Former Superintendent Describes Schools as Drudgery and Opposes Logic of “Race to the Top”

In a November 16 commentary at Education Week former Superintendent and Connecticut Commissioner of Education Betty Sternberg challenges central tenants of current “education reform” efforts.

Sternberg suggests this is how students see school:

It’s drudgery. We sit alone at our desks and silently answer lots of questions that our teachers tell us look like the ones we will see on the state tests. We’re not interested in what we’re doing. We hurry up to finish first, and if we’re done before the rest of our classmates, we get to sit quietly and take out a book or do other work. We follow the rules and speak out only when called upon. We leave for a break only when the teacher tells us it’s time to do so, or when the buzzer signals the end of the class. To get a good grade, we do what the teacher wants us to do. Our sole focus is to do well on the state tests. Quiet, discipline, and following the rules are valued.

Sternberg contrasts this dour picture with happy descriptions of “the culture of thriving, cutting-edge business environments”. She locates much of the difficulty “with an overreliance on narrow measures of achievement based on standardized tests. Such tests do not measure the skills and competencies needed to thrive in today’s world—teamwork, collaboration, creativity, and innovation.”

Most significant is her observation that “a much-respected private school in […] Connecticut is running an advertisement to attract families that says, ‘Your child will develop into a person, not a test score.’” Put in the context of a general attack on that which is public — public participation, public space, public healthcare, public education — I cannot see this kind of development as an accident. Quality public schools were created in the nineteenth century in order to, among other things, attract children from wealthy families. Now, we observe the opposite trend. Public schools are being transformed by venture capitalists into charter work camps for working class and minority students (all in the name of helping them). Wealthy parents will most likely not choose such environments for their children, and suburban districts come under pressure to “perform” their support for public schools will likely wane.

Sternberg continues by highlighting the danger of “incentivising” (to use Ducan’s word) education. She writes:

One approach to improving education advanced in the federal government’s Race to the Top agenda is a teacher pay-for-performance system. It, too, no matter the intent, will end up being based on student test scores. Individual teacher evaluations and eventual compensation will be linked directly to student performance on standardized tests—a method that has little or no scientific backing and significant drawbacks.

She tells the following story in order to highlight that we in fact know such incentive systems do not serve to raise the level of education. She continues:

Consider the pitfalls of giving students tangible rewards to perform well—problems to which I can personally attest.

In 1972, when I began teaching as a mathematics resource specialist in San Jose, Calif., I was required to coordinate an individualized math program, kindergarten through grade 6, that included an elaborate system of rewards. The program was divided into specific objectives, and as each child mastered four of these, he or she was rewarded with a certificate of achievement. After mastering 16 objectives, the student received a small trophy. At each successive set of four objectives, students were awarded increasingly fancy certificates and trophies until they completed all the program objectives and received a trophy three feet high.

This system caused students to rush through their math in order to earn the rewards. When asked what they had learned, they would respond with the number of objectives they had finished, not with the content of the math they had learned. And what happened when these students went to junior high? They refused to do math. Parents begged the school system to extend the award system to the junior high level. They said that their children had “loved” math in elementary school, but wouldn’t do it in junior high without the awards. What had been a well-meaning attempt to motivate students undermined, in the long run, students’ motivation to learn.

This was a pay-for-performance system. It relied on external motivators, and in reality killed students’ intrinsic motivation. It also killed the joy of learning math, eliminating any pleasure the kids might have found in solving problems, by adhering to the misguided notion that to love math, children had to be lured with a tangible reward.

Years of research about “token economies” were borne out by this outcome. If those who chose the rewards program had only heeded the research findings, they could have predicted these dismal results.

Sadly, education leaders today are making the same mistake. In their quest to “race to the top,” they either do not know the preponderance of research findings about token economies and motivation, or they choose to ignore it.

Can’t we learn from the worst of our business environments—from the mega-banks that regularly use the pay-for-performance model? They created people and institutions so motivated by external rewards that they lost sight completely of their moral compass. Do we really want to emulate that model? Do we want to pay our students to take Advanced Placement exams and score well on them? Or do we want youngsters to choose to take classes and do well in them because they are pursuing their passions and interests?

1 Comment Former Superintendent Describes Schools as Drudgery and Opposes Logic of “Race to the Top”

  1. Dianne June 17, 2014 at 8:56 am

    Great article. I looked things of this sort up because I home school our kids (the ones that insisted on home schooling) and I am dismayed not only by how public (and most private) schools are educating, but even summer camps, which I’ve been obliged to capitulate to sending my kids at least a few weeks of the summer because this city is a ghost town-everyone else’s kids are in summer camp so there is no one left to run outside to play with. Dismal society we live in now. And camp is even worse than school. I am so disappointed with how I must, by default, raise our kids. Everyone is adopting the model that has emerged from teaching to the test.

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