Standardized Testing, Merit Pay, And Misaligned Incentives In The American Education System
Two rhetorical questions:
When you pay a loan broker based on the total number of loans he doles out, without considering whether or not the borrowers will actually be able to repay these loans, what happens?
When you pay a CEO based on the short-term profits he generates, rather than the long-term stability of the company, what happens?
Unless you hibernated your way through the last four years, you probably noticed that these aren’t rhetorical questions at all. We know exactly what happens. They lead to the worst financial crisis the world has seen in decades.
In economic terms, we can blame the disastrous results on misaligned incentives. If the incentives we offer don’t actually support the outcome we desire, we end up encouraging behavior that may sabotage our own goals. Instead of expanding homeownership to millions of people, we let them take on mortgages they will never be able to pay back. Instead of creating wealth for investors nationwide, we encourage unnecessarily risky ventures.
Now, the problem of misaligned incentives has infected our educational system. To some, the solution to our education woes is perfectly clear: teachers must be compensated based on their teaching abilities. Effective teachers merit higher pay, and ineffective teachers… well, should be fired. It’s simple, smart business.
It’s also a gross oversimplification of the issue.
I fully believe in merit pay, actually. In fact, I would love to be rated on my teaching.
For all you skimmers out there, let me say this again (it’s okay, I’m a high school teacher. I’m used to repeating myself):
I would love to be rated on my teaching.
The problem isn’t that teachers are afraid to be rated. The problem is that teachers aren’t being rated properly. As a result, incentives have become misaligned.
Proponents of merit pay invariably support tying a teacher’s salary to student scores on standardized tests. As the belief goes, the higher a student scores on a test encompassing all the academic content for a given course, the more effective the teacher must be.
Teaching is equal parts art and science. Attempting to quantify teaching using standardized test scores is like rating an artist based on how many colors he uses, or rating a singer based on the highest note she can hit.
Effective teachers challenge students to pursue activities they never thought they could do—or would be interested in. Effective teachers stimulate their students’ natural curiosity about the world. Effective teachers develop free-thinking, inquisitive minds, eager and able to learn for themselves. Effective teachers inspire kids to succeed in life—to believe that they can succeed in life, and to be prepared to succeed in life. Effective teachers don’t just cram kids’ brains full of information.
Yes, some amount of academic knowledge is required to function in our society. But would anyone argue that academic knowledge is the only thing required? Because that’s the only thing standardized tests measure. They certainly don’t measure any of the critical aspects of teaching mentioned above—aspects far more important to the mental development of a child than pure academic content.
Yet, if my job security as a teacher is tied to my students’ test scores, guess what I am forced to focus on, for the sake of keeping my job?
Let me describe what happens every spring, as the ogre of standardized testing begins to loom over us. In the classroom, teachers desperately work to cover as much academic content as possible. We drill the students on the information, giving out practice tests organized to look just like the actual exams. Those of us who are particularly savvy even spend time showing our students how to analyze the wording of multiple-choice questions and weed out the answers that are likely to be incorrect–techniques they can use to increase their odds when they have no clue what the actual answer is. Throughout the school, meetings center around which students will be tested and what subject areas they will be tested in. These students become the sole focus of the school. The question shifts from, “are we preparing these kids for the rest of their lives?” to, “can we get these kids to pass the test?”
Does this sound like teaching to you? Or are we manufacturing an army of mindless automatons, oozing knowledge out their pores, but adeptly prepared nevertheless for all the written tests life will throw at them?
For the skimmers (again), that was sarcasm. Life doesn’t throw too many written tests at us. Curveballs and lemons, maybe. But not written tests. And teenagers definitely don’t ooze… well, knowledge.
Sure, you can be an idealist and say, “sorry, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. If you truly care about the students, then you will still be teaching them. Their test scores are secondary.”
If my job depends on my students’ test scores, then believe me, that’s what I will focus on. It’s what I have to focus on.
Merit pay tied to student test scores is the worst case of misaligned incentives possible. It’s the raging case of scoliosis on the back of the American education system. If we continue to demand that teachers must “earn” their salaries, but then insist on doing so by testing their students, we will no longer be teaching our kids. We will be training them to pass a battery of tests.
And if a student does manage to make it through high school with all of those critical skills I mentioned? Well, it won’t be because of the educational system. It’ll be in spite of the educational system.
We can’t promote effective teaching by measuring student test scores, because student test scores simply do not reflect effective teaching. What standardized testing does reflect is the ignorant’s view of teaching: that “academic knowledge” equals “education.”
So how do we properly align a teacher’s incentives then? How do we properly rate teachers? How do we measure teaching?
Next time, I’ll offer my ambitious suggestions….