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Legislating Performance

Watching the BBC’s video report on Finnish schools, I was struck by two things outside the schoolhouse. One was that the family serving as a focal point of the report ate meals together, including breakfast, conversing with one another over their dishes. Dad asked the kids about their day at school. The other was the head teacher (principal) interviewed. He appreciated that Finnish governmental officials trusted him and his teachers to go about their business.

To put this in perspective, you must try and imagine an interview by CNN of the principal of a school in California or Florida, in which the principal thanks his home state’s politicians for the trust they repose in him and his teachers. You must also imagine breakfast tables across California with school children eating while having a friendly give-and-take with Mom and Dad before heading off to school. And you must imagine young Californians and Floridians beaming over their scores on graduation tests that have not been cooked so that students can pass them with random answers, as can happen with tests for promotion in New York.

Wanting to do its part in making this imaginative indulgence a reality, the Florida State Legislature recently passed a bill basing teachers’ pay partly on the scores their students get on standardized tests. The Governor vetoed the bill as I was writing this piece. I doubt the bill would have done any good. To see why, let’s imagine a new, improved formula based on the same old, ineffective premises.

Since the legislature has decided to manage details of educational policy, the new bill would have to include legislators’ pay in its performance-based scheme. When it sets policies that result in higher scores, its members get a raise. Otherwise, they would get a pay cut.

Since parents’ formation of their children’s home life has such a great effect on how they do in school, parents would need to have their performance evaluated and either rewarded or penalized too. Florida tax forms could have a section in which parents report their children’s test scores. If they exceed a certain amount, the parents would receive an augmented refund or be forgiven a part of their tax bill. Otherwise, they would be subject to a surcharge.

You can see what dump this thought-experiment belongs in, so you should draw the needed conclusion about any test-based rewards and penalties assessed by legislation directed at classes of people. No, not New York-style promotion tests either. The solutions lie elsewhere.

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