Archive for the ‘Standardized Testing’ category

Goals Gone Wild

January 15, 2010

I’ve often said that the moment you try to run schools like a business you succeed only in running it like the worst type of top down autocratic business where the big bosses make edicts that have nothing to do with the job reality of their work force.   In other words, think of Chrysler in the 1970s.   I love the blueberry story, which does an excellent job of explaining that since schools have no choice over quality control of our “ingredients” running us like a business is doomed to fail.  However, listening to NPR on the way to meet a friend for dinner tonight, I was struck by story about a paper that was produced last year by scholars from Harvard Business School, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Eller College of Management, and Wharton School entitled Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting.

As the Illinois Senate was busy tying half my teacher evaluation to standardized test scores, I thought it was a particularly relevant paper for those who want to base everything schools do around filling in circles with number two pencils.  The paper argues, ” that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”

There are some great anecdote’s in the paper such as when Ford was losing market share in the 1960s to foreign competitors and Lee Iacocca set the goal of producing a car that sold for $2,000 and weighed less than 2,000 pounds available for sale by 1970.  The goal and the tight deadline meant that many levels of management signed off on unperformed safety checks.   One of the safety checks involved the fuel tank which had less than 10 inches of crush space behind the rear axle.  As a result, the Ford Pinto had a nasty tendency of bursting into flame on impact.   The result of Iacocca’s Pinto was 53 deaths, millions of dollars in lawsuits, and serious harm to Ford’s reputation.

This doesn’t just apply to business.   This applies to the school setting as well.   The authors of the paper found that:

  • The harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged.
  • Goal setting harms organizations in systematic and predictable ways.
  • The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.
  • In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.
  • Managers should ask specific questions to ascertain whether the harmful effects of goal setting outweigh the potential benefits.

Do we really believe that the state legislatures around this country are going to be doing anything to monitor these goals to perform a cost/ benefit analysis?   The entire paper can be found here and makes for a very interesting read when looked at through the prism of standardized testing.  I think it might be helpful to look at the harmful side effects one by one:

  1. A Narrow Focus that Neglects Non-Goal Areas – In other words, teaching to the test and ignoring things like critical thinking, writing, art, and socialization.
  2. A Rise in Unethical Behavior – When you base people’s entire livelihood on one test, desperate people will cheat.
  3. Corrosion of Organizational Culture – When everybody is focused on the test, finger pointing will ensue.   The 6th grade teacher will be mad at the 5th grade teacher for things that were not covered in 5th grade.   A strong move is made from teachers as colleagues to competitors.
  4. Reduced Intrinsic Motivation – When everything is about the test score, why bother with anything else?  Why put in extra time on something that won’t increase scores if your job depends mostly on standardized testing?

The authors of the study never say that goal setting is bad.  As teachers, it is something we do all the time.   What they say, however is focusing too much attention on one goal will backfire because it will lead the employees to neglect everything, but the goal.   They offer many examples.  The paper is only 15 pages long and I see so many corollaries between the businesses they talk about and the current education reform movement.   Give it a read.  It’ll make a lot of sense.   I’ll say it again–If you run a school like a business, you run it like a very bad business.