicles

Reader Comment:
The obsession with test scores drove me out of teaching. I couldn't teach any longer. School administrators were frightened out of their wits by the MCAS exam, and everything we did had to be linked to the test. It was so intrusive it hampered learning. My students learned far less after the MCAS than before it. Teachers were required to show a video to students about how to GUESS on the exam. That's a metaphor for the whole testing fiasco. I wouldn't go back to teaching for $100K a year.

By Daniel Willingham

IN AN effort to improve public schools, President Obama wants to hold individual teachers accountable for student test scores; indeed, states that prohibit the practice are ineligible for the "Race to the Top" funds.

To a cognitive scientist, this is a strange line to draw in the sand. We do not have good tools to measure teachers, and when you hold people accountable with poor measures, things don̢۪t just fail to improve. They get worse.

The reason is simple: Accountability changes workers’ focus from "do a good job" to “do a job that looks good according to the measure."

One approach to classroom accountability is to measure children's learning and let the teacher do whatever they think is best. You simply administer a test in the fall and one in the spring and find the difference. That's intuitive, but there are a number of conceptual and technical problems.

Obviously, teachers have little incentive to teach any topic that is not tested, or indeed, anything that will not be tested that year; why lay groundwork for improving next year's scores? If you thought No Child Left Behind led to an overemphasis on testing, wait for the test-prep frenzy that follows linking salaries to test scores.

Another problem: not everything is in the teacher̢۪s hands. Rowdy kids are harder to teach than well-behaved kids. And it's easier to teach your class if your principal (and parents) are helpful and supportive. Several studies have shown that teacher evaluations based on test scores are unstable. About 25 percent of teachers pegged as terrific or terrible get the opposite designation the next year.

The logic underlying this approach is suspect. It assumes that teachers know what to do but just aren̢۪t doing it or that they will figure out what to do once the pressure is on. It̢۪s the equivalent of the frustrated parent shouting "I don̢۪t care how you do it -- just bring home better math grades!" No Child Left Behind should have taught us that improving student achievement doesn't happen simply by mandating it.

So what if you do tell teachers how to improve? A second approach limits accountability to how teachers do their job. You observe teachers in the classroom and see whether they are using what are known to be good teaching practices. The problem is that people then become slavishly devoted to the rules, because it is to the rules that they are accountable. Call it RMV Syndrome.

I once waited in a long line at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles only to be told that I needed an additional form. I saw the form about two feet from the clerk, but he insisted I wait in a different line for that form. Maddening for me, but perfectly sensible from his point of view. Why should he break the rules and risk punishment, just to save me a wait in line?

Social scientists have a technical term for this type of behavior. It's called "covering your butt." This type of accountability only works if the list of required behaviors is so intelligently constructed that in covering their butts people end up doing a good job. It can also work when the supervisor is knowledgeable and flexible; the RMV clerk might have known that his supervisor would understand that giving me the form was technically breaking a rule, but contributing to the larger goal of effective service.

There are ways of making accountability work. The two key elements are evaluations that take place over long periods of time, to increase stability, and evaluations that are conducted by people who are knowledgeable and are known by teachers to be knowledgeable. Unfortunately, neither element is part of the Obama administration's plans.

Advocates of teacher accountability often acknowledge these problems, yet insist it's better than nothing. Not true. A poor system could make teaching worse and a failed attempt will allow opponents to dismiss accountability as a failed policy. Accountability is a good idea, but we have to get the measures right.

Daniel Willingham is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?"

— Daniel Willingham
Boston Globe


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