“Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.”
Ten years ago, I showed up for my first day as a high school teacher. I had landed a job in the best school of what is often called a “destination district.” Still, I knew I was facing an uphill battle. Warnings abounded of an American public school system in decline. But I was undeterred. I had that youthful sense that education needed change and I was just the one to change it.
Throughout that first year I worked incessantly—creating lessons, grading, and making myself available to students an hour before school each day. I ran around the room joking with students, telling stories, creating relevant analogies, and turning pop-culture songs into lesson reviews that I’d sing for the class.
My students looked forward to my energy and I enjoyed their sense of humor. Still, I couldn’t have predicted how unprepared my students would be. They had never taken notes. They were shocked that my test reviews weren’t a list of the questions on the test. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t allow 20 minutes of review before the test, or why a history exam would have sections requiring written responses. In fact, many would just skip the entire short answer and essay sections, despite being given these topics in advance. Those who did respond often wrote single words or incoherent run-ons.
I’d spend entire classes explaining what I wanted to see in the short answer responses. We’d practice writing the “who, what, where, when, and why this concept is important.” But little changed. After their years of schooling in which writing never extended beyond filling in a blank, my expectations were analogous to asking high schoolers to solve algebraic equations when they had not yet learned to multiply and divide. They were capable, but it was going to take a lot of effort to fill in the gaps. Which raises the question, why would a student be willing to put in that much work?
I was fighting the overwhelming tide of a system intent upon handing over diplomas. Over half of my students would have failed if I gave them the grade they earned. But the unwritten, yet well-communicated, rule was that teachers should never fail a student if it could be helped. The onus was on the teacher to hound students for late assignments and find a way to bump them to a C.
As much as I wanted to fight every battle, I eventually caved to the exhaustion of a demanding Texas high school coaching schedule (which seemed to be the job I was really hired for). I compromised more times than I would have ever thought possible. I eliminated homework, allowed test retakes, gave fill-in-the-blank notes, graded essays at a 5th grade level, gave test reviews that were basically the test, and intentionally made tests easy. When there were still too many students failing at the end of a grading period, I went above and beyond to manufacture easy routes to a passing grade so that only a handful of incomprehensibly effort-averse students failed.
Disillusioned, I worked to create a position as the campus Strength and Conditioning Coordinator where I ran the training programs for each sport. At least there, I thought, I could still uphold a standard of excellence. After five years of teaching, I was out of the classroom.
Before I critique modern education any further, I want to acknowledge that it houses some of our most selfless, caring, and supportive citizens. I know teachers who spend hundreds of dollars decorating classrooms and creating projects for their students. They give up their lunch each day to offer math tutorials and bend over backwards to try to make a difference despite the obstacles. Furthermore, there are countless examples of amazing school programs doing amazing work for their communities. Nothing I say is meant to diminish or disregard that sterling work.
However, the exceptional minority is too often characterized as the majority in response to anyone who would question the quality of our schools. These outliers have been made the poster child of education, meant to preclude any dialogue about what is going wrong. But amazing teachers would be much more effective in a better system. One great teacher is just a drop in the ocean—meaningful, perhaps life-changing in individual cases, and yet, not enough. Their impact can’t compare to the broader educational culture that students exist within.
As far back as 1982 the famed educator Marva Collins, who was twice asked to be the US Secretary of Education, wrote a book contending that public schools were in a state of crisis. As she asserted, “What I once assumed to be inferior education for the poor and underprivileged has become a nationwide malady that afflicts the middle and upper classes as well. I have found bad education in the places I least expected to find it.”
As with all generalizations, Collins’s statement does not tell the whole story. But that does not negate her conclusions or their long-term implications. For generations now, public education has not sufficiently met the needs of the moment. After decades of lowered standards, we are reaping what we sow. The students Collins observed are now our parents, teachers, and administrators, and what Collins perceived as “bad education” is the only system most of them have ever known.
In light of Collins’s opinion, I want to invite you to question your own educational experience. We can’t afford to keep entertaining the notion that education is not so bad. This is not an attack on the individuals involved in public education, but the institutional operating system that handicaps all educators.
While intrinsic motivation can be cultivated on an individual basis, humans, en masse, tend to respond to two things: impulse and incentives. The most reliable ways for a system to shape behavior are by eliminating temptations and by paying attention to the consequences, good or bad, that their incentives produce.
For example, Congressional approval is almost always below 25 percent, yet congressional re-election rates are consistently above 90 percent. At first glance that makes no sense. But when you understand the incentives, the picture becomes clear. Each representative is only accountable to the voters of their own local district. They almost always forsake the common good when it benefits their constituency because this is the surest path to re-election. Similarly, the most fundamental cause of educational failures is a faulty incentive structure.
The two primary metrics used to evaluate teachers are how frequently they use technology and how high their passing rates are. Sure, there are an ever-changing array of buzzwords used to describe ideal teaching practices—staying in the “power zone,” differentiating instruction, calibrating assessments—but these are mostly a distraction. You can fill tests with as many level-two, three, and four questions as you want, but that doesn’t matter when your study guide gives the answers and your grading policy hides the high number of test failures. Schools may want higher level learning, but they want low failure rates and immaculate graduation rates more.
Emails and staff meetings make it very clear that failing kids should be avoided if at all possible. Administrators acknowledge that some students will make it impossible to pass them, but if the grade is anywhere close: “Don’t write the kid off. Were you a perfect teacher every day? I don’t think so. Maybe that was the difference.” Such sentiments ignore the obvious: if not for a healthy dose of lifelines these borderline students would be failing by at least 10 more points.
For those few students who still fail a course, teachers have to submit a failure report to their administrators documenting all the times that the high schooler’s parents were contacted. Teachers can’t help but feel a degree of self-doubt as they invite this audit. Did I contact parents too late? Was there enough documentation? Many teachers have been reprimanded for high failure rates or failing a student with “involved” parents, but I’ve never heard of a teacher being scrutinized for passing everyone.
One of the biggest challenges for teachers in their quest to give good grades is that test grades tend to be very low. To offset this, teachers give assignments that will raise everyone’s grade (presuming students do them). This usually takes the form of elementary task work where teachers award full credit to everyone who turns the assignment in. Such grades are known as “warranty work.” Like the warranty on your car, they guarantee anything broken is fixed for you. They mitigate bombed tests and ensure that in most on-level classes, any student can get a B without the inconvenience of learning anything.
The best demonstration of this system at work is the final week of any grading period. Teachers schedule a couple of guaranteed 100s early in the week—sometimes just giving a grade for class discussion (warranty work at its finest). Then they show a movie or give some other busywork at the end of the week, so they have time to call all the failing students up to their desk, tell them what they are missing, and give them time to work on it.
Then, teachers will spend the afternoon calling the parents of these students to try to make sure that they pressure their student to complete the assignment. Parents are often upset and try to shift the blame to the teacher or coerce further grace. To reduce such headaches, most teachers slowly lower their expectations. A large swath of teachers has even made it a personal policy to never fail any student. There is no excusing this behavior, but it is unsurprising given the incentives.
Higher passing rates do not indicate better teaching but lower standards. These students might have learned more if they’d been allowed to fail. When grading periods are saturated with warranty work and students have learned to expect test retakes, late work, and the teacher’s cyclical one-on-one pep talk—“I’m going to bump your grade this time, but you have to promise me you’ll work harder next grading period.”—why would the student work hard? Education is full of Kumbaya answers to this question, but the reality is, without incentives we all give less effort.
Perhaps the most powerful incentive for lowering standards is social proof. The large number of very bad schools (typically in low-income areas) lowers the expectations of every other school by manner of comparison. Students transfer in from these schools and are amazed to see teachers even attempting to teach lessons. Teachers transfer from these schools and are shocked that most students turn in their work. This creates an atmosphere where any comment about low standards is met with a dismissive, “Try working where I used to work. These kids are a teacher’s dream.”
In response to concerns about low standards, American schools have doubled down on standardized testing. But standardization should not be conflated with the standards I have been advocating. State standards have nothing to do with pulling students up to a standard. They push all the attention to the lowest achieving students and perform sleight of hand to make it appear that these students have learned.
For example, Texas’s Freshman Biology STAAR Test has 54 multiple-choice questions. Rather than producing a score based on the percentage a student gets correct (e.g., getting 50 of 54 correct would be a 93 percent), scores are subjected to a bizarre formula. Missing every single question results in a score of 1418. Getting just one correct jumps the score to a 1972. To pass the STAAR Biology Test, students only need to get 19 of 54 questions correct—a 35 percent, or as the state reports it, a 3550. Schools will celebrate that over 90 percent of their students passed the Biology STAAR exam, while hiding this insulting passing standard.
Standardized tests can be a relevant diagnostic tool, but they shouldn’t be the driving force in educational culture. When that happens, schools forget the purpose of education and testing becomes much more about manipulating a desired perception than ensuring that our students are well educated.
The primacy of standardized testing in schools has opened the door to standardized curriculums, which are becoming more common. Parents complain that one Biology teacher is harder or one English teacher gives more homework and before long administrators require all teachers to teach each subject identically—with the same assignments graded the same way. There are now entire city districts following a single curriculum program. If a teacher creates a great new assignment, they have to get every teacher of that subject to agree to use it. This usually negates any assignment that takes time, effort, and skill to grade.
The move to standardized curriculums is based on that old utopian delusion that we can systematize every concept and make sure everything is perfectly fair. Each student gets the same “perfect” lesson that yields the same “correct” final understanding and no one can claim to be more or less advantaged. Have no fear, robo-curriculum is here. And since everyone passes, everyone must have learned what they needed.
We pretend we can all roll out the same plan and get the same results for everyone, but for most subjects, once a student surpasses the simple knowledge level, there is rarely a perfect answer. Learning is about developing nuanced skills, confronting faulty assumptions, and cultivating an ability and inclination to pursue deeper understanding.
Sir Ken Robinson takes on standardization in his Ted Talk, Escaping Education’s “Death Valley”:
One of the effects of the current culture has been to de-professionalize teachers … the dominant culture of education has come to focus on, not teaching and learning, but testing … in place of curiosity, what we have is a culture of compliance. Our children and teachers are encouraged to follow routine algorithms, rather than to excite that power of imagination and curiosity.
By contrast, Robinson identifies three things that all the highest performing education systems—Finland, Singapore, Australia, Canada, South Korea, etc.—focus on:
- They individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that for optimal student learning, the system has to engage students’ curiosity, individuality, and creativity.
- They attribute a very high status to teachers and acknowledge the investment required in high quality professional development.
- They devolve responsibility to the school level to get the job done, rather than putting control over educational practices into the hands of state governments. As Robinson explains, “The thing is, education doesn’t go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools and the people who do it are the teachers and their students. And if you remove their discretion, it stops working.”
Teachers must have the authority to select lessons, teach, give failing grades, punish those who cheat, and determine that behavior is unacceptable without themselves being subject to a courtroom inquisition. School administrations must be empowered to determine that students need skills not required on state tests. They must be able to remove incompetent teachers and tell insubordinate parents that their child’s individual demand is not in the best interest of all. Education can only become what society needs it to become when we empower every school, teacher, and student to actively participate in the educational process. We don’t need extensive rule books or broad state mandated curriculums. We need talented teachers who are expected to be an authority in human development and are empowered to utilize their judgment to create an energized, challenging learning experience.
Excerpted from Setting the Bar: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Era of Distraction, Dependency, and Entitlement by Shane Trotter, published by Barbarian Virtues Press. Copyright © 2021 by Shane Trotter.
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