Saturday, April 6, 2013

Not a surprise- "Competition" leads to cheating in schools

This week is the opening of the MLB season, and I saw my first Brewer game of the season last night (a depressing 3-1 loss where Aramis Ramirez got hurt and the team found a way to lose). It also was "back to school" time in many Wisconsin School Districts after Spring Break. These two events don't seem connected, but as you will see, having high-stakes and big-money associated with performance can lead to corruption of these two things.

The way schools get corrupted through competition came through loud and clear as 35 Atlanta-area educators and school administrators were charged with fraud related to cheating on standardized tests. The ringleader is former Superintendent Bev Hall, who will now have her picture up for reasons other than "school excellence".

Hall was named the U.S.'s Superintendent of the Year for overseeing a "remarkable improvement" in test scores for Atlanta-area public schools, and adhered to the Michelle Rhee-influenced method of paying bonuses to teachers who had students show improvement in test scores and got rid of "underperforming" teachers and principals who didn't have their students do better. Well, it turns out that offering those kinds of incentives and punishments led to other sorts of behaviors that weren't exactly related to excellent teaching or student knowledge.
According to the indictment, Hall placed unreasonable goals on educators and "protected and rewarded those who achieved targets by cheating." It also alleges she fired principals who failed to achieve goals and "ignored suspicious" test score gains throughout the school system....

Investigations into the remarkable improvements on standardized tests were first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. A state review determined that some cheating had occurred in more than half the district's elementary and middle schools. About 180 teachers were implicated initially. Cheating is believed to date back to early 2001, when standardized testing scores began to turn around in the 50,000-student school district, according to the indictment.

For at least four years, between 2005 and 2009, test answers were altered, fabricated and falsely certified, the indictment said.

"We've had cheating all up and down the line. It was absolutely amazing," said Michael Bowers, a former Georgia attorney general who investigated the cheating scandal.

Bowers said there were cheating parties, erasures in and out of classrooms, and teachers were told to make changes to tests. "Anything that you can imagine that could involve cheating, it was done."
If this type of behavior sounds familiar, it should, because it reminds you of the "unbelievable" results in Rhee's schools when she was the D.C. Superintendent.

As someone who's taught high school, you don't get answers changed to the right one a whole lot more than they get changed to the wrong one. It's random and largely 50-50 (as you'd expect). It doesn't take a rocket scientist to think that a self-promoter like Rhee would at the very least be OK with teachers going rogue to improve test scores, if not outright ordering it herself.

But Jake, a federal investigation said they couldn't find direct evidence that there was widespread cheating in D.C. under Rhee. True, and Roger Clemens was never officially suspended for steroids either- he just pitched at a higher level in his late- 30s and 40s than he did as a sore-armed guy of 30 in his last years in Boston. And Sammy Sosa never was suspended for roids either, despite having his body and stats completely change in the mid-90s, and then completely "slim down" and fall off the map when steroid testing began after 2002.

Chris Hayes did an excellent job linking the incentives to "enhance performance" and cheat in high-stakes school testing and MLB in his book Twilight of the Elites. Hayes points out that MLB players who roided up often were rewarded with huge contracts, and the MLB attendance grew during the height of the steroid era in the 1990s and 2000s, which encouraged owners to look the other way when it came to PEDs, and pressured other players who weren't juicing, and seeing their performance (and salaries) suffer as a result.
In twenty-first century America we fetishsize the athletic model of ceaseless competition and meriotcratic ascent. Every two-minute biographical package during the Olympics tells the story of some hardworking athlete from the middle of nowhere who woke up early, trained late, and bested her peers to rise to be the best in the world. But what the baseball steroids scandal shows is that it's rather difficult to design a competitive system that heavily rewards performance and doesn't also reward cheating.

In one of the papers that made his reputation for ingenious economic analysis, Freakonomics' Steven Levitt used test score fluctuations in Chicago public schools to conclude that teachers were cheating in at least 4 percent of the classrooms. What prompted the outbreak of deception was an incentive structure put in place by Chicago Public Schools to push the system in a more meriotcratic direction and demand performance from its teachers.
By the way, the Chicago Public Schools' Superintendent that time that Levitt describes? None other than current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has worked with President Obama to set aside billions in "Race to the Top" funding that is based partially on test scores and other performance measures.

Hayes' book also mentions Rhee's sketchy reign in D.C., and has an early rundown of the Atlanta testing scandal that led to all the charges that recently came out. When you see that a "pay-for-performance" system in public schools inevitably leads to corruption and cheating, it seems like if you valued integrity in public schools, you'd run away from this type of system as quickly as possible. But instead, more places want to put this in place as a method to judge, reward, and punish public school teachers and districts. This includes Wisconsin, where Gov. Walker's voucher-expansion plan is directly listed to test scores in certain districts. Is it a shocker that the Rhees and Duncans and the Walkers of the world also discourage strong teachers' unions, so teachers are less likely to call out this abuse? It shouldn't be. (Walker's plan is even worse because it wants public schools to be accountable to test scores, while exempting voucher and charter schools from the same rules. It's a blatant attempt to make public schools look bad and appear to "fail")

This is not to say that using test scores as a method of evaluating how a school is doing is all bad. We deserve to know how our schools measure up, and should use as much information as we can to see where we may be falling short (such as low scores in a particular subject), and possibly use that to change curriculum and emphasis in class. But to base teacher pay and school funding in a Darwinist "Survival of the Fittest" method will inevitably end up with some schools cheating and "teaching to the test", as they did in Atlanta. And while that may make these districts' numbers look good, they don't do much when it comes to long-term growth or necessarily preparing students for their future careers, and may in fact set those students back. Worse, it could encourage a desperate or greedy district to funnel some low-performing students out of the district and leave them permanently behind, like private schools do all the time.

But much like MLB players that juiced in the steroid era, does that matter to people who are looking for short-term adulation and payoffs, even if it leaves a major black mark on their profession? And I'm a lot more forgiving of MLB players that juiced when it was legal (and believe the best players of the steroid era should be in the Hall of Fame, regardless of whether or not they used PEDs). Teachers who knowingly lie on tests are portraying something that is not true, and even though the system encourages this type of deception and cheating, it is still criminally and professionally ILLEGAL, unlike using roids before they were banned in MLB.

The trend of tying school compensation to school performance is a recipe for deception and failure, and will not make us better off in the long term. Even worse, it can penalize teachers and districts who may try to "do the right thing", teaching honestly and trying to meet a student's and class's individual needs, because they will be pushed out over teachers who encourage mindless regurgitation and worse, cheating on tests.

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