The Atlanta public-school system turns out to have engaged in widespread cheating, whereby teachers were pressured into altering their students’ test scores to create the illusion of massive gains. The test-cheating problem has become a favorite talking point for opponents of education reform. Eugene Robinson concludes that the whole idea of using tests to evaluate teachers or schools has been disproved: “It is time to acknowledge that the fashionable theory of school reform — requiring that pay and job security for teachers, principals and administrators depend on their students’ standardized test scores — is at best a well-intentioned mistake, and at worst nothing but a racket.”
This is a common reaction, but a highly perverse one. The factual premise — that connecting teacher and principal incentives to student achievement leads to more cheating — is probably true. Is this a reason to get rid of incentives? No, it isn’t.
Incentivizing any field increases the impetus to cheat. Suppose journalism worked the way teaching traditionally had. You get hired at a newspaper, and your advancement and pay are dictated almost entirely by your years on the job, with almost no chance of either becoming a star or of getting fired for incompetence. Then imagine journalists changed that and instituted the current system, where you can get really successful if your bosses like you or be fired if they don’t. You could look around and see scandal after scandal — phone hacking! Jayson Blair! NBC’s exploding truck! Janet Cooke! Stephen Glass! — that could plausibly be attributed to this frightening new world in which journalists had an incentive to cheat in order to get ahead.
It holds true of any field. If Major League Baseball instituted tenure, and maybe used tee-ball rules where you can’t keep score and everybody gets a chance to hit, it could stamp out steroid use. Students have been cheating on tests forever — massive, systematic cheating, you could say. Why? Because they have an incentive to do well. Give teachers and administrators an incentive for their students to do well, and more of them will cheat.
Obviously, the design of the test matters a great deal. You need to create tests that effectively gauge student learning. There’s a general impression among skeptics that education reform means using tests as the total measure of student achievement, and to hold every student to the same standard. “I totally reject the idea that students from underprivileged neighborhoods cannot learn,” writes Robinson. “But how does it help these students to have their performance on a one-size-fits-all standardized test determine their teachers’ compensation and job security?”
In fact, Race to the Top — the Obama administration’s mechanism to spread reform through the states, encourages a variety of measures of learning. Tests account for no more than half of the criteria in any state, with classroom evaluations and other methods accounting for the rest. And the testing standards are not “one size fits all.” States use complex models to measure how much a class increased its performance from the beginning to the end of the school year, accounting for socioeconomic conditions and other factors.
There’s a useful debate to be had over how to design the criteria for measuring effective teachers. You can minimize cheating through effective oversight – a few Atlanta-style prosecutions will make most cheaters think twice. Granted, if your top priority in designing the system is to minimize cheating, then yes, you should avoid anything that incentivizes more effective teaching, or punishes bad teaching.
But minimizing cheating is a terrible top priority. The top priority should be teaching students better.