Friday, July 22, 2011

The Path Of Punishment

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.

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Saya said...

It has been making my blood boil, and feel useless at the same time. I often discuss these issues (standardized testing, grading system, school system itself) with friends and coworkers, most of them are still sucked into this department of Ed. provided B.S., they just don't hear me out - or hear the studies out, for that matter. It is frustrating.

Jennifer said...

Great post! I totally agree with your assessment. I was a public teacher in Texas before becoming a homeschool mom and every year I saw teachers "cheat" on the standardized tests. It is inevitable when that much importance is put on the test.

Carrie said...

Love it! Thanks for your words of wisdom Tom... In theory if you are teaching properly your children should be able to pass the test. But the tests are so arbitrary that it's impossible for teachers not to teach to the test in order for their students to gain the information on the test. Thus filling them with information instead of the ability to learn and discover. They don't get the chance to become "BS detectors".

Unfortunately it happens in preschool too when you have federal/state funded programs and you have to use a specific assessment tool. We keep trying to train our teachers on proper assessment (observation, documentation etc..) that doesn't include "testing" the children. Some still don't get it.

Aunt Annie said...

Tom, they're trying to send us in the same direction in Australia. It's just a new form of teacher-bashing. I'm going to link this to my own blog post on the subject as evidence...

Aunt Annie said...

Here's a link to my post, which is now linked to your post... :)

Lucille said...

Well said.
I was wondering if you can share some good sites for information on classroom discipline plans for kindergarten? I don't want to use "rewards" and "punishments".

Girl From the Ville said...

Lucille - have you ever looked at the work of Alfie Kohn? He talks a lot about avoiding standardised testing but also about running classrooms without rewards or punishment. There are some of his articles linked to his website that might get you started.

Teacher Tom - This is great! I am in Australia but our standardised testing systems have been justified by what happens in the states. It has even been taken further and the results published on a Myschool website which pits one school against another - all in the name of making it more 'accountable' to parents. The next step is talking about teachers being paid according to how well their students perform.

Before I became a mum, I worked for a few years as a behaviour management teacher - I worked with kids who weren't coping in mainstream schooling. I visited heaps of different schools across all socio-economic communities. The teachers in many of those schools work hard. Really hard. Not just to teach literacy and numerous but to equip their students with essential life skills including basic hygeine. The Myschool website reflects none of that. It doesn't show how much work teachers put into building a community within the school or anything that makes a school a great place to be. It reflects test scores.

The thing is, there is a cheating system in Australia that is okay. Private schools can suspend and expel their students without having to justify themselves to anyone. In the weeks leading up to testing, students are expelled from these schools if the school doesn't believe they can cut it. Many of them run compulsory after hours classes to prepare for the testing (and charge the parents extra for the priveledge) and it is there, they identify kids that can't make it. Private schools have a brand to protect. The better their results in relation to other schools, the more elite they are, the more money they can charge.

The way the testing works here is that the schools are graded in relation to one another. Someone is always going to have to be on the bottom. It's not like everyone can pass at the same standard - the grades are all calculated and then schools are ranked in relation to other schools. With the elite private schools having the ability to expel students that they don't think will pass the tests, it only leaves many of the average to below average rankings left for the public schools (who have to take any student in their catchment area that wishes to enrol).

The whole thing is so messed up. Also the testing (called NAPLAN here) has a day of literacy testing and a day of numeracy testing. The numeracy test is all written problems not just equations and numbers so kids that struggle with the literacy testing would almost certainly fail the numeracy testing.

Lucille said...

Thank you so much. I've been reading a lot of his work on the computer and just ordered one of his books. I'm looking forward to changing things this year in my classroom. So excited!

Unknown said...

I can't seem to find your article about giving children directions. The one about waiting 12 seconds before going onto the next step. After reading the article, I've been counting to 12 in my head after I give the little Miss direction, and 95% of the time she listens by the end of my counting. Makes me wonder if it takes preschool kids about 12 seconds to process the information. I may want to write more about this in my blog, so if I could get a link that would be wonderful. Thank you for sharing what has become such a valuable parenting tool at home.

Teacher Tom said...

@Rebekah . . . I think this is the post you're thinking about:

Chelsie said...

First time reader- I found your blog on Not Waiting for Superman's facebook page. I am very happy that I ran across this today! I am currently living, working, and teaching (pre-k) in China. Ah, yes, America's rival in the education war that we are well-rooted in. Every time I have mentioned standardized testing to my fellow Chinese colleagues they are shocked to hear that America tests their students so harshly and "accountability" is counted the way it is. Even they believe that education in America needs a major overhaul. They have told me about the local schools in China and the pressure put on the students, families, and teachers... but ultimately the purpose of a communistic education vs. a democratic one are very different. So why are they both being executed in the same way? Something to think about... and perhaps a future blog from me soon :) Thanks for the topic! I find myself a little cut off from what is going on politically and professionally in America right now!

Unknown said...

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.
cheat numeracy test