Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Dark Side of Reform

When Steven Leavitt published Freakonomics years ago, he raised some eyebrows - and blood pressures - by arguing statistics reveal that teachers and sumo wrestlers are among the professions most likely to "cheat." The high stakes "testing" and "ranking" of each profession was indicated as the likely factor.

Now, in the DC public schools - the domain of reformer Michelle Rhee who blamed low standardized test scores on poor teachers protected by unions and tenure - it appears more data supports Leavitt's argument. In an investigative story in USA Today, the examination of rising test scores and student achievement is linked to an unusually high number of erasure marks on students tests - erasures which revealed huge percentages of wrong answers being changed to correct ones.

We should all be disappointed in this reality - but we should view it with an intent to understand the broader message. If true, the teachers of these "diligent self-checking students" should not be excused or exonerated because the pressure to show results led to poor decisions. However, this story should influence the discussions about standardized tests which are "high stakes" for schools and teachers, but zero stakes for students. And the mythical panacea of "merit pay" based on such tests must also be scrutinized.

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