Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Against the law

"Campbell's Law," that is. The late social scientist Donald Campbell's idea: "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."

Examples of Campbell's Law at work (as summarized by Richard Rothstein here) include "when cardiac surgeons, held accountable for raising surgical survival rates, refuse to operate on the sickest patients most in need of intervention; when employment agencies held accountable for job placement numbers meet their quotas by placing the unemployed only in the most easily filled and lowest-skill jobs; when colleges send pre-completed applications to unqualified high school students because U.S. News & World Report ranks college selectivity by the number of applicants rejected; or when Wall Street traders take reckless risks because they are rewarded only for short-term, easily measured outcomes."

Campbell himself saw how his principle would inevitably apply to the use of high-stakes testing in education: "[A]chievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But 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. . . . Achievement tests are, in fact, highly corruptible indicators."

In other words, test-driven education is likely to have unintended consequences. That's part of what drove Diane Ravitch to change her mind about No Child Left Behind. It's worth noting, though, that although those consequences may have been unintended, they certainly weren't unforeseeable. Campbell formulated his "law" in 1976, and others (for example, Peter Sacks) were applying it to high-stakes testing long before Ravitch finally came around on the issue.

..How can I comment?

Friday, March 5, 2010


Almost five months ago, I wrote to the seven members of our board of education, and to our superintendent, about our district’s behavioral rewards program. I put some time and thought into the letter, and I hoped the recipients would at least read it, but I certainly didn’t expect anyone to agree with me, or to treat me any differently than anyone else who writes a letter to the board. (The letter is here.)

Even I was surprised, though, when none of the people I wrote to even so much as acknowledged the letter. None. Not even a postcard saying, thanks for your views. I might as well have dropped the letters down a well.

I thought of that non-response today when I posted a comment on our local paper’s suggestion that we should reduce the number of school districts and make them larger than they currently are. In my comments there, I mention some of the reasons I’d be disinclined to enlarge school districts (some of which echo this post), but here’s another: if our school district is already so big that elected board members can’t acknowledge letters from voters, maybe we should think about making it smaller, instead of bigger.

..How can I comment?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


As you can see, I've gotten side-tracked from blogging by a busy semester and by other projects. I haven't forgotten the blog entirely, though, and hope to keep posting occasionally.

The Times today has an article about Diane Ravitch, originally an influential advocate for standardized testing and accountability, who has now changed her tune. “Accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools,” she now says. Check it out.

..How can I comment?