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.
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.
- Inside the Fed in 2006: A Coming Crisis, and Banter (nytimes.com)