Campbell’s Law Hits the Big Time

Campbell‘s Law, which economists refer to as Goodhart’s Law, seems to have hit the big time, and is applied by NY Times columinst Eduardo Porter to education (boldface mine):

In this heated debate, however, it is important not to lose sight of Goodhart’s Law. Most of these studies measured the impact of test scores when tests carried little weight for teachers’ future careers. But what happens when tests determine whether a teacher gets a bonus or keeps his or her job?

From Atlanta to El Paso, school officials have been accused of cheating to improve their standing on test scores.

Fraud is not the only concern. In one study, schools forced to improve grades by the No Child Left Behind law were found to have focused on helping children who were at the cusp of proficiency. They had no incentive to address those comfortably above the cut or those with little hope of gaining enough in the short term.

A survey of teachers at a school district in the Southwest that awarded bonuses based on test scores found that many tried to avoid both gifted students and those not yet proficient in English whose grades were tough to improve. Others employed “drill and kill” strategies to ensure their students nailed the tests.

Whether it’s screwed up teacher evaluation metrics or assessing teachers based on students they haven’t taught (not making that up), it’s safe to say that the implementation of reform as it exists–not some magical non-existent reform movement existing only in pundits’ heads–is really screwed up. We give teachers–who are human just like the rest of us–a perverse set of incentives and then wonder why parents and students (not to mention many of those same teachers) are really angry. It’s simple: education reform rhetoric has nothing to do with reality. In many ways, it’s analogous to the ‘liberal hawks’ who foolishly believed that Bush et alia would fight wars and manage occupations the way the liberal hawks fantasized, when all of the Bush Administration’s actions to that point put the lie to that foolish, naive belief.

I would love to see curricular and pedagogical changes and improvements, but the reform movement, with rare exceptions, isn’t about that. Reformers, who in many places, have been given wide latitude, and they have constructed a giant pile of idiotic malincentives and nonsensical policies.

But there are always useful idiots willing to double down on stupid. Too bad for the kids.

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2 Responses to Campbell’s Law Hits the Big Time

  1. jrkrideau says:

    Those, whom the gods would distroy ….

    When your job or your pay depends on cheating or just teaching to the test for those who will benefit (i.e get a better test score) then what do those idiots expect. Of course one cheats, etc. It’s a matter of survival.

    The ‘reformer s’ sound as if they are breaking the implicit contract with teachers that they will do their best to teach and will not be penalized for things usually beyond their control. God save us from ‘practical’ businessmen and women who do not understand that education (and government) are not bottom-line organizations.

    This reminds me a bit of a quote by Rupert Brooke:
    “His mind was even more childlike and transparent than is usual with a businessman.”

  2. Physicalist says:

    My kid’s taking the MCAS in the coming weeks, and school’s all about teaching to the test. Same thing at home too: his score will determine whether he can get into the honors program, so we’re drilling him on test-taking. Kid’s doing ten times as much test-prep in 4th grade as I ever did for my SATs in high school.

    Can’t say it’s the best use of time and energy from a pedagogical perspective, but it’s clear that the new reality is that it’s all about the tests.

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