All Commentary
Thursday, April 25, 2013

Meet the Targets or Die the Death

Sometimes a national story, reported in big venues in big ways for 48 hours, just goes away for no good reason. No lessons are learned. No insights are gained. No fundamental reforms are inspired. 
That is the case with the Atlanta public school scandal, in which investigators identified 178 teachers and principals in 44 of the system’s 100 schools involved in cheating on student tests. The investigation has finally been completed and some people are going to the pen. 
The response to the news was typical: Down with these lying teachers. This response taps into a feeling we all have that tests should record actual student achievement. Falsifying exam results outright, solely to make the students and system look better than they are, is the height of fraud.
But let’s look a bit deeper. 
What’s the incentive structure behind the cheating scandal? No one at the top had ordered teachers and principals to change the tests. Bureaucrats put in place a system designed to make kids successful by fiat. Everyone knew the rules: Teachers and principals who failed to achieve these goals, however unreasonable, would be fired. And yet when the smoke cleared, everyone simply blamed the teachers.
When she was hired as superintendent in 1999, Beverly L. Hall gave all principals three years to meet the state-mandated targets. They didn’t. She closed 20 percent of the schools and fired 90 percent of the principals. People cheered for the obvious reason: these schools were non-functioning. Someone had the pay the price. 
Everyone who survived got the message and the new hires were on notice: Meet the goals or face professional death. 
Then around 2004 the schools magically turned around. Scores on the exams mandated by the federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation started to rise. Dr. Hall became a national hero and fixture on the media and lecture circuits, explaining how inspiration and good management can make the difference. 
Behind the scenes, the reality was very different. After collecting all the students’ tests, a group of teachers nicknamed “the chosen” would meet behind closed doors. They sat in a big room and went over each test, erasers in hand, looking for incorrect answers to fix.
It sounds crude and ridiculous. Initially, according to the main witness—elementary school teacher Jackie Parks—“the chosen” were reluctant. But then the scheme started to show results. The scores showed that 86 percent of eighth graders passed math compared with 24 percent the year before. The same was true for reading: 78 percent passed versus 35 percent the year before. 
The conspirators received nothing but praise for the results. The business community was thrilled because it drew new attention to the city and inspired investment and migration. The government was happy because everyone wants the public schools to work. 
Most importantly for those doing the dirty work, they kept their jobs. Since the cheating didn’t seem to incur any penalties, but insufficient scores would have, it was an easy enough choice. 
In 2010, investigators got involved. The jig was up. Now Dr. Hall may be facing 45 years in prison. 35 Atlanta-area teachers face similar charges. As Hall languishes in jail, we should ask what this does for the kids. Do they benefit? The answer is nothing changes for them. They didn’t actually become better educated in 2004 and they won’t be suddenly made less proficient now. It’s just the same old broken system. 
The first response to this kind of story is: Lock ‘em up. But, again, what does that actually fix? I can’t help but be somewhat sympathetic to everyone involved, and that even goes for Dr. Hall. 
Here’s why I say this: Every government plan gives rise to cheating and manipulation. This is true for the smallest cases or the biggest. This is easier to understand if you consider more famously epic cases. 
Consider an example. It is 1935 Russia. Grain crops keep failing, despite the Five-Year Plan Stalin imposed. He’s sick of it. It’s embarrassing. So this year, he decides to crack some skulls. Already tens of thousands have died, and everyone knows he means business. It’s the same in every industry actually, from steel to cars to railways. 
What happens? The new farmer or plant manager faces either professional or real death or he fudges the records. He figures out a way to survive. And the difference between Soviet five-year plans and public school five-year plans seem to me to be mostly a difference of degree.
Are people going to cheat? Absolutely. Is it wrong to cheat? Yes—but look at the bigger picture and the inherent problems with the system. The problem is not the cheaters per se; the problem is the ridiculous idea that you can reinvent reality by passing a law and enforcing it.
“No Child Left Behind” was nothing but a soft version of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. It was an attempt to reform around the edges a system that is fundamentally wrong. It mandated that nationalized institutions, with students who are required to be there or face penalties, achieve a certain level of output or else everyone in charge gets replaced. This reform legislation was passed as a “back to basics” plan to replace the previous liberal plan that seemed to have no standards at all. 
Now it stands as just another failed reform, another attempt to make reality different by passing laws and cracking skulls. It never works. So long as schools remain the province of politicians and are owned and run by the State, these reforms will continue as they have for a century. And in the same way, there will be incentives to cheat the system, no matter how strict the penalties. 
The real way education is being reinvented in our time is through myriad private efforts. Home schooling, privately managed charter schools, privately owned schools, unschooling, Internet-based learning, church schools—each of these solutions is something that the political and bureaucratic class doesn’t like. But they are marking out the only real path for reform that can work.