When Incentives Go Bad: so many children left behind


freedumb on Flickr Understandably, I received a wee bit of pushback on my post on incentives because I didn't clarify what I meant by incentives. While reading the latest issue of Good Magazine, it became utterly clear that there are incentives offered up towards reaching positive goals that are incredibly damaging.

In the feature article entitled School Wars, Gary Stager describes the birth of 'No Child Left Behind' (NCLB):

(George) Bush (Sr.) thought business leaders might be able to help fix public schools by running them more like businesses. So in 1989, he asked the Business Roundtable (300 CEOs and governors) to try to reform education, since governors and CEOs—administrators all—share similar temperaments and a desire to impose top-down policies. Armed with corporate war chests and support from governors, the Roundtable’s influence met little resistance.

Uninterested in the complexities associated with teaching and learning, the Business Roundtable demanded that state legislatures impose “outcome-based education,” “high expectations for all children,” “rewards and penalties for individual schools,” and “greater school-based decision making.” In order to enforce and measure these voluminous imperatives, standardized testing would be required.

The way that NCLB works is this: there are standardized tests that schools and teachers are incentivized to do well on. The incentives trickle down. If a school's test scores are poor, their funding is in jeopardy. If a school's test scores are high, they get more funding. If a school has more funding, the teachers get paid more. If a school has a cut in funding, teachers may lose their jobs and classroom sizes go up. And the incentives for students? Not great, really, other than if you don't pass by your final year, you don't graduate. Students who fail the test in earlier grades get extra attention, helping them pass the test by their graduating year.

So, yes, these are incentives meant to improve quality of education. However, the incentives do the opposite. As Stager states, "It’s hard to argue against raising educational standards, but imposing uniform curricula and teaching practices leads to a paradoxical lowering of standards." NCLB exemplifies the type of incentivizing that does way more damage than would doing nothing at all.

Although it is personally baffling that anyone thought this idea would lead to a stronger system of education, I see where the designers behind NCLB could have imagined this would work logically. Standardized testing allows for a uniform metric of success. Rewarding for higher test scores should incentivize teachers to make smarter students. If A=B and B=C, then A must equal C. Right? Of course, if we were dealing with machine produced calculations. But we aren't. We are dealing with a diversity of learning styles, socio-economic realities, interests, hopes and dreams and an ever-changing economy where the standardized tests just aren't matching up to reality. And being the mother of a child who is being taught to those tests is really eye-opening.

Of course, there needs to be a bit of a measuring stick to determine the success of individual programs, but going back to what you measure matters, I'd propose a better measurement to be a decrease in drop-outs and a higher level of engagement (made up of metrics like kids getting involved in extra-curricular activities, collaborative things like fundraisers, student plays, science fairs, student websites and yearbooks, parents getting involved and engagement with the wider community).

I would also change the incentives for schools and teachers. Decreasing funding for a school in crisis doesn't seem to fit the situation. I know it works in business - a department is slacking off...kill the funds - but a learning environment is different. I am only guessing, but I assume that the schools that lose funding are those in areas that need it the most. These are the schools with kids from poor families whose parents aren't there (or aren't able to be there) to sit and help their kids with their homework. These schools need more funding, not less. Meanwhile, as the article reports, people who can afford to, remove their children from these schools to home school or send to private schools, leaving a raging Red Zone (Naomi Klein's work on disaster capitalism).

Incentivizing performance with money leads to “juking the stats" (a term used in The Wire to describe manipulation of stats to reflect the desired outcome) because, for some schools, it's the only chance they have for survival. NCLB disregards the fact that all schools aren't created equal - there isn't a level playing field to measure from. For any critical measurement, within science AND business, the conditions or environment between test subjects need to be controlled and, if they are different, the conditions need to be taken into account. So 'what is measured' is not the only part of the equation that is flawed, but the results of that measurement is also flawed.

Therefore, A=B C=D E=F, which cannot logically lead to A being equivalent to anything else but B. And the equations are seemingly endless because I have only talked about one particular dimension of the diversity here.

So incentivizing, just like any other tool, has a deeply negative side to it and needs to be connected to a diversity of factors in order to lead to positive ends.

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