Marc Tucker has written an excellent post on the failure of punitive accountability.

The working theory behind the Bush-Obama “reforms” is that teachers are lazy and need to be motivated by rewards and punishments and the threat of public shaming.

This is in fact a theory drawn from the early twentieth century writings of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who studied the efficiency of factory workers.

Tucker writes:

Let’s start by examining the premises behind the prevailing system.  The push for test-based accountability systems to evaluate teachers have their origin in the work of a professor of agricultural statistics in Tennessee who discovered that differences in teacher quality as measured by analyses of student test scores over time accounted for very large differences in student performance.  Many observers concluded from this that policy should concentrate on using these statistical techniques to identify poor teachers and remove them from the teaching force.  At the same time, other observers, believing that the parents would choose effective schools for their children over ineffective schools if only they had information as to which schools are effective, pushed to use student test data to identify and publicly label schools based on the available test score data.  And, finally, policymakers passed the NCLB legislation, requiring the identification of schools as chronically underperforming and remedies involving the replacement of school leaders and staff, and, in extreme cases, closing schools down.

All of these accountability systems are essentially punitive in design and intent.  They threaten poor performing schools with public shaming, takeover and closure and poor performing individuals with public shaming and the loss of their jobs and livelihood.  The introduction of these policies was not accompanied by policies designed to improve the supply of highly qualified new teachers by making teaching a more attractive option for our most successful high school students—a key component of policy in the top-performing countries.  There is a lot of federal money available for training and professional development for teachers but no systematic federal strategy that I can discern for turning that money into systems of the kind top-performing countries use to support long-term, steady improvements in teachers’ professional practice.  I conclude that policymakers have placed their bet on teacher evaluation, not to identify the needs of teachers for development, but to identify teachers who need to be dismissed from the service.  And, further, that the way to motivate school staff to work harder and more efficiently is to threaten them with public shame and the loss of their job.

Race to the Top incorporates the ideas of economist Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, who has argued in various writings that the way to improve results (test scores) is to “deselect” the bottom 5-10% of teachers based on the test scores of their students.

As Tucker shows, modern cognitive psychology recognizes that people are motivated to do their best not by humiliation and punishment, but by a sense of purpose, professionalism, and autonomy.  Unfortunately, neither our Congress nor the policymakers in the Obama administration are familiar with modern cognitive psychology, with the work of scholars and writers like Edward Deci, Dan Ariely, or Daniel Pink, nor with the organizational theory of Edwards Deming, who acknowledged that people want to do their best and must be allowed and encouraged to do it, not threatened with dire punishments.