As I have noted often, the roots of the accountability era—President Reagan’s directive for the Nation at Risk report—are clearly connected to commitments to free market forces as central to education reform.
Over the past thirty years or so, parental choice has been promoted through a variety of market formats (vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter schools), and then accountability driven by standards and high-stakes tests have increasingly been morphed from academic incentives to financial incentives—starting with school report cards and exit exams for students before expanding to linking teacher retention and pay to student test scores and even now calling for adding teacher education to the value-added mania.
Many have begun to confront the negative impact of focusing high-stakes accountability on test scores, but those concerns tend to be about narrowing the curriculum and expectations by teaching to the test or about the lack of credible research supporting value-added methods of evaluating teachers or teacher education programs.
While those concerns are powerful and accurate, something more insidious is rarely examined: the unintended and ignored consequences of creating in education a culture of competitiveness among teachers about student test scores.
Whether value-added methods are used to determine teacher retention or merit pay, those policies are creating a system of labeling and ranking teachers, and thus, pitting teachers against each other for a finite number of jobs or pool of compensation.
The result of those policies is that each teacher must now not only prioritize her/his students’ test scores, but also seek ways in which her/his students can score higher than students in other teachers’ classes.
If Teacher A, then, finds ways in which to raise her/his students’ scores, she/he is incentivized to implement those practices while not sharing them with the wider community of teachers.
Yes, value-added methods (VAM) further reduce education to teaching to the test, but even more troubling is that VAM codifies a culture of competition that consumes the very community needed so that all students and all teachers excel.
Competition is often barbaric—as we witnessed at the end of the 2015 Superbowl when the Seahawks and Patriots were reduced in the closing seconds to the sort of fighting not accepted in the sport of football.
Schools, teaching, and learning are increasingly like those closing seconds—the circumstances are reduced, the stakes are high, and everyone becomes desperate to grab “his/hers,” without regard to others.
In education, then, the market forces us into the barbarism that formal education has been trying to overcome for decades.