Robin Alexander, who headed the Cambridge Primary Review in England, has been reading the posts on this blog. He was especially interested in our faux reformers’ love affair with paying teachers and schools to get higher test scores. He thought we might want to learn about the UK experience with “payment-by-results”:

Payment by Results
– or ‘prizes for success in teaching the rudiments’

Reading Diane’s blog is instructive and depressing both for what it chronicles about the wanton political and commercial abuse of a national educational system in the name of standards and accountability and for its many resonances with what has been happening in the UK (especially England) during the past decade or so – and indeed in other countries infected by GERM.

But there are historical resonances too, and perhaps these should be more frequently exposed in order to demonstrate that these glitzy new policies are usually not new at all, and when they were tried before they frequently failed or caused such damage they had to be abandoned. But then since history begins the year that politicians are elected it has nothing to teach them.

So try this. The drive to link teacher pay to high stakes tests as advocated by Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush and their ilk and castigated in so many of Diane’s blogs resembles nothing so closely as the system introduced in England in 1862 – yes, 1862 – for making the level of grants to elementary schools conditional on children’s performance in literacy and numeracy tests.

What was this eerily familiar system called? Payment by Results, or ‘prizes for success in teaching the rudiments’. What were its consequences? The great Matthew Arnold – poet, essayist, defender of culture against the philistine hordes, and as it happens also a school inspector – showed how Payment by Results narrowed the curriculum, forced teachers to teach to the test, bored children, intimidated teachers and in many other respects did exactly what high stakes tests always do. He warned, and he was proved correct for a few years later the scheme was abandoned, that Payment by Results ‘will not do what it proposes to do, and even if it were to do what it proposes, the means by which it proposes to do this would still be objectionable.’

A slightly convoluted and very Victorian riposte to throw at Bush, Rhee and today’s other self-appointed US educational heroes, but an apposite one. Try it sometime. They may not understand it, but it will be fun.

If you want to hear more about the more recent impact of a variant on this regime on our side of the Atlantic, read the evidence assembled by the massive and wholly independent Cambridge Primary Review http://www.primaryreview.org.uk or since the Review’s final report is very long, try this summary of England’s 1997-2010 ‘standards drive’ – http://www.primaryreview.org.uk/downloads/Alexander_Miegunyah_lecture_FINAL.pdf . Or with your Presidential election now imminent, register the 11 policy priorities which we extracted from the Cambridge Primary Review and presented to our own political leaders before the UK elections in 2010: http://www.primaryreview.org.uk/downloads/revised_2011-02/POLICY_PRIORITIES_BRIEFING_REVISED_2_11.pdf .

One of them was this:

Stop treating testing and assessment as synonymous. Stop making Year 6 [grade 6] tests bear the triple burden of assessing pupils, evaluating schools and monitoring national performance. Abandon the naive belief that testing of itself drives up standards. It doesn’t: good teaching does. Initiate wholesale assessment reform drawing on the wealth of alternative models now available, so that we can at last have systems of formative and summative assessment – in which tests certainly have a place – which do their jobs validly, reliably and without causing collateral damage. Adopt our definition of standards as excellence in all domains of the curriculum to which children are statutorily entitled, not just the 3Rs. And understand that those who argue for reform are every bit as committed to rigorous assessment and accountability as those who pin everything on the current tests. The issue is not whether children should be assessed or schools should be accountable – they should – but how and in relation to what.

Alongside Payment by Results, perhaps this and some of the Review’s other policy priorities will strike a chord in the US.
Robin Alexander
University of Cambridge, UK