Sunday, June 03, 2007

The best testing money can buy

One of the things about the Every Child Left Behind Act that President Bush got passed during his first term is its incessant requirement for testing and for punishing schools that don't test well. This is a staple of Republican orthodoxy. Testing, according to the Republicans, is the only way we can know the answer to the question, "is our children learning?" (as Dear Leader asked it) and get schools to teach better.

So does it work? Well, Texas has been testing the crap out of their students for over a decade now and the answer is... no.

What the emphasis upon testing has done is turn teachers, administrators, and students into conspirators to cheat on the tests. In Texas, the usual suspects have been implicated in the cheating scandal (the big-city Houston and Dallas school districts, whose students generally don't have a prayer of passing the test without looking at the answer key). But charter schools, which have an even more pressing incentive to cheat because they don't get taken over by the state they get shut down if their scores are too low, are even bigger cheaters than big-city urban schools.

It's all part of the most common delusional stupidity of our nation: the insane notion that you can punish people (or institutions like schools) into doing shit. You can't. All that punishment produces is avoidance behaviors, which most likely are *not* the behaviors that you want to have happen (unless what you want the kid to avoid is killing people, in which case teaching him avoidance of killing people is a pretty good idea). If you beat a child for everything he does wrong, rather than teaching him what is right and praising and helping him to achieve that, all you accomplish is creating a sneaky little liar who is adept at foisting the blame for his misdeeds upon other people (hmm, makes me wonder about discipline in the George H.W. Bush household). If you beat a hunting dog, all you do is break his spirit and make him worthless as a hunting dog. If you punish a school for poor test scores, all you do is make the school cheat on the tests. Etc. This delusional notion that you can punish people into doing what you want likely is religious in nature, related to the delusion that the reason people behave like civilized human beings is because they will go to Hell if they don't, not because, for most of us, behaving like civilized human beings is a rewarding activity that gains us both financial rewards (the ability to make a living in a reasonably pleasant manner) and praise and admiration from our peers.

If you want schools to teach better, you're going to have to lay out the behaviors you want to see, then reward them for exhibiting those behaviors. It works. I've done it with some of the most hard-core kids on this planet, kids who had been beaten and ass-whipped until black and blue in an attempt to get them to behave "right", and seen it work. Set up a merit system, lay out the behaviors you want to see and what happens if you see them, and soon enough you have them marching around campus like Marines on parade. Teachers and administrators aren't hard-core, they want to teach well even if they don't know how to do it with the students they're getting nowadays (who generally outside of middle-class suburbs are uninterested in education, see no point in going to school, and make little effort to learn and every effort to entertain themselves by misbehaving). Lay out your expected behaviors, reward them, and you'll get results. Guaranteed. If I can do it with hard-core ghetto inner city kids despite being a four-eyed geek, the greatest nation on the planet can do it with a buncha do-gooder teachers and admins with even less trouble. There's no need to punish failing schools. The only need is to identify the actions that teachers and admins need to take in order to turn them around, and rewarding teachers and admins for taking those actions. And if we don't know how to turn them around, if we don't know what specific actions teachers and admins need to take, all the punishment in the world won't work, any more than punishing a pig will teach it how to fly.

-- Badtux the Former Teacher Penguin


  1. Awesome. That was one of the best posts I have ever read on the subject of "No Child Left Behind", BadTux. You laid out exactly what I've wanted to say on the subject but much more eloquently than I have ever done it. The whole issue is one of positive reinforcement. It works with people just as well as it does with animals such as dogs. For as hard as boot camp was, we were ALWAYS praised when we "got it right". That inspired us to get it right more often until we had it down pat, whatever "it" might have been. Punishing a school by taking away funding is basically giving a death sentence to that school. Less funding for schools means less funding to retain the best and brightest teachers. No good teachers, no great students and eventually that particular school closes.

    If we, the "unwashed" masses, can figure this out, why the hell can't the politicians?

  2. Yeah, when that deal of the Florida "boot camps" basically beating kids to death came out, I wanted to go beat some politicians to death. That was piss-poor training, piss-poor supervision, piss-poor choice of personnel. Boot camp is not all fun and games, but if it doesn't focus on expected behavior and "doing it right" and explicit reinforcement when you "get it right", it isn't doing its job.

    I mean, I've dealt with these kids. I know how they work. They'll try to get under your skin, and it's easy to give in to the desire to beat the snot out of the little shits at that point. But it's just not useful in most circumstances. They respond the same way as any other human being when given clear objectives, clear mechanisms for obtaining those objectives, clear rewards for achieving those objectives, and it's done in an orderly and consistent manner.

    And as it goes with kids, so it goes with schools.

    I think the big thing with politicians is that people are frustrated. Kinda like those boot camp officers in Florida, they got some schools that aren't doing right, that seem to be almost willfully sticking the middle finger up at every effort over the past forty years to "fix" them, and people are frustrated and angry and wanting to beat the crap out of the little shits. But just like beating the crap out of a wayward kid doesn't make him into a good kid, beating the crap out of a wayward school doesn't make it a good school. All it does is make the so-called adult feel better because he got the chance to vent his anger in a destructive manner.

    - Badtux the Behaviorist Penguin

  3. Say, Badtux, how long were you a teacher? Whom did you teach? I'm curious. My widdle brother and my mom are teachers. The brother likes it, the mom...well, she's counting the days until retirement. Both agree "No Child Left Behind" sucks. Me, I'm glad I never went into teaching.

    Isn't it funny how that reddest of red states, Texas, ranks so poorly in terms of education and standard of living? Gee, anyone besides me see a correlation there?

  4. "No Child Left Behind" is one of the worst pieces of legislation ever to come out, for several reasons. In addition to the obvious problem of punishing poor schools by taking away their funding (which only makes them worse), it also means that all schools have to devote their resources to improving the worst students. Now, what's wrong with that? Well, it means that the gifted students are excluded. Thus, "No Child Left Behind" also means "No Child Gets Ahead". It forces the schools to all be mediocre (at best).


  5. Up here in the frozen North in British Columbia we have a propaganda organization called the Fraser Institute. They release a yearly school ranking to prove that the public school system needs to be destroyed. It gets front page coverage on the two major dailies in the province (The Province and the Sun) and major coverage on the biggest television channel and well as several radio stations. All of these media outlets are owned by one company who uses its bully pulpit to push their agenda on the people.

    Not a single one of the media outlets tell people that many districts in the province are either refusing to take the Fraser Institutes test or not submitting all information because it is being used solely for bashing the Public School System and is weighted in such a way that private schools are almost guaranteed to come out on top.

    The last few years the entire top ten schools listed have wound up being private schools. Last year's report had a story about the top school in the province and how they achieved this. Basically the school hired teachers who would teach the test for 1 hour first thing in the day, half an hour after lunch, and 1 hour to finish the day.

    What an accomplishment this is. You are considered by a right wing "think" (and trust me these nitwits don't think) tank the best school in the Province and you are pissing away 2 and a half hours a day teaching kids to write one goddamn test.

    As far as I can tell No Child left Behind is no different except that the school's funding may be impacted by the results of the test. The schools that the powers that be want to do better will be "helped". The schools that they want to see defunded will not be.

  6. hurray -- sp true -- in arizona, they've had so much discussion and i know they're teching kids to pass those tests -- not learn...

    which may be the point -- cuz who'd want our kiddies to be asking questions????


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