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Aaron Regunberg: Education’s False Proxy Trap

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Earlier this year, entrepreneur, author and marketing guru Seth Godin published a post about what he calls the “false proxy trap” that bears repeating. Godin wrote:

“Sometimes, we can't measure what we need, so we invent a proxy, something that's much easier to measure and stands in as an approximation.

TV advertisers, for example, could never tell which viewers would be impacted by an ad, so instead, they measured how many people saw it. Or a model might not be able to measure beauty, but a bathroom scale was a handy stand in…One last example: the non-profit that uses money raised as a proxy for difference made.

You've already guessed the problem. Once you find the simple proxy and decide to make it go up, there are lots of available tactics that have nothing at all to do with improving the very thing you set out to achieve in the first place. When we fall in love with a proxy, we spend our time improving the proxy instead of focusing on our original (more important) goal instead.

Gaming the system is never the goal. The goal is the goal.”

There is no political debate for which this point is more relevant than the one surrounding education reform and accountability in this country.

The accountability movement begins, ostensibly, with a simple and laudable goal—we want to make sure that America’s young people are receiving a “good” education, and so we need to “improve” systems of public education throughout the country. To that end, we naturally want to find a way to measure these systems and the quality of the education they are offering our students.

Unfortunately, the world of education is not a simple one. Schools are incredibly complex places, and school districts are more complicated still. Teaching is an intricate art, and learning is not such a straightforward task either, so it’s tough to come up with straightforward but comprehensive measurements in any or all of these areas. What’s more, the very purpose of education remains an incessantly dense and knotty question that we seem reluctant to ask, let alone answer. Is the goal of education only to give students the skills and knowledge they need to survive economically (a.k.a. get a job), or do we also expect schools to help prepare children to thrive emotionally and socially? Is education supposed to lead primarily to the success of individual children, or is its purpose to help the larger community, or the nation as a whole? Or is the main point of public education to safeguard our democracy, as Thomas Jefferson argued when he wrote that a “general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom” is the “great measure without which no republic can maintain itself in strength.” Needless to say, slightly different answers to any of these questions would necessitate that we measure entirely different things to ascertain the quality of this or that education system.

In other words, it’s all very messy, and the task at hand was urgent. So instead of wrestling with these involved questions and complicated systems, mainstream education policy-makers in the United States chose to zero in on one particular proxy: standardized test scores.

Beginning over a decade ago with the bipartisan passage of No Child Left Behind, we decided, as a country, to give up on trying to actually wrestle with complex issues of public education. We decided to abandon the goal of improving the education of young people, particularly low-income youth and young people of color, and chose instead to put our country’s energy and resources into a much more clear-cut goal—increasing these students’ test scores.

The problem with this decision, to repeat Godin’s words, is that “once you find the simple proxy and decide to make it go up, there are lots of available tactics that have nothing at all to do with improving the very thing you set out to achieve in the first place.”

What are some of these “available tactics” we have embraced? First off is narrowing the curriculum. With so much weight assigned to specific tests, administrators and teachers continue to feel pressured to narrow the range and depth of their curricula, forcing out non-tested subjects like history and the arts.

Second is explicit cheating and corruption. Over the years we’ve seen hundreds of news stories of administrator and teacher cheating, student cheating, the exclusion of low-performance students from testing, and other forms of fraud, all to game the system in ways that are clearly not helpful and are often detrimental to students’ learning.

Third is teaching to the test. When students’ scores on standardized tests are used as the basis for high-stakes decisions about teacher evaluations, student graduation, and school closures, teachers and administrators are forced to abandon creativity and individualized learning in order to focus on test prep. Talk to any teacher in Providence and they will tell you how extreme this problem has become—in fact, one teacher, Carole Marshall, recently published a phenomenal piece in the Providence Journal detailing her own experiences: “After spending years refining strategies for getting my students to become enthusiastic readers and writers,” she wrote, “I watched those strategies being undercut by testing that moved students nowhere. After years of working on thoughtful, relevant curriculum, I was being forced to teach a canned curriculum purchased for millions of dollars from textbook publishers who knew nothing about urban teaching…Field trips that opened the students to a world beyond the narrow constraints of their neighborhoods were no longer permitted; time taken away from the mandated plan was seen as time wasted. Every path to good teaching was effectively blocked off. That is the reason I left.”

As Ms. Marshall’s words so tragically illustrate, our false-proxy-obsession with test scores is actually making our real goal (ensuring our nation’s young people receive a good education) infinitely harder to reach. High-stakes standardized tests are driving out talented teachers like Ms. Marshall and turning students off from learning, making it just about impossible to produce the enthusiasm and motivation necessary to truly turn around schools in need of help.

What’s worse, these negative effects are not distributed evenly among America’s children. On the contrary, high-stakes testing discriminatorily and inequitably hurts low-income youth and youth of color . These are the young people who are most likely to be held back or pushed out of schools for having low scores. And research has shown that schools with higher percentages of students of color have greater narrowing of curriculum, more scripted curriculum, and more focus on rote skills instead of creative, higher-order thinking—so the students who often have the greatest need for wraparound services, extracurricular enrichment, and engaging and individualized learning are the ones who end up losing it all.

It is clear we have fallen into a false proxy trap of the worst order. And it is equally clear that America’s children are the ones enduring the consequences. Fortunately, there is a growing movement of parents, youth, teachers, and policy-makers who are fighting tooth and nail to claw our nation back from the precipice onto which we’ve strayed. In Texas—the original birthplace of the high-stakes testing movement—over 520 school boards representing more than 40 percent of the state’s students have passed a resolution calling on the Texas legislature to rethink its test-based accountability system. In New York, a petition protesting the state’s new teacher evaluation system, which is based on standardized test scores, has been signed by more than 1,400 New York principals. In Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union organized a strike—based in large part on a critique of testing mania—that was able to win broad-based popular approval over the agenda of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And in the 2012 elections, widespread anger with the testing movement spurred a number of unexpected upsets, such as Indiana voters’ rejection of a well-funded testing champion, State Commissioner Tony Bennett, for veteran educator Glenda Ritz.

It is too early to determine whether the tide is truly turning on this misguided testing obsession. But it’s clear that the tide needs to turn. We have driven out enough excellent teachers. We have beaten a love of learning out of enough wonderful children. We have done enough damage. It’s time to turn back to our original mission, because—again—gaming the system is never the goal. The goal is the goal.


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