Firing Teachers Won’t Make Kids Smarter

If there’s one belief among education reformers that’s as stubbornly persistent as a two-year-old’s questions, it’s that if only schools would fire more teachers, kids would start getting better at reading and math. This enduring illusion seems so impervious to the contradictory evidence that one is forced to conclude that its adherents, for all their reasoned arguments, have more in common with religious zealots than sober academics.

In the course of  20 minutes of web surfing today, I ran across two articles that lazily suggest that the solution to our nation’s education problems is simply to fire more teachers.

Zachary Wright, in an article on Education Post called When Students Aren’t Proficient in Reading or Math, It Isn’t a Shame, It’s Violence, calls teachers a bunch of whiners:

“Teachers, I am one of you, and I say this with all the love, honor, and respect I can muster: Stop moaning about accountability standards…Stop griping about the unfairness of performance metrics. When a teacher speaks out against accountability, the truth is, at their core, whether they admit it or not, they care more about themselves than their students. Full stop.”

This is, and I say this with all the love, honor, and respect I can muster, idiotic thinking. Let’s be clear about what accountability standards are at least supposed to mean. They mean judging and then either punishing or rewarding (but usually punishing) teachers. In the wettest of reformers’ dreams, they mean firing a few hundred thousand teachers every year (I don’t have a source for that number but a few hundred thousand would represent about 10% of teachers, a number that the most passionate reformers would likely still find too low.)

Arguing that teachers shouldn’t complain when those accountability systems rely on unfair metrics is like arguing doctors should just shut up when the government decides to set up a system of rewards and punishments based on how healthy their patients are. It’s like telling dentists to zip their lips when people who know zilch about dentistry decide that some of them need to be fired because too many of their patients don’t brush their teeth. It’s like asking prison wardens to pipe down when the state decides to evaluate them based on recidivism rates. Submissively accepting such illogical systems means being okay with people who are good at their jobs potentially losing them. That’s dumb.

As far as teachers who speak out against such unjust systems being only concerned about themselves, wrong again. Everyone with a child in today’s education system should be concerned about accountability systems that are based on unfair metrics for the simple reason that they will result in good teachers being fired or driven from the profession. Teachers, more than anyone else, are aware of this, which is why they have an obligation to fight back against such systems. We are supposed to be there for our students, and our students deserve teachers who are evaluated fairly so that the public can have some assurance that the right people are doing the job.

People who argue for greater teacher accountability always seem to do so from a belief that not having a strong evaluation system means that schools will be saddled with bad teachers, but they rarely seem as concerned that unfair systems will misidentify good teachers as weak ones and force them out of the profession. With many good teachers leaving on their own, that’s not something we can afford. It may, in fact, represent a larger threat to student learning, given that teacher shortages make it challenging for schools to replace “bad” teachers with better ones.

A second article, also on Education Post but written by Brandon Dutcher and titled, “It’s Not Real School Accountability If No One Is Held Accountable” positively drips with reformer frustration. It’s actually kind of fun to read. Dutcher writes:

“Despite years of ‘high stakes’ student testing, very few of the nation’s 3.14 million public-school teachers have ever lost a job, had their pay reduced, or otherwise faced meaningful consequences because of these test results.”

You see, we’ve been trying this for a while now. Accountability systems aren’t new. They just failed. Even Bill Gates admits it. Still, the reason for that failure can be interpreted one of two ways: Either teacher accountability failed because it’s a stupid idea with very little chance of succeeding or it never really had a prayer in the first place because despite reformers spending billions of dollars to treat educators like guinea pigs and to buy off legislators so they would adopt tougher evaluation systems and dismantle pesky tenure protections, the damn school districts didn’t take advantage of their new authority. They just kept rating teachers highly anyway!

Now I’d argue that either way, the idea is a proven dud. If you can’t get the people with the authority to implement your fancy evaluation system the way you want it implemented, then that’s just a different form of failure. But it’s worth it to ask, what if it did succeed?

Dutcher writes:

“Here in Oklahoma, the majority of students lack proficiency in math, science, and English language arts. So how many schools have been closed? How many grown-ups have lost their jobs or had their pay reduced? Who’s being held accountable for the damage?”

One can almost hear him stomping his feet. Dutcher, and many like him, envision a world where schools, almost all of them in low-income communities, would be closed if students had crappy test scores. He wants the adults in those schools kicked to the curb. He wants those effers held accountable.

Okay. Then what?

Those kids are going to need new schools and those schools are going to need more teachers to teach those kids. Where does Dutcher think the schools will find them? Is Oklahoma, with its embarrassing teacher salaries and lack of job protections, holding scads of would-be-fabulous teachers in some type of strategic teacher reserve? Does Dutcher think such an accountability system would lure all those Oklahoma teachers who left for Texas back to the Sooner State?

No, but he does have a solution (prepare to be shocked, he wrote sarcastically):

“True accountability is accountability not to bureaucrats but rather to parents. Happily, we’re now seeing examples of this voting-with-their-feet accountability. The Oklahoman reported this year that “41 percent of students who attend a virtual charter school in Oklahoma left their previous school because they were victims of bullying.”

Virtual charter schools! The same virtual charter schools that, according to this Detroit News article, have been a “spectacular failure.”

“A study by the RAND Corp. and New York University released earlier this year showed that online-only schools tend to attract and harm our most vulnerable students. The study found that Ohio students with low test scores who attend cyber charter schools fell even further behind. High achieving students perform better, but still achieve lower results than they would have if they had enrolled in traditional schools.

In the “National Study of Online Charter Schools,” Stanford University found that cyber charter students received the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of instruction in reading than their peers in traditional schools.”

I wonder if Dutcher wants to hold the computers accountable.

The central problem with calling for a more punitive accountability system for teachers is that the job is already pretty damn unattractive in all of the places where that accountability system would bare its sharpest teeth. Click To TweetWhy would anyone teach in a district where it would be more likely they would be fired because of the test scores of their students, a metric over which they have only some influence?

Look, I wish it were as easy as reformers like to pretend it is, but teacher evaluation reform is this century’s Prohibition. It’s the cure that’s worse than the disease.

At the very least, a medicine ought to remedy the malady for which it was created, even if there are some nasty side-effects. But with teacher evaluation reform, America got a double-whammy. According to the Rand report, not only did students at schools within the Gates program’s purview not do any better than their peers at other schools in the same areas, but teacher accountability systems have wreaked havoc on the profession. Since accountability gained traction in 2009, teacher stress has increased, with 73% of teachers reporting that they are often under stress and 46% saying they experience high stress every day (the numbers are even higher for elementary teachers). In 2013, 55% of teachers reported low or very low morale and 69% said their morale had declined. (Source) Roughly 6 in 10 teachers in a 2017 survey said their mental health was “not good” for at least seven of the previous 30 days. (Source) Not surprisingly, we have teacher shortages in many of the very geographic areas where reformers would most like to see more teachers fired.

Those numbers can’t just be ignored. In schools where at least 75% of students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, teacher turnover averages more than 22 percent annually. Recent data from the District of Columbia Public Schools reveal average teacher turnover rates of around 25 percent, but in those schools with free-and-reduced lunch rates higher than 80 percent, turnover was closer to 40 percent each year. In New York City middle schools, 66 percent of educators exit within their first five years. The typical Chicago public school loses over half of its teachers in their first five years. 

For those reformers who want more teachers working in these schools gone, you’re already getting your wish. They’re leaving on their own, in some cases because of the policy changes you wanted. To suggest that these teachers, the ones who knowingly (and largely altruistically) go into the most difficult schools and attempt to teach the hardest to reach kids, need to do so with the sword of Damocles resting precariously above their heads isn’t just stupid. It’s cruel.

And would-be teachers know it, as evidenced by teacher shortages not seen since the 1990s. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs declined by 35% from 2009, the year when the Gates accountability experiment started, to 2014. (Source)

Reformers’ plan to improve education only works if you can replace bad teachers with better ones. But the very system they would like to institute to make that happen is driving good teachers from the system and preventing young people from even signing up. If you’re going to propose a solution, that solution should have at least some chance at succeeding. But with a quarter-million teachers already leaving every year and not all of them being replaced, just where do reformers think they’re going to find people to teach our neediest kids?

Oh, that’s right. They’ll use computers.

 

 

There Will Be No Beanstalk

What will it be next year? Which book or program will capture the imagination of America’s school administrators? Which teacher turned thought leader will have her fortunes changed over night? Which consultant, too opportunistic and cowardly to remain in the arena and teach actual students, will be charging thousands of dollars to tell teachers how to do their jobs? Which business concept will weasel its way into America’s schools? What new elixir will I be forced to choke down, as impotent to resist as a baby whose mother airplanes a spoonful of unappetizing gruel toward his pinched mouth?

I do not know, but experience suggests it will be something. Likely, it will be something I’ve sampled before, under new management and packaged in a more attractive box. Something tasted by teachers who, after masticating for a while and maybe even swallowing, eventually spit it back up, only to chase it with something equally specious and unfulfilling.

We teachers are willing converts, regardless of how many times we’ve enthusiastically purchased the snake oil in the past. Sent off to a conference on the latest educational wonder drug, our initial skepticism is quickly replaced with reluctant acceptance by some and acolytic zeal by others. Our principals stand in front us with a tenuous grasp of the panacea they offer and virtually no understanding of the underlying science, but they assure us that it’s “research-based.” They point to a district where it supposedly worked, neglecting to mention that said district bears no resemblance to our own.

Still, we nod our heads. We sit in staff meetings where we are told that this, yes this, is our salvation! The magic bullet that will finally, finally raise those test scores, send more kids off to college, and make our schools the place everyone wants to be. Stick a Ph.D. on the end of a name and watch us assent under the assumption that someone smarter than us has the answer.

The remaining skeptics among us won’t dare say anything for fear of being labeled negative, or difficult, or not a team player, or not in it for the kids. No reason to place a target on our backs, not when we’ve been here before and know that this too shall pass.

And maybe in the back of our minds we think — having been told in so many ways over so many years that we’ve never measured up, never given these kids what they deserve — that, why not? Why not try this new thing? After all, what we’ve been doing hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire.

Teachers, I think, often feel like Jack’s mother in the fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk. At our wit’s end, on the verge of giving up, and as a last-ditch effort, we decide to trade in the family cow. We’ve barely been getting by as it is. Nothing is working and it never will. Desperate, we hope for deliverance. After all, anything is better than a useless cow.

And wouldn’t you know it? There’s a peddler offering just the thing. Magic beans! The answer to all our troubles! Consultants, books, new programs, repackaged ideas, all sold by slick traffickers who, unlike us, were savvy enough to make a living in education outside of the classroom.

But teaching isn’t a fairy tale and there will be no beanstalk that teachers will climb to heretofore unattained heights. There is no magic. No riches. No geese who lay golden eggs. No magic harp. Not even an enraged giant or his concerned wife. They may be different sizes and colors than the beans we’ve planted before, but they’re still just beans.

Still, there will be hope. The newly acquired beans planted, we’ll look out the window, expecting that any day now we’ll wake up and see a beanstalk. We’re sure of it.

This is the curse of being a teacher. We will forever be hoping the beans will sprout. No matter how many times they fail to germinate, we will always trade away the cow in the hope of something transformational. And instead of scolding us for our foolishness, as the mother does Jack in the story, our leaders will present to us new beans with promises that this time we will surely be able to climb to the clouds.

Undeterred by broken promises, we will believe again. We’ll return to the window and stare at the soil, positive that this time there will be growth.

The eagerness to drink the Kool-Aid is our curse.  It is also our blessing.

For what is teaching if not blind hope? Why keep showing up if you don’t carry within you an implausible faith in miracles? If teachers believe that they, through nothing more than their dedication and efforts, can turn a kid around who has everything going against him, then is it at all surprising that when a man offers to trade magic beans for our tired cow we jump at the opportunity?

We believe in miracles because we believe in the biggest miracle of all: That we, set against apathy and neglect, hunger and abuse, poverty and hopelessness, can make a difference. Against all odds, we believe in the future of every single student. It’s an absurd belief, one that no rational person would hold, one that the data have never supported, yet we believe it with every fiber of our being, just as we believe that this time, there will be a beanstalk.

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Performance-Based Layoffs Are a Bad Idea

The board of the San Antonio Independent School District voted Monday to lay off 132 teachers in a cost-cutting measure designed to save $11 million. Due to declining enrollment (mostly thanks to charter schools), the district faces a $31 million shortfall for the coming year. So it’s perfectly understandable that the board wanted to cut personnel.

Of course, that didn’t stop the uproar. The laid-off teachers showed up at the board meeting, and, unshackled without a job to worry about, let district officials have it. That, too, was unexpected. People who are fired aren’t usually very happy about it.

What is different these days is the source of that anger. Not so very long ago, decisions like these were made by seniority. It was cut and dry. If you needed to lay off 30 teachers, you pulled the seniority list out and counted 30 from the bottom. The lists could be found in teachers’ lounges, and every May you’d take a peek at where you were, listened for rumors about the number of positions your employer was looking to cut, and hoped you’d be spared. It might not have been perfect, but it was at least easily understood.

Plenty of people hated this policy, and they had good reason. Why should a shitty veteran teacher keep her job over a passionate and effective new one? That didn’t make sense, so reformers fought hard to replace “last-in, first out” policies with those based on performance. Not too many people complained.

They should have. Just as democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others, seniority-based layoffs are the worst way to cut teaching jobs, except for all the others.

San Antonio demonstrates why.

If you’re going to lay people off based on performance, then you better have an evaluation system that teachers believe is fair and consistent. And it sure sounds like San Antonio didn’t have that (and given how subjective and unreliable principal observations and student assessments are, I’m not sure it’s even possible to create one).

From an article in the San Antonio Express News:

“The union circulated a letter to the board written by Lisa Marie Gonzalez, who resigned two weeks ago from her position as associate principal of Lanier High School, in which she alleged that Lanier’s principal, Laura B. Cooper, in the fall gave administrators a list of teachers to “get rid of” and directed them to give those teachers negative evaluations. Potter, the union president, said the union heard similar stories Monday from assistant principals of two other high schools.”

It almost doesn’t matter whether those accusations are true. Because the trust between the district and its teachers is gone, and there is no reason to believe that district leaders made layoff decisions based on teacher quality instead of personal vendettas or money. The law makes it way too easy to do just that. Until that law is reversed, teachers across the country will continue to express the sentiment voiced by the SAISD teachers’ union president:

“Stop saying that the cuts are based on performance,” she told the board.

The Benefits of Certainty

Critics of protesting teachers often make the argument that teachers knew the pay when they took the job. They have a point. But here’s something teachers also used to know when they took a job: They were the first ones on the chopping block in the event of layoffs. There’s something to be said for that kind of certainty.

If seniority still mattered in San Antonio, district officials’ jobs would have been much easier. It is unlikely that teachers would be nearly as upset, and the motives of district leaders wouldn’t be called into question. Those teachers who didn’t get cut wouldn’t spend all of next year looking over their shoulders, afraid to commit the most minor of offenses out of fear of landing on some petty administrator’s hit list.

The district also wouldn’t have needed to ask teachers to resign instead of being laid off, because under the old system being laid off meant you were young and cuts had to be made. It wasn’t a blemish on your resume. Everyone understood how the game was played and a young, laid-off teacher could easily move to another district and continue their career.

Not so anymore. Now, with “performance”-based evaluations, the assumption that hiring districts must make is that teachers who were laid off from their previous districts must have sucked. Which, given how unreliable these evaluation systems are and how little proof there is that they actually identify low performers, is not only unfair to those teachers but bad for a system in desperate need of them.

It’s a classic case of be careful what you wish for. Districts now have the power they want to fire teachers who aren’t performing. The problem is that they also have the power they want to fire teachers they don’t like, or who cost them more money than they feel like paying.

And even if these districts behave nobly and do the very best they can to identify and retain their best teachers (and there’s really no reason to assume they do), their motives when they lay off teachers will always be questioned.

And that is a bad thing for everybody involved.

Whole-Grain Pancakes and Courageous Teachers

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The headline jumped at me from my Facebook feed.

Middle School teacher says he was suspended for making pancakes during PSSAs

My first reaction was, “Clickbait. There must be more to the story.” So I read it. And there was more to the story. By the time I got to the end of it, I said, “You have to be (expletive) kidding me.” I had to repress a very strong impulse to fire off a fusillade of emails to the many moronic adults involved in this, um… incident(?).

Here’s what happened: It was testing day. An eighth-grade social studies teacher in Pennsylvania named Kyle Byler decided to make whole-grain pancakes for his students so they could eat during the test. The assistant principal, a woman with the perfectly villainous surname of Grill, walked in, and, according to an article on Lancaster Online, “questioned why he was making breakfast for his students.”

(Because, how dare he…?)

Within 24 hours, Byler was pulled into a meeting with administrators. He left that meeting convinced he was going to be fired.

Byler is, of course, exactly the kind of teacher who always seems to pop up in stories like these. He’s effective, dedicated, selfless, and popular. Parents call him “the eighth-grade dad.” Students call him, “an awesome teacher.” He helps out with student council and coaches basketball. So it’s probably not surprising that 30 students spent two hours protesting outside the middle school when Byler wasn’t at work the following day and 100 people showed up at the next school board meeting.

Byler wasn’t sure what he did wrong. Neither is any other thinking person. But Nicole Reigelman, who has the thankless job of being the spokesperson for the Pennsylvania DOE, had an idea. While serving food is not actually a violation of any testing rule, tending to a griddle, according to Reigelman, “would have likely interfered with ‘actively monitoring’ the assessment.”

Let’s think about that. The state tells teachers that they have to “actively monitor” students during a test that teachers don’t want to give in the first place, that will be used to label their schools as failures, that will feed the bullshit narrative that American schools are failing, and that can result in a low evaluation and possibly even their own dismissal.

And the reason teachers have to “actively monitor” students is to ensure that the results are valid. Except that, regardless of how well students are actively monitored, the test results aren’t valid. They’re taken over the course of just a few days out of the whole year and there are no stakes for the students, which means there’s really no reason for students to even try on them.

So, really, teachers are supposed to actively monitor their students to ensure the appearance of validity, so that when the state — results now clutched firmly in its punitive fist — comes back and says, “You guys suck,” everyone can nod their heads and say, “Well, those teachers were really watching those kids. We know they didn’t cheat, so I guess they really do suck.” (And since 95% of students at Byler’s school come from low-income households, you can be pretty sure that’s exactly what the state will say.)

The reason the teacher is asked to ensure this veneer of validity for a test that is likely to be used to harm both teachers and students is because, even though the state claims these tests are so important that they have to pass rules to ensure students are actively monitored, they’re not quite important enough for the state to hire its own proctors to administer the exams. That would cost money, so they dump the job on teachers.

The ones who better not serve any damn whole-grain pancakes during their precious tests.

But if the surreal stupidity ended with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, that wouldn’t be so egregious. We expect Kafkaesque bureaucracies. Let’s talk about the assistant principal, Marian Grill.

One of Byler’s students is quoted in the article as saying, “The moment she walked in, everybody turned. She was the distraction. Not pancakes. Not Byler.”

Grill is an educator. Or at least, that’s what she’s supposed to be. And the ball was totally in her court in this situation. Not only did she drop that ball, she jammed a screwdriver through it. Here is what Grill should have done upon entering Byler’s room:

–Noticed students quietly working on their tests while eating whole-grain pancakes.
–Thought to herself, “What a dedicated teacher these students have. Not only is he trying to ensure they do their best on this important test by doing exactly what the research says schools should do (feed kids), he’s doing it out of his own pocket.”
–Smiled at Mr. Byler. Gave him a thumbs-up. Maybe asked for a pancake. Left the room.

I don’t know Marian Grill, but I think I know her type. She seems like the kind of administrator who watches you teach a flawless lesson, then criticizes you because the floor was messy or Joey was leaning in his chair. She’s the member of the Homeowner’s Association who has a problem with you flying an Easter flag. She’s the kind of person who, intoxicated by even the smallest amount of power, abuses the hell out of it. And I guarantee you that Marian Grill has no problem with pancakes. She has a problem with teachers doing things without clearing it with her first.

This should have ended with her, if only her ego had allowed it to.

Fortunately, petty tyrants like Marian Grill can be quickly exposed in today’s world. Just ten years ago, assistant principals like Grill could act with impunity. With an obvious imbalance of power and an awful economy, teachers wouldn’t take the risk of antagonizing their bosses. Times have changed, and social media is mistreated teachers’ strongest weapon. It can do what your feckless union can’t or won’t.

You don’t need strength in numbers.

You don’t need t-shirts.

You don’t need a vote.

All you need is a compelling story and to be in the right.

You see the influence of social media across the country, from the West Virginia and Oklahoma walk-outs, organized without union leadership by teachers who put out the call on Facebook and Twitter, to individual teachers like Kyle Byler, who, instead of keeping his mouth shut out of a fear of sabotaging his chances at finding another job after losing this one, had the courage to fight back by simply telling his story and letting the indignant masses do what indignant masses do in the digital age.

Byler kept his job, and the school district, as districts often do when caught with their pants around their ankles, claimed that no, no, no his job was never in any jeopardy at all.

You can believe the embarrassed school district officials who didn’t want this thing getting any bigger than it had, or you can believe the teacher.

Regardless, his district owes him more than his job. He should have never feared for that to start with. They owe him an apology because they’re the ones that lost sight of the purpose of education.  They owe him the money they withheld during his suspension. They might owe him a new assistant principal.

The lessons here are many.

First, state tests make people act like fools. It’s the unintended consequences of these tests that are always the problem. Well-meaning people lose focus on what really matters in their quest to tack a couple of percentage points onto last year’s scores.

Second, we need administrators to rise above misguided state priorities. Just because the state tells them to care about the test, doesn’t mean they have to. Just because the state wants third-graders “college and career-ready,” doesn’t mean educators have to buy into that standard. Policies aren’t made by people in schools. That’s why so many of them stink. But administrators and teachers are in schools. They are the experts. They know better. And sometimes, they need whole-grain pancakes more than they need to be actively monitored.

Third, we need more courageous teachers like Kyle Byler. As he and the teachers who walked-out across this country have proven, courageous teachers — those who stand up and speak out, who call attention to exploitation, unfairness, and plain old human stupidity — improve their own circumstances, but they also make things better for teachers everywhere.

So serve the whole-grain pancakes. Do what’s right for kids. And if someone tries to stop you, plaster their name all over the Internet. They deserve what they get.

Want Better Scores on the State Test? Bribe Your Students!

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Way back when “Return of the Mack” was on regular rotation in my off-campus apartment and Randy Quaid saved the planet from aliens, I first learned about Alfie Kohn. I was in an undergraduate teacher prep class and we read an article of Kohn’s (it might have been this one) where he argued that rewarding kids at school for things they did well wasn’t any better than punishing them for things they did poorly. Kohn expands on this idea in his book, Punished By Rewards, which made a big splash in the 90s because, while society had moved away from the draconian punishments of yesteryear and state laws now forbade corporal punishment, rewards were passed out like, well, candy. Or colorful pencils. Or those awesome scratch-and-sniff stickers. Or gold stars. Or promises of ice cream parties. Or erasers. Or, well, you get the point. And now here came Kohn scolding teachers all over again.

And so I started my teaching career as most naive, just-released-from-college kids do. With the proper amount of self-righteousness and arrogance, I marched into my classroom determined to offer no rewards. Students would learn for knowledge’s sake. We would build a community and have respect for each other. We would talk about our problems and address underlying causes of misbehavior.

Then the real world hit and doing all of those things was really, really hard.

Some kids were just plain jerks who needed to be taught a few hard lessons, if only so the rest of the class would see that you can’t go through life treating people like dirt and get nothing harsher than a counseling session, a behavior plan, and rewards for doing the very things every other kid in the class was doing as a matter of course. And so I started rewarding some kids, punishing others, and playing that whole game.

And not long after that, I learned first-hand what I had read in a boring old classroom. Alfie was right. Rewards don’t really work. They’re manipulative, frequently arbitrary, and basically no different than punishments (they just feel nicer).

Fast-forward to 2011 and Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, made many of the same arguments. Citing some of the same research as Kohn, Pink concluded that extrinsic rewards are usually a bad idea. Motivation is largely intrinsic and the way to tap into that motivation is through autonomy, a slow and steady march toward mastery, and by doing meaningful things in service to something larger than the self.

All of that is well and good. I accept that it’s generally a bad idea to reward students for their performance and to bribe them to behave better. Make the work interesting. Offer choice. Don’t be such a dictator. Provide feedback so students understand their progress toward mastery. Assign meaningful work. Do all that.

HOWEVER.

The testing window opened in my state this week. Over the next two months, students from third graders to high school juniors will take The Big Test. And big it is. Schools will be judged on the results. They’ll be labeled on some silly statewide reporting system. Some will face consequences. Teachers will be evaluated based on the results. Some may lose their jobs. The scores will influence public opinion of American education as a whole and either burnish or tarnish the reputations of districts, schools, and even entire state’s education systems and policies.

There are plenty of problems with The Big Test, (one of which might be the questionable timing of asking students to take it after they’ve just had 10 days off for spring break, as my wife’s students did this week) but perhaps none are bigger than this:

There is no reason students should try hard on it.

In my state, students get nothing for doing well (it’s kind of like being a teacher in that regard).

No scholarship money.
No name in the local paper.
Not even a pat on the back.

Students suffer no negative consequences for doing poorly.* Nothing will happen to a student who decides to treat the entire enterprise exactly how it deserves to be treated, as a joke. Their scores won’t be reflected on their report cards. Grade point averages will be unaffected. Graduation is not at risk. Students’ parents won’t even learn the results for a number of months after the test is over (and by then, most won’t care). Students won’t be retained or asked to leave school. The only thing they lose is time, and they lose more of it the harder they try.

Subjecting the exams to Pink’s criteria, the tests offer its takers no autonomy. Because it’s a one-time event for which they receive no useful feedback, students cannot progress toward mastery. As for meaning, there is no purpose that students give a hoot about. It is, for almost every student, the very definition of drudgery. It’s busy work. By the state’s own declared aims, it’s got nothing to do with them.  For students, it’s as low-stakes as you can get.

All of which is why you should unabashedly bribe your students to take their time and do their best.

In the adult world, we offer money. In the classroom, we offer pizza, ice cream,  a dance party, video game time, or anything that will make students think twice before just clicking on answers so they can be done with the thing. When there is no expectation of intrinsic motivation, we have to find other ways to get people to try.

And here’s the thing: Bribery works! I have proof!

Every three years, 15-year-olds from around the world take the PISA exam. The results of this test are reported breathlessly in education circles and often lead to huge policy changes in the countries of the students who struggle. A group of researchers wondered an obvious thing. Did kids actually try on these tests? They had reason to be skeptical. There are no stakes for students who take the PISA; they never even get to see their results. And student effort matters. As I tell a handful of parents every year, it’s hard to report on a student’s abilities when they don’t try on their work.

American students traditionally fall in the middle of the pack on the PISA, but perhaps they underperform because they just don’t see the point in doing their best. The researchers decided to test motivation by paying students for their performance. So they pulled 25 math questions off previous PISA exams and they split students into two groups. One group’s participants received $25 and then handed over a buck for every question they missed. Students in the other group got nothing. Here’s what researchers found:

  • Students from Shanghai, who ranked first on the 2012 PISA, did just as well whether they were paid or not.
  • With the exception of low-ability students, U.S. students did better if they were paid.
  • When paid, U.S. students attempted more questions in the second half of the test and were more likely to answer those which they did attempt correctly.
  • Researchers predicted that if the U.S. had used financial incentives during the 2012 PISA test, the country’s math ranking would have risen to 19th, from 36th. (And to 32nd if all other countries also paid their students.)

Here’s a graph:

And here’s more about the study if you want the dirty deets.

Steven Levitt, the economist famous for co-writing the Freakonomics books, performed similar experiments in three Chicago schools. Bribery worked there, too. While there was some variation, Levitt and colleagues concluded:

“The magnitude of the impact of the incentives on that day’s test are quite large: approximately 0.12−0.22 standard deviations, which is similar to effect sizes achieved through a one-standard deviation increase in teacher quality or 20% reductions in class size.”

“Overall, we conclude that both financial and non-financial incentives can serve as useful tools to increase student effort and motivation on otherwise low-stakes assessment tests.”

To bribe effectively, Levitt’s research suggests you do the following:

Offer immediate rewards

If students have to wait, bribery doesn’t work. So you won’t be able to bribe students for improved performance on the state test because the results take too long. But you can bribe them on their effort, and the research suggests that you should.

Have established credibility

Levitt had the most success bribing students at the school where he had done previous experiments. Students there believed him when he said they would get money for doing well. He had less success at less familiar schools. Levitt surmised that those students, having never been paid to perform in a school setting, probably didn’t believe he would deliver and so the proffered bribe had little impact on motivation.

Leverage the power of loss aversion

Bribery worked better when students were given the reward at the start and knew they would have to give it back if they failed. So if you really want to be effective (and yes, maybe a little cruel), buy your class donuts before the test, place one on the corner of each desk, and threaten to take it away if you think they aren’t trying their hardest. (Hey, quit looking at me like that. I’m just reporting the science.)

Consider the age of your students

Smaller awards work with smaller kids, but you’ll need better stuff for high schoolers. Cheap little trophies worked just as well with elementary students as did the promise of ten bucks. However, it took a larger dollar amount ($20) to get older kids to give a damn.

 

You can read the whole study here. But if you would rather not, I understand. And I’m not going to bribe you to do so.

I will, however, attempt to entice you to join my subscriber list. By signing on to the Teacher Habits blog, you will be the first to know about newly released books. You’ll get discounts on those books. You’ll also get new articles emailed directly to your inbox. And you’ll be the first people I ask for advice on book covers and titles. Now aren’t those things better than a trophy?

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* I am aware that there are stakes for certain students. Those with third-grade reading laws that require retention (my state of Michigan joined that merry bandwagon last year) and students who have to pay to retake the SAT may have all the motivation they need to try hard.