22 July 2011

Incentives Matter

Why is there widespread cheating by America's educators? According to Diane Ravitch, who is the research professor of education at New York University, it's not teachers and principals who are to blame; it's the mandates of the No Child Left Behind law, enacted during the George W. Bush administration. In other words, the devil made them do it.

While Williams is correct in sarcastically noting the lack of moral fiber among America’s educators, it is worth pointing out that Ms. Ravitch does have a legitimate complaint about No Child Left Behind.  Consider the mandates of the bill, as summarized by Wikipedia:
No Child Left Behind requires all government-run schools receiving federal funding to administer a state-wide standardized test (all students take the same test under the same conditions) annually to all students. The students' scores are used to determine whether the school has taught the students well. Schools which receive Title I funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 must make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in test scores (e.g. each year, its fifth graders must do better on standardized tests than the previous year's fifth graders).
If the school's results are repeatedly poor, then a series of steps are taken to improve the school. Schools that miss AYP for a second consecutive year are publicly labeled as being "in need of improvement" and are required to develop a two-year improvement plan for the subject that the school is not teaching well. Students are given the option to transfer to a better school within the school district, if any exists. Missing AYP in the third year forces the school to offer free tutoring and other supplemental education services to struggling students. If a school misses its AYP target for a fourth consecutive year, the school is labeled as requiring "corrective action," which might involve actions like the wholesale replacement of staff, introduction of a new curriculum, or extending the amount of time students spend in class. The fifth year of failure results in planning to restructure the entire school; the plan is implemented if the school fails to hit its AYP targets for the sixth year in a row. Common options include closing the school, turning the school into a charter school, hiring a private company to run the school, or asking the state office of education to directly run the school.

The whole is nothing more than liberal nonsense.  It’s predicated on the assumption that humans are born tabula rasa and that genetics do not have any correlation to intellectual abilities.  In essence all children can be exceptional if only the stupid teachers didn’t hold them back.  Thus, the bill attempts to incentivize academic improvement because the theory is that teachers are the ones who need prodded.  Not once did it ever occur to the authors of the bill that some children are smart or gifted and others aren’t.  It also never occurred to the authors of the bill that the recent failures of the education system aren’t due to a lack of funding.

Anyhow, No Child Left Behind makes the crucial mistake of allowing those who are handling the testing to determine the standards by which they will be tested.  This already leads to a cheater’s mindset, since the states now have an incentive to play to their strengths and gloss over their weaknesses.  The states also have lots of pressure to improve.  Note that each state’s scores each year have to improve on the prior year’s scores (which, if one thinks about it, will eventually become mathematically impossible once one gets perfect scores) in order to have access to federal funding.  Since humans vary significantly in ability, this sort of thing is impossible to keep up over time.

Of course, audibly observing that humans are not blank slates, and do, in fact, vary in ability is verboten.  And so, as standards become increasingly and comically more difficult, the incentive to cheat becomes stronger, and downright necessary in some cases.  Thus, as Ms. Ravitch observes, No Child Left Behind does deserve some blame for creating such a perverse set of incentives.  Such is the price of folly.

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