According to a famous anecdote, during the time the British crown ruled India they became alarmed at the number of venomous snakes populating their colony. A solution was soon settled on. The government would pay a bounty for every dead cobra. The strategy was an insssstant successssss. Cobras were being slaughtered in cold blood. Eventually, however, enterprising Indians figured out that they could avoid all that pesky cobra hunting and increase their profits by breeding their own cobras, killing them, and collecting the bounties. The British were unamused. They ended the dead cobra rewards. In response, the cobra breeders released their now worthless cobras into the wild, thereby making the problem worse than when the solution was proposed.
Cobras 1, Humans 0.
The story led to the coining of the term cobra effect to describe any “solution” that makes a problem worse. Problems are tricky things to fix and those who propose simple solutions almost always underestimate the complexity of the situation and fail to foresee unintended consequences. It’s happened many times, often by governments who don’t take that whole “learn from history so you don’t repeat it” thing all that seriously.
Prohibition comes immediately to mind. Prohibition sought to solve the many problems associated with alcohol by simply banning alcohol. Additionally, supporters believed that Prohibition would lead to economic prosperity. Saloons would close and neighborhoods would improve, leading to higher property values and rents. Sales of consumer goods were expected to boom. Soft drink companies eagerly anticipated filling the beverage void and raking in the profits. Theaters planned for larger audiences as Americans would need to find new ways to entertain themselves.
None of that happened. Instead, Prohibition harmed the economy in numerous ways. For starters, everyone associated with the production and distribution of alcohol lost their jobs and governments lost out on tax revenue generated by excise taxes on liquor sales.
But the economy was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the unintended consequences of Prohibition. The illegal liquor trade made criminals of millions of Americans, much like the War on Drugs would do decades later. The legal system couldn’t keep up, so courtrooms and jails overflowed. The amount of money involved led to the corruption of public officials and law enforcement agents. Organized crime flourished during the Prohibition era, costing people their lives and further stretching law enforcement resources. When it was all said and done, it seems clear that not only did Prohibition fail to reduce the alcohol consumption of Americans, it also led to terrible consequences that its proponents failed to anticipate.
In 1928, President Hoover described Prohibition as, “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.” The same words could have been uttered by President Obama about teacher evaluation reform. And like Prohibition, our teacher evaluation experiment has not only failed, it’s made things worse.
Those Cruddy Teachers
In 2009 America had a problem with its teachers. We had too many shitty ones. At least, that’s what a few Very Important People (they were rich) thought. The solution was simple: Make it easier to get rid of the bad ones. To that end, districts needed a way to identify bad teachers and they needed annoying barriers to firing them removed. Enter teacher evaluation and tenure reform, yet another in a long line of simplistic solutions to complex problems that ultimately failed and led to harmful and long-lasting consequences.
That teacher evaluation reform didn’t work is in little doubt. A RAND evaluation of the Gates Foundation’s $575 million Effective Teacher Initiative concluded that it failed to reach its goals. Read more here. See the RAND evaluation here.
But that’s the least distressing part of the story.
Like Prohibition, teacher evaluation reform did not solve the problem it set out to. But also like Prohibition, the reform led to a host of unintended consequences that will likely harm American education for years to come.
It’s a lesson that seems to need learning over and over: Sometimes, the medicine is worse than the disease.
Doing something about a problem isn’t always the smart thing to do because it’s really difficult to:
a. Actually solve the problem you are trying to fix.
b. Not create bigger problems than the one you are attempting to remedy.
As Jordan Peterson says in the video below during a discussion on hate speech, “The question is what do you do about it, and the devil’s in the details. I’m not an admirer of hate speech laws even though there’s plenty of hateful speech because I think the best thing to do is to leave free speech alone as much as you possibly can. Not because that will result in the perfect conditions for free speech, but because anything else that you’re likely to do is going to make it worse rather than better.”
Which was exactly the problem with teacher evaluation reform. We’re always going to have some teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom. The question is what do you do about it? As we’ve seen, devising a solution that solves the problem without creating worse ones is easier said than done.
It comes down to this: Is trying a solution worth the risk of making things worse, especially when history shows us that there’s a damn good chance that the solution is going to make things worse?
When it came to Prohibition, the answer to that question was a relatively swift no and the government quickly abandoned its efforts.
The same response to teacher evaluations is overdue.
Was it worth disrespecting a large segment of the nation’s teaching corps, including many good teachers who decided to leave their classrooms?
Did it make sense to evaluate every teacher with the same system, even those who had been doing the job well for 20 years?
Was it worth it to send the unmistakable message to the nation’s teachers that we suspect they might not be very good at their jobs?
Was it worth adding more work to principals’ plates and forcing districts to dedicate scarce funds to additional administrators so they could handle the extra responsibilities?
Was it worth making the job less appealing to young people, as a once secure profession now offered the same type of performance reviews they could get in the corporate world at a much higher salary?
Was it worth more teacher turnover, which cost districts money they could not afford, to hire teachers who may not have been any better than the fed up ones who left or the inadequate ones they replaced?
Did it make sense to design a system that made it less likely there would be a pool of unemployed teachers waiting in the wings to replace the ones found wanting if the only way such a system could possibly improve education was in fact if such a pool of better teachers did exist?
Was it worth all of that, only to have most principals rate their teachers as effective anyway?
It’s time to admit that the solution has been worse than the problem; that the unintended consequences haven’t been worth it. It’s time to acknowledge that the old way of evaluating teachers, perfunctory and toothless as it might have been, was like the presence of alcohol or hate speech in our society: Not ideal and likely to lead to some negative outcomes, but preferable to the problems created by the solution. It’s time to go back to the kind of evaluation system that, while not perfect, had far fewer negative effects than the Gates-inspired failure that harmed educator morale, led to teacher shortages, and didn’t solve the central problem it set out to remedy.
Every state should end the current model of teacher evaluation before it continues to do additional damage. We should, as a society, admit that the solution to getting rid of bad teachers was worse than the problem of having a few bad teachers.