Archives for category: Campbell’s Law

Peter Greene reports a sad story about a small university in Maryland. The president, recruited from the financial sector, was given a goal: raise retention rates. He realized that the best tactic was to kick out 20-25 of the likeliest not to succeed early in the semester. He called the students “bunnies” and asked a faculty committee to draw up a list so he could “drown the bunnies.” 
What really made him and the Board of Trustees mad was that the student newspaper revealed the plan. Then the faculty refused to assemble a list of students to kick out. 
This is an illustration of Capbell’s Law at work. The goal (raising the graduation rate) became more important than the mission (educating students). 

Paul Thomas writes a scathing indictment of the U.S. Department of Education’s blind faith in standardized testing. He might have included the U.S. Congress, as well as most governors and legislatures, and a large number of think tanks and foundations. Certainly, one of the primary malefactors of the testing obsession is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And let’s not forget George W. Bush, Margaret Spellings, and Sandy Kress (architect of NCLB and Pearson lobbyist.) Then there is the cluster of testing zealots attached to the Common Core.

I could devote an entire post to listing those who shaped the current regime of testophilia. I would include myelf for my sins, but at least I recanted my sins.

Thomas attributes a large part of the damage to non-educators put in positions of authority.

“And let’s not fail to acknowledge that such vapid bureaucratic nonsense is inevitably the result of know-nothings being appointed to positions of power (think never-taught Arne Duncan serving as Secretary of Education in the wake of Margaret Dishonest-or-Incompetent Spellings turning her hollow SOE gig into becoming president of the University of North Carolina, resulting in her bragging about having none of the background experiences typical of leading higher education).”

Thomas includes links to valuable articles and studies about the uselessness of high-stakes standardized testing. Does anyone at the U.S. Department of Education read research? Or has it been turned into a cheering squad for whatever administration is in charge?

After a lengthy investigation, NYC Chancellor Carmen Farina fired the principal of John Dewey High School for faking graduation rates.

Teachers at the school had complained about the principal for years. They had also reported the fakery.

The Bloomberg administration had selected the principal Kathleen Elvin to lead the “turnaround” of 33 schools but the courts blocked the closures. She then became principal of John Dewey, where teachers frequently complained about her harsh methods.

Geoffrey Decker of NY Chalkbeat writes:

“When Kathleen Elvin took over troubled John Dewey High School in March 2012, she had a mandate to turn it around. And by at least one measure, she pulled off the job in barely two years.

“But Dewey’s soaring graduation rates, which increased 13 points under Elvin, were bolstered by an illicit credit recovery program, a city investigation has found. A long-awaited report on the probe, released Wednesday by the city’s Office of Special Investigations, concluded that Elvin supervised the set-up, in which students received credits toward graduation with no instruction from teachers.”

One of the boasts of the Bloomberg-era “reformers” was the city’s rising graduation rates. To what extent was that due to similar tactics?

Campbell’s Law rules again. When test scores or graduation rates become the basis for rewards and punishments, people go to extraordinary and sometimes unethical lengths to reach the target.

Bob Schaeffer of FairTest says that the system of high-stakes testing enshrined in federal law encourages cheating. The Atlanta scandal is not unique. Cheating has been reported in dozens of states and districts. What is different in Atlanta was the scope of the investigation and the unusual criminal treatment of the educators.


By Robert A. Schaeffer, Public Education Director
National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest)

The sad story of educators caught manipulating standardized exam scores has focused attention on one type of “fallout” from the testing explosion that has swept across the nation’s classrooms in the past decade. Federal and state lawmakers are scrambling to incorporate lessons from Atlanta as they work to overhaul testing policies in the face of an increasingly powerful assessment reform movement.

So far, however, policymakers have grasped only the most basic message from the Atlanta scandal: sharp score gains may not be what they first appear to be. Most state departments of education have hired “data forensics” firms to examine test answer sheets. Using computers, they now search for unusual numbers of erasures or odd patterns of score gains. Many have become more willing to pursue reports by whistleblowers citing improper exam administration practices.

The ensuing investigations confirmed cases of cheating in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and schools run by the U.S. Department of Defense. Adults manipulated test scores in more than 60 ways from shouting out correct answers to barring likely low-scores from enrolling. The Atlanta scandal is just the tip of a test cheating “iceberg.”

In the wake of Atlanta, many jurisdictions stepped up test security. However, tougher exam administration policing has not made test cheating disappear. In just the past few months, new examples have surfaced in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Ohio, Louisiana and several other states.
Understanding the widespread “gaming” of standardized exam results requires addressing its root cause.

Nearly four decades ago, acclaimed social scientist Donald Campbell forecast today’s scandals. He wrote, “[W]hen 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.” The horror stories in Atlanta and many other communities are case studies of what is now called Campbell’s Law.

Many policymakers still ignore the most important lesson to be learned from Atlanta. Cheating is an inevitable consequence of the overuse and misuse of standardized exams. Federal, state and local testing policies put intense pressure on teachers, principals and other administrators. They create a climate in which educators believe scores must soar “by whatever means necessary,” as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation concluded.

It is hardly surprising that more school professionals cross the ethical line.

Across the nation, strategies that boost scores without improving learning are spreading rapidly. These include changing answers, narrow teaching to the test and pushing out low-performing students. These practices are immoral, unethical and, in many cases illegal. But they are completely understandable.

The damage done by a heavy focus on standardized exams is twofold. The test score fixation takes time away from broader and deeper learning, leaving students inadequately prepared for college or careers. Simultaneously, it inflates test results by making it appear as if there is real academic growth when there may be none. These are the two kinds of corruption described in Campbell’s Law.

To eliminate cheating, reliance on standardized exam results for high-stakes educational decisions must end.

Put simply, test-driven schooling cheats students out of a high-quality education. At the same time, it cheats the public out of accurate information about public school quality.

Until assessment policies are overhauled, Atlanta will stand out as the ugliest example of a continuing national epidemic.

Gene V. Glass is one of our most distinguished education researchers. Fortunately for the rest of us, he blogs from time to time about the lunacy of our era of education “reform.”



In this post, he explains what he calls “management by pinheads.” Quite simply, it is the effort to improve education by setting numerical goals. Such a strategy invites data manipulation, gaming the system, and cheating. He notes that Beverly Hall recently died of breast cancer. She had an illustrious career, but it all came crashing down because of a massive cheating scandal in Atlanta, where she was superintendent. She prided herself on being a “Dara driven decision-maker,” but it was this approach that created a climate where subordinates–administrators and teachers–cheated to produce the data she wanted.



Now Glass notes that the Scottsdale, Arizona, school board has set a menu of numerical targets for its superintendent. It is an invitation to game the system, he says. Campbell’s Law rules.

If you believe in miracles, clap your hands!


With Superintendent John Deasy under pressure because of the accumulation of his bad decisions, the district just announced that high school graduation rates increased by a stunning 12% in only one year! Clap your hands!


While citizens are demanding Deasy’s resignation, and the city’s elites defend him because he gets results, even if teachers and parents don’t like him, Deasy announced that the graduation rate had soared to an amazing 77% (clap your hands).


Howard Blume writes a cautionary note:


But the good news comes with a substantial caveat. The rate is calculated based on students enrolled in comprehensive high schools, and it leaves out students who transfer to alternative programs — which frequently include those most at risk of dropping out.

For example, Bernstein Senior High in Hollywood had a graduation rate of 62%; Alonzo, the “option” school on the corner of that property, had a graduation rate of 5.2%. Santee Education Complex, south of downtown, had a rate of 68%; Kahlo High School, the alternative campus on its perimeter, had a rate of 10%.

Once the alternative campuses are factored in, L.A. Unified’s rate drops to 67% — much less impressive but still surpassing what the district has accomplished in recent history. The previous year’s rate of 65% also did not include students in such programs.

In the past, graduation rates have been subject to extreme manipulation, although that is less likely under current methods of record-keeping.

“We continue to move closer to our goal,” Deasy said. “The results keep getting better and better.”

The statewide graduation rate is 80% for 2012-13, the most recent year available.


The one thing we have noticed in recent years is that the more data matter, the more data are manipulated to produce the necessary results. That is known as Campbell’s Law.


“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.” 





Jeffrey Weiss and Matthew Haag report in the Dallas Morning News about a cheating scandal at one of Dallas’s top-rated schools:

“Umphrey Lee Elementary was recognized as one of the best schools in Dallas, based primarily on the students’ STAAR results. But Dallas ISD officials concluded that was a sham, a distinction propped up by teachers feeding students answers on most of the 2012-13 state assessment tests.
Five teachers and an instructional coach resigned while under investigation last October. And by the end of the school 2013-14 school year, the students’ STAAR results had plummeted, dropping the school from the state’s top rating to as low as they go.”

Campbell’s Law strikes again. When test scores are made the measure and the goal, they distort the very thing being measured and incentivize unethical behavior.

When will we ever learn?

We all know, or should know, about Campbell’s Law. That is a social science axiom that says:

“The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative 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.”

The short translation: the more you measure people and tie high-stakes to the measurement, the more likely they are to make the measurement the point of their activity, which distorts the activity. Campbell’s Law explains why teachers teach to the test or even cheat, because so much is riding on achieving high test scores. So teachers forget about everything other than test scores, such as citizenship, character, ethics, and so on.

Arthur Goldstein, who teaches high school ESL in New York City, here explains how Campbell’s Law has been replaced by Campbell Brown’s Law. Campbell Brown is the media figure who is leading a lawsuit to eliminate tenure in New York State.

Here is Campbell Brown’s Law:

“Campbell Brown’s Law says whatever goes wrong in school is the fault of the tenured teachers. If you fail, it’s because the teacher had tenure and therefore failed you. Absolutely everyone is a great parent, so that has nothing to do with how children behave. Campbell Brown’s Law says parents have no influence whatsoever on their children. If parents have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, that will have no effect. If they provide no supervision because they aren’t around, that won’t affect kids either.

“Campbell Brown’s Law says kids themselves are not responsible either. If they don’t study, that isn’t their fault. The teacher should have made them study. If they fail tests because they didn’t study, it’s a crime and the teacher should be fired. Under Campbell Brown’s Law the only obstacle to studying is if the teacher has tenure. This is unacceptable and it is therefore the reason that the parents work 200 hours a week. It’s also the reason the kids didn’t study. The kids figured they didn’t have to study because their teachers had tenure.

“Campbell Brown’s Law is demonstrated in charter schools, where teachers don’t have tenure. All kids excel in charter schools, except for those who don’t. That explains why, in some charter schools, that all the students who graduate are accepted to four-year colleges. It’s neither here nor there if two-thirds of the students who began ended up getting insufficient standardized test scores and getting dumped back into public schools. That’s not the fault of the charter teachers, because they don’t have tenure and are therefore blameless. Campbell Brown’s Law says so.”

It is an excellent post, and how brilliant to connect Campbell’s Law to Campbell Brown ‘s Law.

Goldstein concludes:

“In short, if you’re a tenured teacher, you are an impediment to Excellence. The only way you can help children is by getting rid of your tenure, standing up straight and walking to Arne Duncan in Washington DC and saying, “Please sir, I want to be fired for any reason. Or for no reason. I want to take personal responsibility for all the ills of society. Neither you, society, poverty, parents, nor children themselves are responsible. I’m ready to be dismissed at the whim of Bill Gates or the Walmart family and I agree with you that Katrina was the bestest thing to happen to the New Orleans education system.”

“Me, I’m still a tenured teacher. And as terrible as that may be, I’m still relieved to never have had students so hopelessly stupid as Arne Duncan or Campbell Brown.”

As for me, I took a lot of hostile comments on Twitter for saying to a Washington Post reporter recently that Campbell Brown was pretty but didn’t know much about teaching. Outraged people, many of whom seemed to work for Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst or similar organizations, called me sexist for saying she was pretty but didn’t object when I said she was clueless about education. Anyone who wants to call me pretty (at the ripe old age of 76), you have my permission. Have at it. I wonder what the enraged Brownians will think about Campbell Brown’s Law.

Apparently in response to Daniel Denvir’s article accusing the state of Pennsylvania of dragging its feet on an investigation of cheating on state tests, the state released some information.

Just remember whenever you hear a governor or other politician boasting about test scores that they have no idea (and neither will you) whether the gains were produced by mindless test prep (where students learn how to guess the right answer), by teaching to the test (where teachers abandon their professional ethics), or by cheating (by teachers or principals or students or superintendents or the state education department).

In a high-stakes environment, the pressure to raise scores renders them meaningless. See “Campbell’s Law.”

New Jersey has followed the trail blazed by Jeb Bush when he was governor of Florida: competition, data, accountability, choice. It is the classic formula for those who believe that competition and data are the best “drivers” of education.

Thus, New Jersey has created its own report cards to drive competition. Predictably the report cards are heavily weighted by test scores. As we have seen again and again, the pressure to raise scores creates negative consequences, such as teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, gaming the system, and cheating.

Here Julia Sass Rubin explains that the state’s report cards are confusing, inaccurate, and flawed in many ways.

Every policymakers should be familiar with Campbell’s Law:

“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.”

In plain English, the higher the stakes attached to testing, the more likely it is that the testing will corrupt education by becoming the goal to which all must aspire. Testing is a measure, not the goal of education.