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Social Norms Beat Market Norms

Dear Deborah,

One of the most interesting books I have read in recent months is Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. I was particularly interested in Chapter 5, where he explains the difference between social norms—where people act because they are motivated by a sense of idealism or purpose, and market norms—where people act because they are motivated by a desire for more money.

As I read his words, I realized that the goal of the corporate education reform movement is to push market norms into education. The corporate reformers assume that teachers aren't working hard enough and will work harder if they have the lure of more money and if they compete with one another. Ariely's studies say this is wrong, and it won't work. Last fall, the POINT study from the National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University also showed that merit pay based on test scores did not produce higher test scores.

Curiously, the corporate reform movement likes to talk about data-driven decisions, but they ignore any data that doesn't support what they want to do. For example, when the Vanderbilt study of merit pay was published, the U.S. Department of Education immediately released nearly $500 million for—what else—more merit-pay programs, and promised that another $500 million would be forthcoming. Data mean nothing when your mind is made up. Similarly, when data from Milwaukee showed that vouchers don't improve test scores in either public schools or voucher schools, the corporate reformers didn't care. When the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, data for Milwaukee showed that African-American public school students there—after 21 years of vouchers—scored below African-American students in the Deep South, the corporate reformers didn't care.

Our education system is relentlessly pursuing higher test scores, and everyone feels the pressure. When USA Today produced evidence of widespread cheating, the corporate reformers refused to recognize that their policies encourage the pressures that lead to cheating. When the cheating scandal focused on test scores in Washington, D.C., the corporate reformers brought out their heavy guns to argue that it wasn't true, it couldn't be true, and even if it were true, it didn't matter. When the eminent National Research Council said that it was inappropriate to judge the progress of a school district by test scores, the corporate reformers scoffed.

I get letters every day from teachers, principals, superintendents, and parents lamenting how federal policy is ruining their schools, damaging children's lives, and demoralizing teachers. This one came today from a superintendent: "[My district] borders the Navajo Reservation. Twenty-nine percent of our students are Native American and 29 percent are Hispanic. We have high poverty, mobility, and many single-parent families, and [we] truly struggle to meet the needs of our students. [Average Yearly Progress] ratings discourage our staff. Media blames the schools, and budgets keep going down."

What do the corporate reformers have to say to this superintendent? Will they fire her and half her staff and send in Harvard and Princeton graduates for two years? Will they close her school or turn it over to a charter chain? Will they do this to thousands of schools? Do they have any ideas that might keep her and her staff from losing hope?

If we drive out those who are motivated by social norms, who will teach? How can we hope to have a stable education profession if we lose those who want to make education their career knowing full well that they will never get rich?

This superintendent and her teachers did not go into teaching to compete with the school in the next county or to fight one another for dollars. They entered what they thought was a profession where they could make a difference in the lives of children. They, and hundreds of thousands of educators like them, don't understand how they became Public Enemy No. 1.

Perhaps the best letter that I received about the clash between federal policy and the realities in the schools was written by California teacher Paul Karrer. (The letter first appeared in Education Week's Commentary section.) I and many others posted it on the Internet, because it so poignantly expressed what so many teachers experience. Please read and share it.

Many years from now, when No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top have long been forgotten or remembered only by historians as a disgraceful chapter in the history of American education, people like the superintendent who contacted me and her staff will still be struggling to meet the multiple needs of the forgotten children of our society.

Someday, after this dark era has fallen into the dustbin of history, into that place where ignoble ideas go, I hope we will learn from our mistakes. If we are wise, we will have better ideas about improving our schools. Instead of the risky schemes now so popular among certain economists, like firing 5 to 10 percent of the teachers every year; or the punishments associated with NCLB and the Race to the Top, like firing staff and closing schools, we will hopefully have an education system where those who give their lives to the education of children get the respect and honor they deserve. And where parents, educators, and policymakers alike understand the difference between higher test scores and genuine education.

Diane

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