Watching “The Wire”, HBO’s gritty TV series about life in Baltimore, I recently came across a remarkably clear explanation of how institutions create perverse incentives and undermine the very change they claim to champion. The series draws vivid parallels between the Baltimore police department going through meaningless contortions to meet arrest quotas and classroom teachers abandoning teaching to meet standardized test quotas. And it’s not just that both activities are meaningless. It’s also obvious that both actively undermine the legitimate and important work they are supposed to be enhancing, often with tragic results.
The police want to make the streets safer., but once the “brass” decides that the meaning of “safer” is to have better “stats” -- higher arrest numbers, say, or lower numbers of felonies -- then the police start to do what they have to to meet those goals. More meaningless arrests take place, more busts for minor infractions, and there are more distortions and lies in the reporting of arrests (“felonies become misdemeanors, rapes disappear”). The cops learn to juke the stats.
The consequence is that meaningful work is displaced by busywork and cops become more cynical about what they are being made to do. Even worse, the police are no longer connecting with the neighborhoods they work in; they are seen by the residents as an occupying force that no one should cooperate with. The whole endeavor creates a state of tension between police and the people they are supposed to be protecting; they have become enemies in a never-ending war. Neighborhoods become less safe, but because the police are juking the stats, it looks from the outside like the city is safer. The “brass” are satisfied - the stats say the city is safer - but the city has, in fact, become more dangerous.
Now consider the inner city classrooms being shown in the series. Teachers are being forced to teach to high-stakes test. Even when teachers are making progress in difficult classes, once they start doing test prep, school becomes meaningless again for the students, who resent being made to do work that is boring and pointless. They even resent having to give up real learning. They resent the teacher for making them do what they don’t want to do. More power struggles erupt, and animosity increases between teacher and students. The amount of learning going on drops.
At the same time, teachers become more cynical about what they are being made to do. The job gets harder and their motivation plummets.
Students sitting in rows listening politely to a teacher lecturing certainly looks like learning. Similarly, raising test scores and grades looks like academic success. In fact, they are both simulations of what they seem to be, and they both actually undermine the very thing they are intended to do. School superintendents work hard to raise test scores because they believe that proves more learning is taking place. But the pressure and distorted priorities of those tests alienate both teachers and students and ironically reduce the amount of learning taking place.
The widespread cynicism, even cheating, caused by the current approach based on high stakes testing is all the evidence we need: any strategy that inevitably leads to juking the stats needs to be replaced with something more effective.