Teaching to the test
It is a four-word phrase that is as much a curse for teachers who mutter in frustration amongst themselves as it is for parents who complain about it in frustration on social media. The well-known cycle that has led to the well-documented antipathy for this is as follows:
- Institute a simple set of numerical metrics — standardized test scores — aimed at capturing with scientific precision the performance of a complex process like educating actual human beings;
- Use those simple metrics to inform judgments about every human being in the system, regardless of their infinite peculiarities and the inherent complexities of what constitutes a four-dimensional concept like “learning”;
- Add new data along those simple metrics at regular intervals to apply a scientific approach to detecting potential shortfalls and failures as early as possible;
- Use those simple metrics to then judge the performance of the teachers tasked with teaching those human beings way more than just the limited information contained on the metric-measuring test;
- Tie those simple metric-based judgments to teacher evaluations, pay, and related employment decisions;
- Observe results of teaching that becomes more narrowly focused in order to maximize the scores that lead to the judgments about both teacher and student (both of which are complex human beings who predictably respond to fear, stress, and external incentives);
- Increase the focus on the simple but scientific metrics in order to raise performance;
- Return to Step #3 and continue;
- ad infinitum (Latin for “Lather, rinse, repeat”).
There is no shortage of voices out there making this case that this process is not working, nor should it be expected to succeed given what an “education” is and how “learning” works. “Teaching to the test” is not something anyone wants to happen, and yet the system that pushes all involved down that very path continues unabated. Performing well on the single metric of the test gives the appearance of success, even as the system is killing itself in the process.
This same, counterproductive machinery is at the heart of how many leaders fail their people as well.
Just as with the educational system and standardized testing, too many organizational leaders repeat the same Taylorist pattern in leading. If you’re a high-level executive, substitute simple metrics like stock price and earnings per share for standardized test scores and the same myopic shortcomings play out. Two problems arise for the leader who relies too much on these narrow metrics:
• The leader gets an incomplete picture of how the people and organization are actually performing;
• The leader reacts to the incentives/disincentives of this narrow, simple data point and leads the organization in ways that will drive the next round of metric data points, but will be counterproductive to the organization’s long-term success.
Think this is overstated hyperbole aimed at making an ideological point? Take the word of the leaders themselves. In her book The Shareholder Value Myth, Cornell Law professor Lynn Stout cites the alarming finding of a study by researchers at Duke University and the University of Washington:
One recent survey of 400 corporate finance officers found that a full 80 percent reported they would cut expenses like marketing or product development to make their quarterly earnings targets, even if they knew the likely result was to hurt long-term corporate performance. (Emphasis added.)
Think about that: 80% of top-tier corporate leaders would knowingly sacrifice the business’ ability to perform over the long-haul in order to produce the optimal result on the singular, short-term metric of quarterly earnings targets. This single-metric approach to judging performance creates an institutional pressure to cannibalize the very purpose of the organizational mission. Feeding the demands of driving up the score ends up being the only thing that matters. It isn’t always just a matter of cutting near-term costs, either. Sometimes the warping effect of “leading to the test” is more sinister.
In the most obvious, recent case of Wells Fargo, the pressure to meet quarterly earnings targets in order to drive up the stock price led to the oppressive culture of sales expectations that enveloped Wells Fargo’s retail banking division. Despite the stated corporate values of doing right by their people and customers, Wells Fargo’s leadership put massive amounts of systemic stress on its banking employees. This pressure became so heavy that thousands of employees responded by cheating the system and abusing their customers in order to meet expectations and avoid getting fired. In fact, one Wells Fargo banker in Wisconsin took to drinking hand sanitizer to deal with the pressure. (Yes, really.) While the metric of Wells Fargo’s stock price appeared to show that the company was performing admirably, the reality hiding behind the numbers was something else entirely.
We’ve also seen this destructive leadership happen in education, as teachers and administrators resort to test-focused teaching and sometimes even cheating to make the only grade that matters. As reported by the Washington Post, the U.S. Government Accountability Office fielded reports of cheating by officials in 40 different states in just 2013 alone. In Atlanta, an investigation into the country’s largest standardized test cheating scandal identified 178 administrators, principals and teachers involved in the cheating scheme throughout more than 40 Atlanta schools. Of them, 34 were criminally indicted, and eight were ultimately sentenced to varying terms of prison. The truly damaging aspect of this crime, according to the sentencing judge, was not the damage done to the testing system and its validity as a result of the large-scale fixing of individual test scores. Rather, it was to the education of the children itself, which was allowed to be neglected behind the facade of testing success.
(Judge Jerry W.) Baxter said he couldn’t look away from the wrongdoing that had been documented in his courtroom. Some of the most vulnerable children in the city had been shortchanged of an education, he said, passed on despite not knowing how to read. Some are almost certain to end up in his courtroom as defendants headed to prison, he added.
“There’s more to this than let’s forget about it and move on,” Baxter said. “Something awful has gone wrong here.”
This is the risk of reducing things as complex as education and organizational performance to simplistic measures as test scores and stock prices. Not only does focusing on these metrics not lead to better outcomes; it actually blindfolds educational systems and leadership teams alike to the destructive consequences of teaching and leading only to those metrics. Remember: the metric is the measure of the Thing you’re trying to accomplish; it is not the Thing itself.