Superstitious Birds, Helpless Dogs, and Public School Teachers

Superstitious Birds, Helpless Dogs, and No Child Left Behind

Posted Nov 14, 2010

Animals do weird things when given random rewards and punishments. When BF Skinner gave pigeons food randomly, the birds developed odd repetitive behaviors. The pigeons performed strange dance-like behaviors: turning in circles, poking their heads toward corners of the cage, or repetitively tossing their heads. Skinner called these dances superstitious behavior. The silly pigeons increased their rate of superstitious dancing, even though their dancing was not the cause of the food reward. Skinner argued that humans also display superstitious behaviors unrelated to rewards - such as rituals related to luck.

Superstitious pigeon dances are kind of funny. Helpless dogs are not. When dogs are given inescapable electrical shock, at first they run around trying to escape. But there is no escape. The shock turns on and off randomly with no connection to what the dogs do. Eventually the dogs give up, they lay down, and simply whine whenever the shock is turned on. Worse, if the dog is then placed in a new situation, one in which it can escape from the shock, the dog fails to escape. The dog has learned helplessness. Martin Seligman and his colleagues have argued that humans display learned helplessness in many situations. If punishment is inescapable, humans quit trying just like those poor dogs. Learned helplessness can occur both in academic and social situations. People try various behaviors, but fail no matter what. They eventually give up and quit trying anything at all.

So how are public school teachers like superstitious pigeons and helpless dogs? No, this isn't the start of some odd joke. Instead this is a comment about how No Child Left Behind is being administered.

No Child Left Behind administers rewards and punishments to teachers randomly, that is with little connection to what the teachers do. Teachers will start to display superstitious dancing in some schools, look to escape from failing schools, and learn helplessness if the punishment is inescapable.

No Child Left Behind has a great goal - make sure that all children meet basic standards. To assess whether students are meeting the standard, students are tested regularly. If the percentage of students who pass is too low at a school, then the school and all the teachers are given a punishment - not making adequate yearly progress. If too many students fail for too many years in a row, then serious consequences can follow - close the school, fire the teachers and administrators, or have the state take over the school. Multiple punishments are given to the schools and the people who work there if the students don't pass the tests.

Here is the problem: the teachers and administrators are punished randomly and inescapably, because the punishment is not based on what the teachers do. Nothing the teachers do will allow them to escape the punishment. But wait you might argue: If teachers work hard, help the students and the students pass, then everything is fine. But in many schools, students come in poorly prepared. The students didn't pass the test the previous year and were nowhere near the standard. Most teachers are working hard. Most likely the students are learning and getting better. By any measure, the students may be performing much better at the end of the year. But given where the students started, not enough progress was made in that single year to compensate for being years behind academically. The students still don't pass the test. Work hard, help the students, but you FAIL! Next year the cycle repeats with a new set of underprepared students. Try a new curriculum, work hard, the students learn, but not enough students pass because they started the year so far behind, and you FAIL! Inescapable punishment. Your behavior has an effect on the students, but not on the response of No Child Left Behind. The problem is that we don't care where the students started the year. We are merely looking at an arbitrary standard, so you FAIL.

Many schools and teachers have been through multiple cycles of inescapable punishment. We should be seeing attempts at escape. In a recent report I read in Newsweek, researchers have reported that in schools with students not meeting standards, the rate at which teachers leave is double the national average. Repeatedly tell teachers that they are failing, no matter how much they accomplish in a year, and many will leave for schools in which the students pass the tests.

Of course, teachers in the schools with well-prepared students may develop superstitious behaviors. These students pass, but perhaps not because of anything the teachers did. Many of those students would pass no matter what the teachers did. Nonetheless, the teachers are told that their school is successful (a nice little reward) and they repeat the behaviors that they've been doing. In schools with successful students, teachers may become superstitious pigeons dancing to the No Child Left Behind tune.

No Child Left Behind has a fundamentally flawed method of measuring what is an inherently good goal. A better approach would be to assess what was accomplished by a school and its teachers during a year. Where were the students at the start of the year and where are they at the end of the year? What teachers do directly relates to what children learn doing one year (although clearly other things influence learning as well). Measuring change in a year would mean that teachers and schools would be rewarded and punished for what they did. Those rewards and punishments would be meaningful. Then we wouldn't end up with superstitious dancing teachers and learned helplessness teachers.