Schools and Our Children: Administrations and the U.S. Education System Get a Failing Grade

School bells may be ringing across the country but I am convinced now more than ever that we are not prepared to provide the best education possible for our kids. I was disheartened to learn of the cheating scandal that is rocking the Atlanta Public Schools. And to further hear of the reoccurring issues with the government’s No Child Left Behind program. More than half the nation’s schools are in jeopardy of failing to meet reading and math adequacy standards. More than half! Monetary implications aside, what are we doing to today’s youth? And to our nation’s future? It is clear, as was evident in the Atlanta Public Schools fiasco, that what was well-intended when the No Child Left Behind program was initiated has set up a culture of penalty and punishment if targets are not achieved. It can be said based on past history that the federal government spends little time when it designs regulations to consider how to create student success through policy. 

Little thought of how such a policy, if designed thoughtfully, can shape educational cultures of delight where students learn at high and steady rates. What we see instead are policies that often set a goal—and attach a penalty if the school does not do it. What No Child has done is create threat and fear, in the administration, with the teachers, and even down to the students themselves.  Teachers and administrators who participated in the Atlanta scandal, it’s fair to surmise, were doing what they thought ‘best’ in the name of avoiding the loss of funding they would be awarded by meeting government-set standards. A major overhaul needs to be undertaken in Atlanta and across the country; and we must look to the context—the requirements that are naïve at best! Much of what is wrong with these programs can be fixed and the yield will be outstanding and effective teachers and students that reach higher levels of learning. 

The solution is an understanding of behavior, not from a common sense perspective but a scientific one. I believe the Atlanta Public School has done the right thing in firing school personnel who have been caught changing test scores.  Not that cheaters cannot be changed but in my experience, lying, cheating and stealing have always been firing offenses.  The problem in changing such behavior is that it is very difficult to put immediate consequences on the negative behavior (i.e. changing test scores) and therefore it makes the delivery of effective consequences necessary to change the bad habits difficult to manage. Although I am sure that the problem was produced by ineffective leadership at the highest level that deliberately or accidentally created a system that tempted wrongdoing, it is better to eliminate those who folded under the pressure to produce false results. The incident reminds me of when I was a lieutenant in the Army.  If I heard it one time, I must have heard it one hundred, “I don’t care how you get it, just get it.  And by the way I don’t want to know how you get it...”  Although I am sure this was never said by school administration, the pervasiveness of the behavior indicates that the pressure was there. Until there is an administration where leaders understand the direct and indirect impact of their policies, procedures and management and supervisory behaviors on the behavior of teachers, the problem will not go away. When you award a bonus for increasing test scores, you can hardly claim lack of culpability in the scandal as there are people who will lie, cheat and steal to get it. 

They may think they are working for the greater good—the survival of the school system, the obtaining of needed resources for the children, and of course, their own self-interest—continued employment. When you only look at results and not behaviors, people often find “more than one way to skin a cat.”  Taking the test for the student is one. That slippery slope of how we reach incredibly wrong decisions often starts with subtle or visible threat and fear, not from the ‘bad character’ of a few.  In spite of the bonus, I am confident that most people who were caught did not do it for the bonus but because of the negative consequences around failing to produce the required progress. I submit that all staff in the system is there for one reason – to help children learn.  By doing some reverse behavioral engineering (RBE), the criticality of those jobs can be determined fairly quickly.  By RBE, I mean start with the student and ask how a job helps the student learn.  Of course the main responsibility falls on the teacher.  Therefore most staff positions should exist to support the teacher in being effective in the class room.  In my experience, most staff positions make it more difficult rather than easier to do the job. As far as testing goes, the teacher should be evaluated on the number of children who perform to some standard or show significant improvement – not an average for the class but the number who are successful.

The teacher’s success metric is ‘number of individual students making progress above their baseline’.   Dr. Fred Keller, a pioneer researcher and teacher said, “If the student doesn’t learn, he wasn’t taught.”  Local administrators should be measured on the number of successful teachers, and so on up the line.  Rewards and punishment should not be delivered on results without factoring in how the results were obtained.  This means that teachers should be observed so that inefficient and ineffective practices can be determined and corrected when they happen.  The measure of observer (coach) effectiveness is whether teachers ask for the help.  Artists want people to see their work; athletes want people watch them play; musicians want people to listen to them play.  Why would teachers who are good at what they do not want people to see how they do what they do.  They will when they are successful.  If coaches (i.e. administration) help teachers teach more effectively, they want people to know and will welcome observers in their classrooms.  What this means is that results will never be a surprise as problems will be identified and corrected in real time. Over time most of the observations will be positive as the students will be achieving at high rates. In 1983, Dr. B.F.Skinner wrote in “The Shame of American Education” that the data showed that the technology of teaching existed to teach twice as much in half the time.  That was almost 30 years ago.  It has been done in only a very few places.  It has been verified and documented in the toughest of schools and with a wide variety of students, some who are labeled as hyperactive, from poor homes, without qualities of persistence, without learning being a value in their home environments, all the things that have been said about why teaching is so hard. These processes have created eager learners, wanting to go to school, teachers who find joy in their impact, parents who are amazed and delighted with new found love of learning in their children and our society that benefits as these students go on to make a difference in our world. What better time than now to do it in the Atlanta City Schools and throughout the country.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.