Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

No One Could Have Predicted...

Whenever you talk to an Econ teacher about, well, almost anything, eventually the conversation comes around to incentives.  Economists - especially those who study behavioral economics - are obsessed with incentives.

Why do people do what they do?  Freud: SEX!  Economist: INCENTIVES! Sartre: To fill up the empty hours until death.

When Atlanta's school system was found to have engaged in widespread cheating, Atlanta's paper responded as only Atlanta could, with a chip on its shoulder.  They discovered evidence of massive cheating on these tests across the country, especially in low performing schools.

Why?  Incentives.

By helping their students cheat, school systems were responding to the pressures of the current educational vogue: high stakes testing.  If they had NOT cheated, teachers might have lost their jobs (example) or been passed over for promotion.

Here's the whole article.  Interestingly there is evidence of this cheating in all types of school environments, urban, rural, wealthy districts.

Here's a good quote:

Education historian and New York University Professor Diane Ravitch said the incessant focus on testing has eroded the quality of instruction.
“All of this is predictable,” said Ravitch, a former top U.S. Department of Education official who in recent years reversed her support for testing and tough accountability measures. “We’re warping the education system in order to meet artificial targets.”

I work with very motivated students and they are usually quite intelligent.  If they aren't quite intelligent, they are likely to work with the efforts of a galley slave.  Because I teach APs to college bound students, that test - especially AP US - has a great deal of significance in their lives.

But it has almost none in mine, beyond a certain level of competitiveness.  When my seniors - already in to college and unlikely to get credit for the AP scores - bomb their Comp Gov exam, it makes me angry (Why did we spend the whole year getting ready for a test that they punted?), but it doesn't effect my job standing.  Everyone understands that our Seniors get very little reward for doing well on their APs.  There incentive is small.

I have no incentive to cheat.  Also, our school has a pretty well functioning Honor Code.  And we take steps to make sure that I have no contact with students during the exams.  While the school likes to boast about its AP scores, they aren't going to engage in unethical behavior because the relative reward is so small and the risk is so great.

But the incentives under NCLB and Race To The Top make it imperative that teachers help their students cheat.

As I become more proficient at teaching AP US, I came to realize that being an AP reader and teaching myself as many nuances of US History as I could in order to improve my classroom teaching only really helped my students improve by about a point on a five point scale.  If a student's natural "ability" means they are likely to get a 3 going into the exam, I might be able to help them get a 4.  A bad teacher might hobble them to the point where they get a 2.

Teaching does matter.  It's like the axles and wheels on a car.  The car isn't going to go very far without wheels.

But teaching isn't the engine.  That's the student.

Part of the problem seems to me to be the way we look at education as public policy.  We tend to look at it from 10,000 feet in a Macro way.  We compare the average scores of an American student to an average Finnish student and we are horrified.  And so we become obsessed with the 'average scores'.

The problem is that true teaching happens on the personal level.  It takes place not only between the teacher and the student, but the student and her peers and the student and his parents.

There is no Macro solution for that.

In many ways, the American education system has very ambitious goals that precede our obsession with standardized tests.  We try and educate everyone.

And that means our averages are going to be lower than some countries where they handpick the best students.

We also have too much poverty in this country.  That's going to hurt scores, too.  Poor educational values can be passed down from parent to child, in a community where education has never meant what it means to middle class Americans or to educational reformers.

My guess?  If you want test scores like Finland, then maybe you need a society like Finland's where there is very little poverty.  And maybe that's impossible for a country like the US.

But no one well ever really talk about education that way in American policy circles, as an issue of class and poverty.  Because, you see, there are a bunch of for-profit charter schools out there clamoring to suckle at the public teat.  And there are tax dollars to be divvied up amongst school administrators.  There is no profit motive in ending childhood poverty.

In fact, you might say there is an incentive to focus on the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

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