Standardized Testing, Merit Pay, And Misaligned Incentives In The American Education System

Photo by Christopher Sessums via Flickr

Two rhetorical questions:

When you pay a loan broker based on the total number of loans he doles out, without considering whether or not the borrowers will actually be able to repay these loans, what happens?

When you pay a CEO based on the short-term profits he generates, rather than the long-term stability of the company, what happens?

Unless you hibernated your way through the last four years, you probably noticed that these aren’t rhetorical questions at all. We know exactly what happens. They lead to the worst financial crisis the world has seen in decades.

In economic terms, we can blame the disastrous results on misaligned incentives. If the incentives we offer don’t actually support the outcome we desire, we end up encouraging behavior that may sabotage our own goals. Instead of expanding homeownership to millions of people, we let them take on mortgages they will never be able to pay back. Instead of creating wealth for investors nationwide, we encourage unnecessarily risky ventures.

Now, the problem of misaligned incentives has infected our educational system. To some, the solution to our education woes is perfectly clear: teachers must be compensated based on their teaching abilities. Effective teachers merit higher pay, and ineffective teachers… well, should be fired. It’s simple, smart business.

It’s also a gross oversimplification of the issue.

I fully believe in merit pay, actually. In fact, I would love to be rated on my teaching.

For all you skimmers out there, let me say this again (it’s okay, I’m a high school teacher. I’m used to repeating myself):

I would love to be rated on my teaching.

The problem isn’t that teachers are afraid to be rated. The problem is that teachers aren’t being rated properly. As a result, incentives have become misaligned.

Proponents of merit pay invariably support tying a teacher’s salary to student scores on standardized tests. As the belief goes, the higher a student scores on a test encompassing all the academic content for a given course, the more effective the teacher must be.

Bullshit.

Teaching is equal parts art and science. Attempting to quantify teaching using standardized test scores is like rating an artist based on how many colors he uses, or rating a singer based on the highest note she can hit.

Effective teachers challenge students to pursue activities they never thought they could do—or would be interested in. Effective teachers stimulate their students’ natural curiosity about the world. Effective teachers develop free-thinking, inquisitive minds, eager and able to learn for themselves. Effective teachers inspire kids to succeed in life—to believe that they can succeed in life, and to be prepared to succeed in life. Effective teachers don’t just cram kids’ brains full of information.

Yes, some amount of academic knowledge is required to function in our society. But would anyone argue that academic knowledge is the only thing required? Because that’s the only thing standardized tests measure. They certainly don’t measure any of the critical aspects of teaching mentioned above—aspects far more important to the mental development of a child than pure academic content.

Yet, if my job security as a teacher is tied to my students’ test scores, guess what I am forced to focus on, for the sake of keeping my job?

Let me describe what happens every spring, as the ogre of standardized testing begins to loom over us. In the classroom, teachers desperately work to cover as much academic content as possible. We drill the students on the information, giving out practice tests organized to look just like the actual exams. Those of us who are particularly savvy even spend time showing our students how to analyze the wording of multiple-choice questions and weed out the answers that are likely to be incorrect–techniques they can use to increase their odds when they have no clue what the actual answer is. Throughout the school, meetings center around which students will be tested and what subject areas they will be tested in. These students become the sole focus of the school. The question shifts from, “are we preparing these kids for the rest of their lives?” to, “can we get these kids to pass the test?”

Does this sound like teaching to you? Or are we manufacturing an army of mindless automatons, oozing knowledge out their pores, but adeptly prepared nevertheless for all the written tests life will throw at them?

For the skimmers (again), that was sarcasm. Life doesn’t throw too many written tests at us. Curveballs and lemons, maybe. But not written tests. And teenagers definitely don’t ooze… well, knowledge.

Sure, you can be an idealist and say, “sorry, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. If you truly care about the students, then you will still be teaching them. Their test scores are secondary.”

Again, bullshit.

If my job depends on my students’ test scores, then believe me, that’s what I will focus on. It’s what I have to focus on.

Merit pay tied to student test scores is the worst case of misaligned incentives possible. It’s the raging case of scoliosis on the back of the American education system. If we continue to demand that teachers must “earn” their salaries, but then insist on doing so by testing their students, we will no longer be teaching our kids. We will be training them to pass a battery of tests.

And if a student does manage to make it through high school with all of those critical skills I mentioned? Well, it won’t be because of the educational system. It’ll be in spite of the educational system.

We can’t promote effective teaching by measuring student test scores, because student test scores simply do not reflect effective teaching. What standardized testing does reflect is the ignorant’s view of teaching: that “academic knowledge” equals “education.”

So how do we properly align a teacher’s incentives then? How do we properly rate teachers? How do we measure teaching?

Next time, I’ll offer my ambitious suggestions….



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By day, I engineer happiness at WordPress.com. By night, I am a relationships and comedy writer, which can be redundant or an oxymoron, depending on your perspective. I am the creator of Musings, the blog you're reading right now, and LemonVibe, an anonymous relationship advice site. You can also find me on Twitter (I am not the creator of Twitter).

21 comments

  • Hi Dennis!

    I know I’m a little late finding this great post, but I’m a college student who hopes to one day become a teacher like yourself, and so I stumbled upon your blog as I was doing my daily research routine.

    I’m a big fan of your work and I wanted to say thanks for the posts that you’ve written about education.

    I was just wondering if you’ve written a follow up to this post yet? I’d love to hear your alternatives to merit pay. I myself am a huge opponent of tying teachers’ salaries to test scores (and basically everything else the bullshit corporate education reform movement “fights” for), and so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    I have a few ideas myself. Granted, they’re still in the works but I think they could work. Here’s a post where I address some of my ideas for alternatives to merit pay (it’s a long post, but I do talk about my proposal for more comprehensive teacher evaluation near the end of the post).

    http://inspireducation.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/my-conversation-with-michelle-rhee/

    If you want, you can check it out and let me know what you think! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks! And keep up the good work!

    –Hannah

    • Thanks, Hannah!

      Yeah, I never did write up that proposal (I mean, who’s ever heard of a two-year teaser, right?). I had some ideas based on discussions with my ex-girlfriend who’s a psychologist. But after I thought about it, they just didn’t seem realistic as far as implementation goes.

      And thanks for the link! I will definitely check out your post and let you know my thoughts.

    • Hi Dennis!

      Thank you for getting back to me! I’m excited to hear what you think. I have also written more about it since that post I linked earlier, so feel free to browse my more recent posts as well. Thanks!

      –Hannah

  • I have several concerns with standardized test, merit based pay. One is that in many states students have no stakes in the test. It is not part of their grade, it doesn’t even factor into their moving on to the next grade. Why should my pay be based on a test the kids don’t even care about? It also doesn’t consider the variety of students teachers have in their classes. Even in the same building, same grade, same subject the student make up can be wildly different. I have one class of 16 and one class of 28. One class with no IEP’s and one class with eight! I think we have to accept, as a society, that not every child is college bound. Not every child needs a college prep education and not every child will be “proficient” on a test, no matter how great their teachers. For some a successful education might be to learn facts and pass the test. For another child it might be learning valuable social skills so they are able to function in a workplace.

  • As a student I agree that there is way too much emphasis on test scores. Maybe it’s a laziness issue – because scoring tests would take less time than thoroughly evauluating every teacher and their students. I never really thought about how much pressure the system puts on teachers. But that bugs me too because some factors into student test taking are out of the teacher’s control. If students refuse to study, or have a chaotic home life or something, it’s not the teacher’s fault that kid doesn’t pass :/ Personally, I don’t worry about testing. I still study for tests, but I focus more on class discussions, group work, and art projects. So I get average test scores but I’d rather be an average student actually enjoying school than a straight-a robot. How do you deal with the pressure? Do you still find ways to focus on other things you want to focus on? The end questions make good food for thought, and I really hope you do write a follow up article on this. I like that challenge because it’s easy for students and teachers alike to vent but hardly anyone tries to change it.

    • *has, not have

    • Hey, thanks for posting, Shannon! To tell you the truth, I teach at a continuation high school, so I’m actually afforded somewhat more freedom to teach what I want. Somewhat. Not much. ;-)

      It also depends on the district, too. For the past few years, we were pretty focused on test scores, but our superintendent just got fired in June for corruption, so we’re going through a bit of a transitional phase right now. Point being, people aren’t quite as focused on high stakes testing as they were in recent years.

      We’ll see how long that actually lasts….

  • No one is going to hold an engineer accountable for a bridge that was built with faulty materials unless he authorized the use of the faulty materials. As a teacher I don’t have that luxury. I use the materials they send my way and I mold them into caring, educated members of society. At least that used to be the case, before NCLB and all of this hoop la about testing. Now I prepare my students to pass the test, because that is the only measure that society has decided is relevant and if I talk about it I am whining and complaining and lazy because I don’t want to be held accountable. Let me tell you, it is a whole lot easier to teach to the test and do away with all the other stuff. At my son’s college orientation we were told by the admissions counselors that AP tests really aren’t encouraged because the classes don’t really challenge they teach to the test.

    • As a teacher I don’t have that luxury. I use the materials they send my way and I mold them into caring, educated members of society.

      Hmm, that’s an interesting way to put it. I never thought about it that way. So, I guess you could say that we’re society’s repairmen? ;-)

  • Excellent points, and I’ve always felt the same about standardized testing. I’m sure you’ve seen this, but just in case: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

    Also, I love your scoliosis analogy.

  • Dennis,

    I’d first like to say that I find most of your articles on this site fascinating, imformative and compelling. Just in the last half hour, I’ve read maybe five or six of these articles.

    As far as this article goes, I’ve been making this argument for years. Watching my older sister go through the public high school system and participating in the average public school system myself, I actively attempted to avoid Grossmont High School in San Diego at all costs (a school that the San Diego Union Tribune recently stated in a poll of theirs as one of the top 10 percentile in funding and one of the lowest 20 percentile in alumni career progress). To do so, I applied and matriculated into High Tech High International, one of many schools in the High Tech High system attributed to a methodology to allow for what you are prescribing as an incessant problem in American education. I just wanted to share this, just to show one attempt at a solution to the problem you put forth.

    High Tech High, as well as its myriad sister High Tech High schools, was created in order to disrupt the rote memorization learning system that’s been set into place by standardized testing. The school supposedly operated on a project-based system, where lesson plans were taught through applicable real life scenario projects and that the knowledge in the school lessons were to utilize the necessity of academic subjects and apply to living in the world as it is. For instance, in my sophomore year, there was a joint project in my Chemistry/Math class (combining subjects I felt was a fatal mistake in the set up of the school, but that’s a personal opinion)-where we had been learning about chromatography and other Chemical processes in forensics, and Humanities class, where we had been learning about the Legal System while reading Macbeth and Ender’s Game, to write a screenplay in which we had a court scene where one of the characters from one of the novels we had read, utilizing chemical techniques to create “evidence” to present in our scripts when we performed it for an audience. This project was one of the most viable, well planned projects that I partook in that school.

    Unfortunately, despite how much I enjoyed my tenure there and was able to get to a respectable college and recently be accepted to Medical School (Yay!), High Tech High had many MANY MANY problems that will never be sorted out (for various reasons that could be its own website, and is completely beyond the scope and relevance of this article). The one I did want to address, was that it proved that the only way that the issue this article brings up can be fully mended is through governmental action and not through attempts from the bottom (I.E. the Schools, School District, Parents, Deans running High Tech High, etc…). I say constantly to people who ask me how the school helped me that High Tech High prepared me for life and, regrettably, not for the SAT, federal tests, or college. The school taught me to work with others, become more sociable, construct solid arguments, manage my time and be constructive as well as creative with all various tasks I take on but never approached any possible effort to teach me how to deal with taking a standardized test, learning how to regurgitate information (leading to my first C+ ever in college Biology), competing in a curve in a college class, taking board exams, etc. The school prepared me to go get a job in my life situations, but I graduated with not enough credentials to go get a job where that counts.

    Anyhoot, after this long ramble of mine, I forget what comment I was making and have to board a flight. Hope you didn’t find my response too exhaustive or littered with an excess of personal info.

    Keep up the great articles!

    Ethan

    • Hey Ethan,

      Thanks for the comment! And no worries on the length. It was actually very informative to read a first-hand account about this.

      That sucks about what happened, though. I do truly believe that you learned some great skills for life. But, yeah, if you didn’t learn the stuff needed to get you through high school and college, so that you could get started on life, then that’s a failure of the system, too.

      So, yes, I do agree that change from the bottom up may not be enough. At the same time, I think the ideas for change do need to come from the bottom up, because the bottom is where people actually know the realities of the American education system, ya know?

      Please feel free to come back and keep us posted on everything. I, for one, am curious to see how the Hi Tech High model pans out, since I have some friends who’ve taught there.

  • I just stumbled upon you through Cracked.com and I must say I am very impressed!
    I would like to know where you teach cause it’s teachers like you that I want teaching my kids. Not everyone learns the same way nor can they be taught the same. I had learning (I won’t say disabilities I just didn’t learn the same way as others) but I had trouble in school and due to that I didn’t finish. I don’t want that for my kids who have showed signs that they understand or don’t understand like I do. Sometime you have to be “showed” in a “left-brain” kinda way and with all the info teachers have to cram in their skulls they don’t have time to help someone who doesn’t get it the normal way. If it wasn’t for my 16 year old who goes to a performing arts school I worry what would happen to my 10 and 8 year old who she helps a lot.
    I know as a teacher you probably have the shakes and hives from reading my run on sentences (thank god for spell check). Goes to show what “standardize testing” spits out. Thank you for caring about the future. Sorry you and others like you won’t be paid what your worth.

    • Thanks, Kris! And no worries about the run-on sentences. I’m a science teacher. It’s not my job to train the kids on crafting perfect sentences. ;-)

      I teach down in San Diego, but I want to believe that there are LOTS of teachers who feel the same way. Yes, there are flaws in the system. Yes, there are teachers who have stopped caring. But ultimately, we go into teaching because we do want to make a difference in our kids’ lives.

      I just want the chance to be able to do so, without constantly having to worry that my job will be in jeopardy if I don’t focus on what the state or the federal government tells me I need to focus on this year.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Great read, Dr. Hong.

    I don’t know about teaching tactics so I wont say much about it. However, you’ve summed up how I feel about teaching. It doesn’t matter if you learn or not, so long as you pass the damn tests.

    Dr. Hong, you’re very, very good at teaching and many students would agree with me. I’d go far enough to say you’re the best one at teaching in the school. When I was in you’re class – albeit it was for a short while – I definitely felt like I learned something.

    The only drawback is that your class is also one of the hardest to earn a credit in. I can honestly say that I did put the effort into getting the work done, but I always fell a little short. I’m going to blame my ineptitude for that. I’m disappointed that I’m not in you’re class anymore. But sometimes you gotta make sacrifices in life to get ahead.

    I’m getting off-track here. So I’ll just say this. If teachers where to get payed solely on merit, you’d be grossly over-payed :)

    Have a great day, Dr Hong :)

    • Thanks for the comment, Mauricio. I’m glad you felt challenged in my class, because you know that’s always my goal.

      I’ll admit that it’s a fine line to walk, though. I want to set the bar just out of reach, but at the same time, I don’t want to set it so high that it’s not unattainable. And, of course, everyone’s bar needs to be set at a different height.

      So now you see what we teachers go through? :-)

      Either way, though, please don’t blame your ineptitude. That can never be a valid excuse. Instead, blame it on not knowing how to overcome the challenges, or even not wanting to, because at the end of the day… come on, dude, you know my classes aren’t that hard. ;-)

  • I’d be interested in knowing how other first-world countries compensate and reward their teachers. My guess is that they do it better than the U.S.

    • As I understand it most of Europe rewards its students by providing a free education to those who keep up their grades. That puts pressure on the teachers to help the students reach their own goals. As for compensation, I say pay the highest salaries to k-12 teachers with the highest at the k level. As students mature the amount of supervision required should diminish. Modern education needs to consist more of learning how to collaborate, research information and synthesize results than it does of memorizing esoteric data which may or may not have relevance in the real world. The idea of ‘universal knowledge’ which was the basis for universities during the renaissance is not even possible in todays world – there is just too much data and no time to assimilate it before new data takes its place.

    • Finland is considered the best school system in the world. To begin with they are very selective and pay their teachers $100,000 a year.

      http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB120425355065601997-7Bp8YFw7Yy1n9bdKtVyP7KBAcJA_20080330.html

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/world_news_america/8601207.stm

  • I would also like to add that students control their own attendance, as well as the actual effort, quality and quantity of in-class and home assignments. If teachers are to be graded on merit, then they should be able to fire students for not pulling their weight in class and accomplishing their end of the deal. We pay bosses according to the work their employees put out, but we also give them the power to fire those who don’t do their jobs and what they are hired for. When a teacher can do that with students, then bring on those damn standardized test scores. But as long as parents are rewarding students who are failing history (because they are too busy taking pictures of their piercings and texting during class to do their assignments) with trips to Hawaii, I’m not taking credit for that student’s grades.

  • It all depends on what the actual objective really is doesn’t it? Do we satisfy political expediency? Do we supply capable workers to the corporate world? Do we want creative thinkers who challenge the status quo? Until the goal is adequately defined, there is no point in discussing methodologies for reaching it. Personally, I DO blame the educational ‘system’ The system is populated by persons who are products of the system and in general (yes there are exceptions) they perpetuate that system in completely unconscious ways. Students with a certain way of processing information and a talent for testing excel and students who process that same information a different way simply don’t do as well in testing. Simply said that means that about 30 to 40% of the student population does fairly well to excellent and the rest fall by the way side. It’s worth noting that Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Andy Groves and many, many others who are the darlings of our generation, didn’t finish university but employ scads of PHD’s. It’s further worth noting that the majority of the most successful business persons who DID graduate, were more likely to be the social party goers than those who scored the highest grades. Turns out that social skills and networking and the ability to create strong and lasting friendships are more useful in the world than great test scores.

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