“Test and punish”?
There’s a debate raging in American schools today: how (and how much) should children be tested?
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act created a system where all children in all schools from grades 3 to 8 must be tested each year. Critics refer to this accountability architecture as “test and punish,” with stakes such as school funding (or closings!), bonuses for teachers, or grade promotion for students all riding on performance. There is evidence that NCLB improved learning outcomes, but improvements came at a high cost: In addition to teaching to the test, this approach can lead to a number of perverse incentives, like keeping weaker students at home on test day, narrowing the curriculum, or downright cheating. Worse, some have said they can serve to mask and contribute to the structural race and class inequalities in the United States.
“Test and punish”?
The elusive quest to scale
Some 15 years ago, I was in a small town in Hoshangabad district (India) attending a workshop with government schoolteachers, where we were examining student test scores. Instructors from Eklavya, a non-profit supporting the government, were skillfully leading teachers through an intensely engaging session on why a child might have written a particular answer, what was right and what was wrong with the answer, how to grade it, and how a teacher could help the child improve. Everyone was sharing lessons and learning.
I Will Always Write Back is the true story of Martin Ganda and Caitlin Alifirenka, who became pen pals -- between Zimbabwe and the USA -- in middle (or lower secondary) school. Over time, they learn from each other, and ultimately Caitlin's family realizes the depth of need of Martin and his family -- living in a slum on the outskirts of the city Matate -- and provides support beyond the letters, all to an inspiring end (which I won't spoil).
This book is on many middle school reading lists, with good reason. My thirteen-year-old son just read and enjoyed it. It provides an introduction to life in Zimbabwe and a range of challenges that might never occur to a child (or adult, for that matter) in a high-income country. I've never worked in Zimbabwe, but I have studied education in many countries, including several countries around Sub-Saharan Africa, and the characterizations of life broadly rang true.
Last Wednesday, the World Development Report 2018, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise (WDR) was released. It argues that there is a learning crisis: in many developing countries, children learn very little, educational opportunities are unequal, and educational progress is still very slow. What do we need to change this? We need prepared learners, who receive adequate nutrition and stimulation in their early years. We need well managed schools that create an environment conducive to learning. We need adequate inputs so that schools can operate effectively. But above all, we need motivated and well-prepared teachers. In classrooms around the world, white boards and screens have replaced black boards and notebooks are increasingly commonplace. But in this 21st century, with increased use of technology, there is one constant that determines, more than anything else, whether children learn at school: teachers. Indeed, teachers remain central to the classroom experience. And yet in many countries, the teaching profession needs attention and reform.
In a recent exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, “Dinosaurs Among Us,” paleontologists use prehistoric fossil records of bones, feathers, and nests to show that some dinosaurs did not go extinct but, rather, evolved into the creatures we see today. The links they trace show how avian dinosaurs (ones that fly) evolved into modern-day birds. Paleontologists argue that avian-dinosaurs’ swift aerial mobility played a key role in determining their survival while their land-based relatives failed to thrive. Flight enabled them to relocate and adapt to drastically changing environments—a skill that their land-based relatives lacked.
Figure 1. Paleontologists argue that avian-dinosaurs (left) adapted to the changing environment quickly and evolved into birds (right).
The 2018 World Development Report (WDR), Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, launched this week. While it draws on research and collective experience—both from within and outside the World Bank—it also draws on the personal experience of the team members, including the two of us. What inspires the focus on learning for all is that we both have seen the possibilities of widely shared learning, but we’ve also seen what happens when those possibilities aren’t fulfilled.
- WDR 2018
Who doesn’t enjoy an afternoon at the movies? Yet sometimes a cinema screening can be more than just fun. An experiment in Uganda demonstrates how an inspiring, relatable figure in a movie can actually help students to pass their math exams.
We all benefit from role models, whether it’s in school, work, or our personal life. A role model shows us how we can be more or achieve more. In Madagascar, a role model (in this case, an “educated person with high income, who grew up in the local school district”) sharing her life story at a school significantly increased students’ test performance. (Notably, the effect only materialized when the role model had come from a poor background, not when she came from a well-off background.) In Uganda, women who work in male-dominated sectors – and subsequently make much more money – point to the importance of role models in showing them they can succeed.
Countries around the world have experimented with “school report cards”: providing parents with information about the quality of their school so that they can demand higher quality service for their children. The results have been mixed. Andrabi, Das, and Khwaja bring a significant contribution to that literature in last month’s American Economic Review with their article using data from Pakistan, “Report Cards: The Impact of Providing School and Child Test Scores on Educational Markets.”