A group of distinguished educators addressed a letter to Secretary Arne Duncan that carefully explains how to get excellent teaching. Such an effort would begin by setting a high bar for entry into the profession, continue by establishing an atmosphere of autonomy and professionalism, and grow stronger by enabling teachers to work together and build a vibrant culture of learning and professional development.
The group warned that Race to the Top does not encourage good teaching. It wrote:
“Current education policy, including the Race to the Top law, and especially the practice of evaluating teachers by their students’ performance on high stakes assessments, will likely weaken, rather than strengthen, the teaching profession. Although the current policy may have intuitive appeal, a variety of evidence indicates it will not lead to sustained improvements in teaching and learning over the long term. In fact, it is likely to lead to unproductive teaching practices and poor outcomes, including “narrowing of curricula, teaching to the test, less creative teaching, more superficial and nontransferable learning, more controlling behavior at all levels of power, more withdrawal of effort from at-risk students, and increased dropout rates” (Ryan & Brown, 2005). We are especially concerned that current policy works against the professionalization of teaching, that it reinforces a situation in which teachers do not own or control their profession, that it does not set teaching on a vigorous path of development and sustainable improvement, and that it alienates and demoralizes teachers.”
Read this letter. What it says in plain English is that there is no evidence to support the punitive approach of Race to the Top and evaluating teachers by the tests scores of their students. It says that using extrinsic rewards to elicit changed behavior undermines intrinsic motivation. The education policies of the Bush-Obama era are misguided, ineffectual, and ultimately harmful to teaching and learning,
03 June 2013
Dear Secretary Duncan,
The US National Commission on Mathematics Instruction (USNC/MI) is a committee of the National Academies. Our commission thus advises Congress and the Nation on mathematics teaching, both nationally and internationally. We are writing to you as individuals, whose views reflect our service on the USNC/MI, to share our vision for mathematics teaching and to advocate for policies that will support this vision. We would like mathematics teaching—from PreKindergarten through college and beyond—to become a vigorous, vibrant profession that is designed for continuous improvement.
From our work with educators in other countries we are finding that systems that support teachers’ autonomy and professionalism, set a high bar to entry into the teaching profession, and foster ongoing development within learning communities produce an environment in which teaching and learning thrive. We think that in this country, systems should be developed—or expanded—in which teachers collaborate, examine and discuss their work, use and build on each other’s ideas, and seek to impress their peers with the quality of their methods and ideas. Such an environment could allow for excellence to be achieved and demonstrated in various ways. It would push the teaching field forward, in much the same way as mathematics and science make progress by sharing and building on ideas. It would create vigorous striving in the same way that the sciences do: by the need to impress one’s peers and the possibility of doing so in one’s own way. Of course, the ultimate motivation for teachers is more and deeper learning by students.
We have learned from Chinese teachers that “to learn continually” is a central motto in education, that “superrank” teachers analyze and improve the curriculum, and that testing is viewed as less critical than in the U.S. (U.S. National Commission on Mathematics Instruction, 2010). We have learned from Korean teachers that they have a strong and impressive teacher research culture, and that their system supports and nurtures such a culture.
Evidence in favor of developing systems in which teaching is an autonomous profession with a high bar to entry also comes from Finland, where systemic changes led to improved teaching and learning over the last several decades. While the U.S. has intensified standardized testing and accountability since the 1990s, “Finland at that time emphasized teacher professionalism, school-based curriculum, trust-based educational leadership, and school collaboration through networking.” (Sahlberg, 2011). Indeed, Sahlberg’s main message is that there is another way to improve education systems. This includes improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals. These are common education policy themes in some of the high performing countries—Finland
among them—in the 2009 International Programme for Student Assessment (PISA) of the OECD… . (Sahlberg, 2011)
Finland’s education system fits with Jal Mehta’s vision, which he contrasts with our own current system:
Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.
By these criteria, American education is a failed profession. There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance. (Mehta, 2013)
We believe it is critical for teaching to be a respected profession and we agree with Sahlberg that “[a]s long as the practice of teachers is not trusted and they are not respected as professionals, young talent is unlikely to seek teaching as their lifelong career anywhere. Or if they do, they will leave teaching early because of lack of a respectful professional working environment” (Sahlberg, 2011). We are concerned that—as stated in a teacher’s widely circulated resignation letter—“[w]e have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven” (Strauss, 2013).
The need for professional, collaborative communities of teachers is further supported by findings from research on professional development and school improvement. Research on professional development in the U.S. and internationally indicates that collaborative approaches to professional learning and building strong working relationships among teachers are key components in improving teachers’ practice and student learning (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009, p.5). At the school level, Bryk et al. (2010) found that having a professional community that uses public classroom practice, reflective dialogue, peer collaboration, and collective responsibility for school improvement with a specific focus on student learning is an important indicator for school improvement. Relational trust was found to be essential for organizational change and for sustaining the hard work of school improvement.
Current education policy, including the Race to the Top law, and especially the practice of evaluating teachers by their students’ performance on high stakes assessments, will likely weaken, rather than strengthen, the teaching profession. Although the current policy may have intuitive appeal, a variety of evidence indicates it will not lead to sustained improvements in teaching and learning over the long term. In fact, it is likely to lead to unproductive teaching practices and poor outcomes, including “narrowing of curricula, teaching to the test, less creative teaching, more superficial and nontransferable learning, more controlling behavior at all levels of power, more withdrawal of effort from at-risk students, and increased dropout rates” (Ryan & Brown, 2005). We are especially concerned that current policy works against the professionalization of teaching, that it reinforces a situation in which teachers do not own or control their profession, that it does not set teaching on a vigorous path of development and sustainable improvement, and that it alienates and demoralizes teachers.
Some of the evidence against the practice of evaluating teachers based on high stakes assessments comes from research on motivation. For example:
It is well established that use of salient extrinsic rewards to motivate work behavior can be deleterious to intrinsic motivation and can thus have negative consequences for psychological adjustment, performance on interesting and personally important activities, and citizenship behavior. (Gagne & Deci, 2005)
SDT [self-determination theory] research has found that motivation based on more controlled motives, such as rewards or punishments (external regulations), or self-esteem-based pressures (e.g., ego involvement) is associated with lower quality of learning, lessened persistence, and more negative emotional experience. (Ryan & Brown, 2005)
In their meta-analysis of 128 well-controlled experiments exploring the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation, Deci, Koestner, and Ryan (1999) found a “clear and consistent” picture:
In general, tangible rewards had a significant negative effect on intrinsic motivation for interesting tasks, and this effect showed up with participants ranging from preschool to college, with interesting activities ranging from word games to construction puzzles, and with various rewards ranging from dollar bills to marshmallows. (Deci, Koetsner, & Ryan, 1999)
Teaching is an inherently complex, interesting, and creative activity because it involves knowing ideas and ways of thinking and engaging others with those ideas and ways of thinking. Thus, according to the research on motivation, improving teaching will require work environments that foster intrinsic (or autonomous) motivation. Motivation research further indicates that “the experiences of autonomy, as well as of competence and relatedness, are important for effective performance and psychological health and well-being” (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
We doubt that students’ learning gains will outweigh the negative effects to the teaching profession of test-based accountability. According to the National Research Council’s Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Public Education, “the available evidence does not give strong support for the use of test- based incentives to improve education” (National Research Council, 2011, p. 91). Furthermore, The research to date suggests that the benefits of test-based incentive programs over the past two decades have been quite small. Although the available evidence is limited, it is not insignificant. The incentive programs that have been tried have involved a number of different incentive designs and substantial numbers of schools, teachers, and students. We focused on studies that allowed us to draw conclusions about the causal effects of incentive programs and found a significant body of evidence that was carefully constructed. Unfortunately, the guidance offered by this body of evidence is not encouraging about the ability of incentive programs to reliably produce meaningful increases in student achievement—except in mathematics for elementary school students. (National Research Council, 2011)
Looking at the effects of test-based accountability from an international perspective, we also do not find support for such a system:
Are those education systems where competition, choice, and test-based accountability have been the main drivers of educational change showing progress in international comparisons? Using the PISA database to construct such a comparison, a suggestive answer emerges. Most notably, the United States, England, New Zealand, Japan, and some parts of Canada and Australia can be used as benchmarks. … The trend of students’ performance in mathematics in all test-based accountability-policy nations is similar— it is in decline, in cycle after cycle, between 2000 and 2006. (Sahlberg, 2011)
None of the above implies that standardized tests for students are bad or wrong. The issue is how tests are used. Using test results for informational purposes in a trusting, collaborative environment is entirely different from using test results to monitor, evaluate, reward, or punish teachers. In this matter, we would be wise to heed Campbell’s Law and his observations about test scores:
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. (Campbell, 1976, 2011, p. 34)
… when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways. (Campbell, 1976, 2011 p. 35)
Near the end of its report, the National Research Council’s Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Public Education stated:
Our recommendations, accordingly, call for policy makers to support experimentation with rigorous evaluation and to allow midcourse correction of policies when evaluation suggests such correction is needed. (National Research Council, 2011) We think that the time has come for a midcourse correction. In Singapore, there is the motto “teach less, learn more;” in the U.S., we need to “test less, learn more.” We have argued that test-based accountability stands to have negative effects on teaching as a profession and that there are better ways to improve teaching. We respectfully urge changes in policy to support a strong and vibrant mathematics teaching profession.
Sybilla Beckmann, University of Georgia
Janine Remillard, University of Pennsylvania Gail Burrill, Michigan State University
James Barta Utah State University
Myong-Hi (Nina) Kim SUNY College at Old Westbury Roger Howe (NAS), Yale University
Bernard Madison, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Sara Normington, Catlin Gabel School
James Roznowski Delta College
Patrick (Rick) Scott, New Mexico Higher Education Department Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, George Mason University
Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing Schools for Improvement, Lessons from Chicago. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Campbell, D. (1976, 2011). Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change. Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation, 7(15), 3 – 43.
Darling-Hammond, L., Wei, R. C., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional Learning in the Learning Profession: A Status Report on Teacher Development in the United States and Abroad. Dallas, TX: National Staff Development Council and The School Redesign Network at Stanford University.
Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. (1999). A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627 – 668.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating Optimal Motivation and Psychological Well-Being Across Life’s Domains. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 14 – 23.
Gagne, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 33- – 362.
Mehta, J. (2013, April 12). Teachers: Will We Ever Learn? New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/13/opinion/teachers-will-we- ever-learn.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
National Research Council. (2011). Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education. Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Public Education, M. Hout and S.W. Elliott, Editors. Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Ryan. R. M., & Brown. K. W. (2005). Legislating competence: The motivational impact of high stakes testing as an educational reform. In C. Dweck & A. E. Elliot (Eds.). Handbook of competence (pp. 354-374) New York: Guilford Press.
Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? New York: Teachers College Press.
Strauss, V. (2013, April 6). Teacher’s resignation letter: ‘My profession… no longer exists.’ Washington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer- sheet/wp/2013/04/06/teachers-resignation-letter-my-profession-no- longer-exists/
U.S. National Commission on Mathematics Instruction. (2010). The Teacher Development Continuum in the United States and China: Summary of a Workshop. Ana Ferreras and Steve Olson, Rapporteurs; Ester Sztein, Editor; National Research Council. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Please address correspondence to Sybilla Beckmann, email@example.com or Department of Mathematics, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602.