We have known for quite a while that schools engage in all manner of tricks to improve their performance under accountability systems. These behaviors range from the innocuous—teaching the content in state standards—to the likely harmful—outright cheating.
A new study last week provided more evidence of the unintended consequences of another gaming behavior—reassigning teachers based on perceived effectiveness. Researchers Jason A. Grissom, Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb analyzed data from a large urban district and found that administrators moved the most effective teachers to the tested grades (3-6) and the least effective to the untested grades (K-2).
On the surface, this might seem like a strategy that would boost accountability ratings without affecting students’ overall performance. After all, if you lose 10 points in kindergarten but gain 10 in third grade, isn’t the net change zero?
In fact, the authors found that moving the least effective teachers to the earlier grades harmed students’ overall achievement, because those early grades simply matter more to students’ long-term trajectories. The schools’ gaming behaviors were having real, negative consequences for children.
This strategy should go down in the annals of what doesn’t work, a category that we simply don’t pay enough attention to. Over the past 15 years, there has been a concerted effort in education research to find out “what works” and to share these policies and practices with schools.
The best example of this is the push for rigorous evidence in education research through the Institute of Education Sciences and the What Works Clearinghouse. This may well be a productive strategy, but the WWC is chock full of programs that don’t seem to “work,” at least according to its own evidence standards, and I don’t think anyone believes the WWC has had its desired impact. (The former director of IES himself has joked that it might more properly be called the What Doesn’t Work Clearinghouse).
These two facts together led me to half-joke on Twitter that maybe states or the feds should change their approach toward evidence. Rather than (or in addition to) encouraging schools and districts to do good things, they should start discouraging them from doing things we know or believe to be harmful.
This could be called something like the “Don’t Do It Depository” or the “Bad Idea Warehouse” (marketing experts, help me out). Humor aside, I think there is some merit to this idea. Here, then, are a couple of the policies or practices that might be included in the first round of the Don’t Do It Depository.
The counterproductive practice of assigning top teachers to tested grades is certainly a good candidate. While we’re at it, we might also discourage schools from shuffling teachers across grades for other reasons, as recent research finds this common practice is quite harmful to student learning.
Another common school practice, particularly in response to accountability, is to explicitly prepare students for state tests. Of course, test preparation can range from teaching the content likely to be tested all the way to teaching explicit test-taking strategies (e.g., write longer essays because those get you more points). Obviously the latter is not going to improve students’ actual learning, but the former might. In any case, test preparation seems to be quite common, but there’s less evidence that you might think that it actually helps. For instance:
- A study of the ACT (which is administered statewide) in Illinois found test strategies and item practice did not improve student performance, but coursework did.
- An earlier study in Illinois found that students exposed to more authentic intellectual work saw greater gains on the standardized tests than those not exposed to this content.
- In the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, students were surveyed about many dimensions of the instruction they received and these were correlated with their teachers’ value-added estimates. Survey items focusing on test preparation activities were much more weakly related to student achievement gains than items focusing on instructional quality.
- Research doesn’t even indicate that direct test preparation strategies such as those for the ACT or SAT are particularly effective, with actual student gains far lower than advertised by the test preparation companies.
In short, there’s really not great evidence that test preparation works. In light of this evidence, perhaps states or the feds could offer guidance on what kind of and how much test preparation is appropriate and discourage the rest.
Other activities or beliefs that should be discouraged include “learning styles,” the belief that individuals have preferred ways of learning such as visual vs. auditory. The American Psychological Association has put out a brief explainer debunking the existence of learning styles. Similarly, students are not digital natives, nor can they multitask, nor should they guide their own learning.
There are many great lists of bad practices that already exist; states or the feds should simply repackage them to make them shorter, clearer, and more actionable. They should also work with experts in conceptual change, given that these briefs will be directly refuting many strongly held beliefs.
Do I think this strategy would convince every school leader to stop doing counterproductive things? Certainly I do not. But this strategy, if well executed, could probably effect meaningful change in some schools, and that would be a real win for children at very little cost.
Polikoff, a FutureEd senior fellow, is an associate professor of Education at the USC Rossier School of Education.