Punishment doesn't work. It doesn't work on kids and it doesn't work on adults. You can make it look like it works, but unless your punishment is overwhelming and debilitating, it will only produce the desired results as long as the punisher is present. The person being punished might toe the line as long as there's a chance of being caught, but the moment the punisher's back is turned, all bets are off. This, in a nutshell, are the findings of every scientific study ever done on the effects of punishment. (If you doubt this, I'll wait right here while you hunt for one that doesn't come to this conclusion. You won't find it.)
That's because the threat of punishment turns our attention away from the task at hand and towards the far more pressing concern of avoiding punishment. The greater the threat of punishment, the more time and effort we direct at avoiding it.
A lot of educators in Atlanta are in trouble. In their desire to avoid the punishments that result from unsatisfactory standardized test scores, they've engaged in massive, systemic cheating. This decade long gaming of the system by Atlanta public schools reaches from the superintendent's office right down to the classroom teachers. Fingers are being pointed, of course. The worst part is that we know this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is no way that Atlanta is the only school district engaged in widespread academic corruption. Mark my words, this is just the beginning.
Cheating is a direct result of the threat of punishment. Setting aside the fact that these tests only measure (and poorly at that) a very narrow range of knowledge. Setting aside the fact that these tests represent the kind of curricular standardization that hamstrings good teachers, forcing them to leave best practices behind and "teach to the test." Setting aside the fact that these test scores are a much better reflection of a child's socio-economic status, family life, and previous academic experiences than they are of in-class teaching. And setting aside the fact that education should be about approaching each child as an individual rather than a mere data point. (And that's a ton to set aside.) The results of these tests are being used across the country as a reason to punish educators by firing teachers and close schools, and like human beings, educators are reacting to avoid that.
When your entire livelihood is contingent upon something as arbitrary as a standardized test, is it any wonder that people cheat? If you know anything about human nature and how we react to the threat of punishment, you can't be surprised. Rather than being the "accountability tool" that the so-called education reformers proclaim them to be, standardized tests are instead the thing that is causing entire school districts to focus on keeping their jobs instead of doing their jobs.
In response to this revelation, Secretary of the US Department of Education Arne Duncan, the chief of the test-and-punish crowd has penned a reactionary editorial for the Washington Post, in which he laughably argues that it "says nothing about the merits of testing."
Arg! If I didn't suspect it already, this editorial slams the door on the idea that he is "listening to educators." The political gyrations he goes through in this piece to defend high-stakes testing are incredible. I'm tempted to go sentence by sentence, but instead I'll just pull out a few low lights.
. . . cheating reflects a willingness to lie at children's expense to avoid accountability -- an approach I reject entirely.
Nice. Arne Duncan is steadfastly against lying and cheating. But more importantly, notice how he immediately accuses anyone who should doubt the wisdom of these tests as seeking to "avoid accountability." That's Mr. Duncan playing divide and conquer politics. He might as well be saying, "Shut up and get in line!" No teacher worthy of the name is trying to avoid accountability and it is an insult to suggest that our legitimate disagreement with him makes us nefarious and lazy.
The Atlanta cheating scandal has been described as the worst known incident of systemic cheating, so it is worth nothing that even there investigators found cheating in 44 out of 2,232 schools in Georgia.
Come on, Duncan! First you insult our motivations, now you insult our intelligence. The governor's special investigative report found cheating in 44 of the 58 schools it investigated according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Not only was cheating in Atlanta widespread, it was nearly universal! This kind of political gamesmanship with the numbers tells me that he is so entrenched in his position that he'll pretty much do or say anything.
Each of these instances (cheating) is rooted in the pernicious notion that by resisting accountability, you can avoid it . . . To deny the importance of regular, comprehensive measurement of student growth and academic progress because of cheating is to embrace that twisted ethos, sending exactly the wrong message to students.
Again, Duncan accuses teachers of trying to avoid accountability, a word that in itself implies punishment. How about treating teachers like professionals? In other nations, like Finland (which is often held up as the gold standard of public education), teachers are evaluated by a system of review by education professionals, including peers, and if found lacking, are given coaching and support to improve their practice. The approach of Duncan and his gang of businessman reformers is to summarily fire teachers like one might a fry cook who is caught spitting in the food. The educators in Atlanta didn't cheat to avoid accountability; they cheated to avoid punishment.
Competing in a global economy is the ultimate high-stakes test for American students, and there are no shortcuts to success. Closing our eyes to the knowledge requirements of a 21st century economy will not make them go away.
Ah, there it is. It took Duncan a full 7 paragraphs to get to his main point: schools exist for the purpose of manufacturing workers. And, as far as I'm concerned, this is the crux of the problem. Public schools do not exist to serve the economy. If they do serve the economy, great, but the reason a democracy needs to educate children is because a well-educated population, as our founding fathers understood, is essential for self-governance. The job of our schools is not to create workers, but to create citizens. That is why public schools exist.
Duncan then goes on for the next couple paragraphs to demonstrate that he has "listened" to his critics, twisting our arguments to serve the purpose of test-and-punish education reform. For instance, he acknowledges flaws in the current standardized test, but then doubles down on them by telling us he's allocated $350 million toward making better tests. Or how about the way he tries to get on our good side my taking a political pot-shot at the previous Republican administration, stating that those laws need to be changed? He even has a paragraph in which he touts the need for teachers to have "real autonomy" to teach, but leaves it hanging there with absolutely no indication about what or if there are any plans to do anything about that. But, hey, we can't say he hasn't been listening, right?
And his conclusion:
This is a complicated issue, and changing long-held assumptions about the worth of teachers will not be easy. But the correct response to a difficult situation is to meet it head on with hard work, fresh thinking and open, honest and respectful debate, rather than a retreat from accountability.
Oh, I see, it is those of us who are against the test-and-punish approach that undervalue teachers. And if you don't do it Duncan's "fresh thinking" way he will hold you accountable by tossing you to the street.
Needless to say, I'm not convinced. Cheating is an inevitable result of high-stakes standardized testing. In fact, based upon this scandal in Atlanta, I suspect it is already widespread and growing. And based upon this editorial, it appears that this administration has stopped listening and is now committed to it's political campaign for more tests and more punishment. There will be more cheating. The methods to prevent cheating will, therefore, become more draconian. And if all else fails, the punishments will have to become debilitating.
That's the path of punishment.