How Can Smart People Do Dumb Things?

Top Federal Reserve officials in 2006–recall that was the time that the housing bubble was about to burst–“laughed about cars that builders were offering as signing bonuses.” These economists and investment bankers, the best and the brightest of those responsible for understanding the basic mechanisms that drive the economy, “gave little credence to the possibility that the faltering housing market” was shoving the economy into a recession. “We just don’t see troubling signs yet of collateral damage,” then President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (and current U.S. Secretary of the Treasury) said, “and we are not expecting much.”

Two years later, retired Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who presided over a growing economy for nearly two decades, apologized to a U.S. Congressional committee that the economic models he had used were flawed.

Then there was President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Don’t forget Enron. And surely, some of us recall those smart people falling for email scams from Nigeria promising millions of dollars for access to social security and credit card numbers.

Of course, psychologists have explored the blunders, mishaps, and mindless behaviors of very smart people. See here and here.

What about school reform? Can smart people do dumb things? You bet they can.

Consider the constant chatter that the U.S. is declining economically, socially, and globally and that schools must be drafted to stop that decline. The low scores of U.S. students on international tests is Exhibit 1. Even without getting into the shortcomings of the tests used to rank nations internationally and measure students domestically, the untoward consequences of raising the stakes on state test scores (e.g., narrowed curriculum, withholding diplomas, closing schools) are evident today. Look around to see if the U.S.’s global economic position has improved. It has not after a decade of NCLB and a burst housing bubble.

But betting that a federal law would miraculously spur economic growth and a larger chunk of foreign markets is not necessarily dumb. It is a national ideological tic that American policy elites have had in “educationalizing” social, economic, and political problems (Labaree Paper-Ed_Theory_11-08 ). Hurtful habitual behavior even on a national level is, like individuals continually smoking, understandable only if we see the behavior as addictive.

What is, however, categorically dumb is the fast-track federally driven movement (states competing for Race to the Top funds) of using test scores to evaluate teachers in the face of damning historical and contemporary evidence, all of which has been available to top federal and state policymakers. Like those smart guys in that 2006 Federal Reserve meeting whose over-confidence in their econometric models fueled joking about a strong economy when they were barely hanging on to a slippery housing market bubble, federal officials pushing states and districts to use test scores to determine teaching effectiveness have not done due diligence. And due diligence is what each of us expect of our top decision-makers.

Consider the British experiment called “Payment for Results” in late-19th century England when Parliament legislated that teachers would be paid on the basis of how many of their students passed tests  (Rapple, Payment for Results ). In 1887, yes, 1887, one school principal saw the consequences and said:

… a teacher knows that his whole professional status depends on the results
he produces and he really is turned into a machine for producing those results;
that is, I think, unaccompanied by any substantial gain to the whole cause of
education. (Lyle Jonesaera99 citing G. Sutherland, Policy-making in Elementary Education  1870-1897 (London:Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 68).

A century later in California, policymakers approved “Cash for CAP,” a program that sent money to schools on the basis of how well they did on the California Assessment Program. Over 500 high schools in the state divided up $14 million for improved scores on CAP (San Jose Mercury News, April 19, 1985, p. 1B). Other districts across the nation in the 1990s launched similar programs for paying schools and, later, teachers for gains in student test scores  Complaints about narrowed curriculum, test prep, and cheating surfaced time and again.(See here, Brian Stecher, Consequences of High-stakes Testing, and Lori Aratani, “Teaching to the Test, San Jose Mercury, February 21, 2000).

And in the past decade, the millstone of test scores grinds even more finely with student test scores determining wholly or in part teacher effectiveness. Supremely confident about all the positives of this policy (e.g., teachers and students working harder, scores rising), top decision-makers have not done due diligence on what experts in testing have said repeatedly about using test scores to evaluate individual teachers (see here and here) and the history of previous efforts to reward teachers on student performance. Had they done so, they might have heeded the record of perverse outcomes that have accrued to such policies. On this issue, then, smart people do dumb things.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

12 responses to “How Can Smart People Do Dumb Things?

  1. This is painfully true Larry and there is an intriguing, cultural aspect to this issue too. When I first visited the States I was struck by how, if I asked a US teacher how any individual child was doing, they respond by going to a computer and printing out a data sheet of some kind. “This is how they are doing,” they would then say.

    At the same time, in any UK school, or indeed any Russian or Eastern European school (I had yet to visit Scandanavia or the Far East) if I had asked a teacher how any individual child was doing. They would have immediately launched into a detailed verbal description that would have demonstrated a clear familiarity with the child and their academic performance.

    Sadly, this recent faith in data, which I see as not disconnected from the influence of modern technology on schooling, and grandiose claims for its transformational power, has been growing even in the UK. One need only to look at the origins of the well meaning, Fischer Family Trust to understand the connection.

    • larrycuban

      I am sure such exchanges between teachers and visitors you described, Joe, do occur. I have experienced similar exchanges. However,in the schools where I served as superintendent and the ones I have worked in as a researcher over the decades the variation in teacher responses covers the spectrum: from data-driven to rich verbal descriptions, etc.

  2. Cal

    I would never print out anything, and I don’t think I’m all that unusual. In fact, our school always has to remind teachers to print out grade sheets for IEPs and 504 meetings, since most teachers just give a verbal report.

    (I never print out the grade sheet anyway, alas.)

  3. Here is what I wonder about. Do they have something right about the next generation of teachers, the ones that leave in five years or less. When I started teaching almost 20 years ago I noticed that one of the other teachers, paid nearly twice as much as myself and teaching the same classes, had around half the students per section that I had. It is a toss up in my mind who is the better teacher, a first year teacher and one allowed to coast into retirement, but not in parents minds. They wanted their kids in my class.

    How can we define what makes a teacher and a classroom excellent and pay teachers for doing that? Years of service and degrees only offer a minimal insight into what makes a classroom great. Teachers that are reflective, learning new things, collaborate with other teachers, feel supported by administrators, and make enough money to not worry more than normal about home are teachers that I want my kids to have. How do we set up a system where excellent practice is identified and valued?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting on the post.

      You ask: “How can we define what makes a teacher and a classroom excellent and pay teachers for doing that?” That is the policy question that federal, state, and local decision-makers ask, parents ask, charter school leaders ask–it is one that you and I ask over and over again. It is the right question to ask.

      You go on to say that years of service and degrees “only offer a minimal insight into what makes a classroom great.” I agree.Then you list the things that ought to be the determining factors in evaluating and paying teachers: “Teachers that are reflective, learning new things, collaborate with other teachers, feel supported by administrators, and make enough money to not worry more than normal about home are teachers that I want my kids to have. How do we set up a system where excellent practice is identified and valued?”

      Someone–you, your principal, an external visitor or all together–would have to judge each of the features of your system of identifying and valuing excellent classroom practice. Consider each feature that would have to be evaluated: a teacher’s personal traits (“reflective”), emotions (“feel supported by administrators”), actions (“learning new thing, collaborate with other teachers”). What is missing from your system of identifying and valuing excellent practice is, of course, student learning. To what degree are you responsible for student learning? A little? Some? a lot? most? all?

      I raise these points, Jim, not to criticize your comment but to point out that the single salary schedule rewarding experience and degrees that came into general practice by the 1920s and 1930s was considered fair by teachers and administrators precisely because it was far better than the previous system of one year contracts for teachers and principals and superintendents determining annual salary thru periodically visiting teachers and arbitrarily determining which teachers should have contracts renewed and how much they should get. Single salary system based on experience and degrees and periodic visits did not make for a great system of measuring excellent practice but it was certainly one that was more fair to teachers than the one it replaced.

      Now, policymakers are manic over replacing this system with one that places partially or wholly all responsibility for students learning on the teacher’s shoulder. The business model of paying for performance–in this case, student learning as measured by test scores–is in the process of being grafted onto schooling. In Washington, D.C. and elsewhere the system is in place.The Race to the Top competition for federal funds has gotten many states to legislate pay-for-performance of teachers using test scores. The obvious unfairness of such a system for judging excellent practice–just as the system in place before the single-salary based on experience and degrees was established–is being challenged by unions, individual teachers, academic researchers, and parents. So this nation is in the midst of figuring out exactly what how to do what you want: “How do we set up a system where excellent practice is identified and valued?”

      My hunch is that what will emerge is a blending of the existing system of evaluating and paying teachers with new elements that capture student performance and other actions of teachers. What do you think?

      • Larry,
        Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I know that the system before developed cronyism and nepotism and punished women and minorities, so you will not see me advocating for a return to negotiated contracts. I am also very aware that pure merit pay results mainly in cheating. I am also struck by what you point out: in my off the cuff list of things teachers are responsible for student achievement is not there. Thanks for pointing that out. Do you think that is a flaw? I am not sure I do.

        My hunch is that you are correct, we will move to some system that adds in some sort or teacher evaluation. If this system is tied to student achievement, especially only student achievement as measured by the current tests, I worry deeply about education.

        We in the education profession have to start thinking about how to educate the people in your list, “unions, individual teachers, academic researchers, and parents,” about what makes a truly effective learning environment. Only when there is some level of agreement there will we start to be able to look at how to value that.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Jim, for responding to my comment.

  4. Larry, apart from the huge flaw of creating an incentive for teachers to cheat, (see Levitt & Dubner’s “Freakonomics”) it is the slipperiest of slopes to encourage pupils and parents to believe that teachers are responsible for exam results. The problem isn’t with children from positive, socially stable backgrounds, where individual responsibility has already been successfully nurtured. They will always make the connection between the end result and their input and effort. The problem is at the bitter end of the educational performance scale.

    In recent weeks I’ve seen far too many children for whom the entire concept of schooling, that fundamental human desire to learn, develop and improve, common across cultures and ages, is wholly absent. In its place is an invidious, dysfunctional dependency on any adult, fool enough, misguided enough, or as is so often the case, simply kind enough to want to help. I have little doubt one of the reasons for this dire situation is precisely that shift in thinking which puts responsibility for exam performance unduly on the shoulders of teachers.

    In my teaching career. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t doing the very best I could, to get my pupils the best exam results they could get. I can’t recall any colleague I worked with at the time, who would have felt differently.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Joe,
      Thanks for the comment. Two questions:
      1. In general, should teachers be responsible for anything learned by students? If so, what?
      2. What, if anything, should students, regardless of background, be held responsible for while in school?

  5. Larry, to answer both questions as succinctly but also as realistically as I can.
    1. I guess a teacher is responsible for covering the relevant curriculum or exam syllabus fully, and for ensuring each of their pupils is prepared appropriately for whatever testing or assessment hurdle they face. Again, looking back on my experience, most of my colleagues would have done this AND much more, routinely.
    2. All pupils should be responsible for behaving in a manner which does not harm the learning, social or educational progress, of any other child. That, for me is all that’s needed.

  6. Pingback: This Week’s “Round-Up” Of Good School Reform Posts & Articles | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

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