The unintended consequences of consequences

When New York released the test-score data from its first administration of the Common Core–aligned tests, they unleashed the shot heard ‘round the education world. Critics are—predictably—outraged. But let’s remember, when the state set the cut scores too low and reformers like Joel Klein benefited, they were also outraged. The old test scores, they rightly explained, didn’t align to what we knew from NAEP and other data were overall low levels of achievement.

These new test scores are more in line with what we’ve learned about achievement in New York from the NAEP test, from the college-readiness assessments given to high school students last year, and from college completion rates. But rather than claim victory, critics are still furious.

Why? There are no doubt myriad reasons—some of them political—but certainly two contributing factors are the fact that we haven’t had a real debate about the role consequences should play in an era of more rigorous tests and the fear over how these tests will be used to judge individual teachers and schools.

While reformers are right to stand by leaders as they work to right the ship, if we want to build stronger support for these changes, we need to carefully examine how they have played out in recent years and ask hard questions about the role of consequences in the harsh sunlight of real results.

While I’ve long supported standards- and accountability-driven reform, I’ve also questioned the wisdom of state-led accountability systems, particularly for teachers. I am unwavering in my support for setting higher standards and for the instructional changes the Common Core promises, but my concern over rigid, top-down, state- or nationally-driven accountability systems has grown stronger as we have worked to implement these policies in classrooms across the country.

While reformers are right to stand by leaders as they work to right the ship, if we want to build stronger support for these changes, we need to carefully examine how they have played out in recent years and ask hard questions about the role of consequences in the harsh sunlight of real results

The initial impetus behind setting standards and holding schools accountable was twofold. First, reformers wanted to ensure that all students—regardless of their race or zip code—were held to the same rigorous expectations and thus given an equal opportunity to succeed.

Second, reformers believed that setting clear standards and holding schools accountable to those standards would allow us to shift from micro-managing school inputs—how money is spent, class sizes, curriculum, and on—to a new approach where accountability for outcomes allowed for greater flexibility and freedom to meet those goals.

We cannot allow states to backslide to a time when expectations were set based on readiness or preparation of the students, where schools exist in a Lake Woebegone bubble where all teachers are “above average,” or where educators and schools were judged based on inputs rather than outcomes. But that doesn't mean we can afford to close our eyes to the legitimate problems these testing and accountability solutions have created in our schools.

This may well be our last chance to get this right, so it’s time to reboot the conversation, learn from mistakes and missteps, and have an honest discussion of the unintended consequences of our accountability reforms.

1. Top-down, teacher-level consequences have fueled a teacher backlash.

There is no denying the very real anger and anxiety among many teachers over the accountability and evaluation reforms that have been enacted in many places over the past three years, particularly since many of those changes were adopted at the same time we’re asking teachers to align their instruction and assessment to much more rigorous expectations.

The reality is that teacher evaluation is at least as much art as science

Of course, student achievement matters. And teachers play a big role in whether or not the children in their classes learn. Principals should unquestionably be able to consider achievement as one measure of effectiveness. And there was a very real problem these reforms were designed to solve: the policies and practices that had led to “a widget effect” where the best teachers were treated the same as the worst and almost everyone got a satisfactory rating every year. But addressing a real problem doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about unintended consequences. In this case, the top-down, state-led approach sparked an array of problems by violating the inherent localness of education in America and undermining the autonomy of school leaders.

After all, just because we should be able to use student achievement to drive decision-making doesn’t mean there is some magic formula into which you can plug data and be given an unassailable measure of a teacher’s worth. Yet, too many teacher-evaluation reforms try to do something distressingly close. They mandate the “percent” of an evaluation that should be driven by achievement results, regardless of in-school or teacher-specific factors, they dictate what observation rubrics should look like, and they give a false sense of precision to the whole idea of teacher evaluation.

The reality is that teacher evaluation is at least as much art as science. Yes, student achievement matters enormously. (And in those circumstances, trust is paramount.) No, we should not erect rules that forbid principals from considering test-score data when evaluating a teacher. But nor should we pretend that any formula exists that can take the place of the human judgment we need driving teacher-personnel decisions. (Of course, union leaders are as uncomfortable with principal-driven personnel decisions as they are with data-driven decisions, which is part of how we got into this debacle in the first place.)

And, we reformers need to acknowledge that our attempt to dictate teacher evaluation from on high—and our attempt to boil teacher effectiveness down to a sound bite—has contributed to a serious reform backlash in classrooms around the country. What’s more, we may have unintentionally stripped leaders of the freedom to lead by putting even more constraints on their ability to hire and fire and to build the team they think best meets the needs of the students they serve.

2. They encourage “gaming” the system.

One of the most convincing anti-reform battle cries is that test- and accountability-driven reform has led to “teaching to the test” and a narrowing of the curriculum. We cannot brush aside these concerns; we need to figure out how to address them head on.

On the one hand, if we have a test worth teaching to, then teaching to it (i.e., ensuring students actually master the assessed content and skills) is good for kids.

Moving forward, we need both better tests, and we undoubtedly need to think about the extent to which we allow results from those tests to drive high-stakes decisions—at least until we are confident enough in the results of those tests to make such decisions

Unfortunately, too many state tests have not been worth teaching to. They have been narrow, hugely predictable, and focused only on a small handful of the content and skills students need to learn each year. Yet, student results are tied to very real consequences. And so, teachers and principals have—quite rationally—focused more and more time and attention on helping students “beat the test.” They teach test-taking tricks (i.e., how to eliminate answer choices; how to write a formulaic open-ended response that maximize point gains, etc.) that rarely lead to meaningful mastery of content or skills, and they focus too much attention on “bubble kids” who, with some coaching, can be pushed over the line to proficient.

Worse, because the results that matter most are reading and math, schools are spending more and more time drilling reading and math test-taking skills and are spending less and less time teaching the content that might actually make them better readers in the first place.

While unintended, these have had serious repercussions on instruction, achievement, and faith in reform. Moving forward, we need both better tests, and we undoubtedly need to think about the extent to which we allow results from those tests to drive high-stakes decisions—at least until we are confident enough in the results of those tests to make such decisions.

3. They have pushed parents to the sidelines.

We at Fordham have long promoted the idea that real reform happens when standards and accountability meet parental choice. Unfortunately, time is finite, and test- and accountability-driven reforms moved to the front burner, particularly over the last several years. To be sure, there has been a lot of movement in terms of expanding choice, particularly for our most disadvantaged families, but the vast majority of the attention has shifted to accountability reforms. The fact remains that after decades of work the average American parent has exactly the same choices s/he had before the reform movement began: their neighborhood school. And, if they can afford it, a local private or parochial school.

The reality is that critics are right when they say that education cannot—indeed, should not—be driven by test scores alone. But it is parents who are best positioned to help shape the “soft” indicators that drive school climate and culture by choosing the school they believe is the right fit for the unique needs of their child. And, absent parent choice, we’ve gotten the balance wrong and have unintentionally narrowed choices by reinforcing a one-size-fits-all school model.

Absent parent choice, we’ve gotten the balance wrong and have unintentionally narrowed choices by reinforcing a one-size-fits-all school model

Reform critics like Diane Ravitch often question why we don’t push reforms that would create a “Sidwell Friends” for every student. Putting aside where we would find the extra $1.6 trillion it would take to make that possible, there is a simpler answer: some of us don’t want Sidwell Friends. And just because some believe the elite culture of the top 1 percent is what’s best for all children, doesn’t mean all parents share that belief.

Yes, the flip side is true as well. We should no more mandate a “No Excuses” ethos on all schools than we should a progressive one. Choice means having real options and making parental judgment the driving force in education.

Strong standards and rigorous assessments are essential pillars of reform. But let’s not be so quick to assume that they must always be tied to rigidly defined consequences for teachers and principals to make a difference. Transparent communication about student achievement results tied to real parental choice is a form of accountability, the grassroots kind. And when it comes to the unique needs of our children, it might just be the best.

More By Author

Related Articles