Moral Hazard

I hope I am not the only one cataloging the “Abu Ghraib“-ing of the Atlanta cheating scandal: the assignment of blame to a few low-level “bad actors” whose motivations mystify the rest of us, while failing to account for institutional factors that are much harder to address. Note this quote from Richard Hyde, the investigator who uncovered the trends, as he describes emerging evidence that a similar thing happened in Dougherty County:

“The level of confessions we’ve received and the cooperation of parents we’re getting here is greater than it was in Atlanta,” Hyde said. The teachers who have confessed, he said, have generally shown remorse. “I don’t know what their motives are,” he said. “It could be anything from self-aggrandizement and praise to promotions.”

Come now – what could their motives have possibly been? This looks to me like a textbook situation of moral hazard: a situation in which the incentives to act in one’s best interest confound an individual’s ability to make ethical choices. But the classic example from the insurance industry – someone burning down their house to collect on a policy that is worth more than the house is – does not hold here. Teachers who work under threat of sanction, demotion, and dismissal for failing to raise test scores are not looking to get rich quick. They are trying to hold on to the meager security they already have.

Let’s remember also that a primary criterion for which states receive Race to the Top funds is their commitment to linking individual student test data to specific teachers (by 2014, in NC, vide infra). If anything, the built-in pressure for a teacher to show improvements on standardized tests or lose her job is becoming stronger, not weaker. Couple that with a teacher’s vulnerability in bucking the entrenched culture of power by standing up to a principal requiring unethical behavior – a principal whose job is also on the line – and you have a clear situation where an institution has forced the hand of its lowest-level members.

In my doc seminar last night we discussed Kieran Egan’s terrific reimagining of American schools. His provocative way of sharing that vision comes in the form of an imagined history of the next fifty years, a frame that is both frustrating and revealing. In his account, the trigger for a turn away from an atomized, standardized notion of accountability toward a more satisfying one is an environmental cataclysm that forces us to re-evaluate what our schools are and are not doing. That led to a discussion of how past sea changes in education have been associated with other “cataclysmic” social events (the immigration booms, Sputnik) that focused public energy and political will on making changes to account for them.

We wondered: might there be a public cataclysm of faith in the accountability movement on the rise? The Atlanta debacle comes at the same time that other high-profile success stories are coming under public scrutiny for possible malfeasance. Michelle Rhee‘s tenure as chancellor of D.C. schools first among them; since she is the hero of the immensely influential Waiting for Superman, if her outcomes are discredited it will be a serious public blow. Taken together with Secretary Duncan’s (relatively) quiet, unilateral waivers of NCLB expectations on a state-by-state basis – and the outright refusal of a few states to comply with the law – we wondered if a similar event might be on the horizon: an irrefutable, public crisis of faith in the way we are doing things now that invites serious, ground-up work on what we should do differently.

Of course, the antecedents we discussed also happened in eras of faith in the value of federal investment in social programs of massive scope – not at all our present moment. Still, we wondered if the conditions might be leading toward a public reckoning with the fruits of the thirty years that have passed since A Nation at Risk (a manufactured cataclysm that seemed to meet the needs of other entrenched interests) made accountability and rigor the only show in town. And what might be the results of such a reckoning? To be clear, changing NCLB should not be a step away from accountability of our schools to our students’ best interests. Thoughtful proposals for what to do next seem to build on the strengths of measuring what can be measured. But the calls for change are mounting. I hope we protect the most vulnerable actors in the current situation – the teachers – in the process.

What do you think?

(Also please note some substantial revisions of my previous post on Arctic Monkeys.)

Thanks to Colonel Flick for the great image. All Rights Reserved.

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One thought on “Moral Hazard

  1. The application of Moral lHazard to the scandal is both appropriate and necessary. The frustration of teachers experiencing erosion of benefits and pensions, increased workload/class size and political attacks on their collective voice through their unions leads to an inevitable feeling of powerless. Meanwhile, the heightened level of scrutiny is occurring at the same time that teachers who speak out for teacher job security and due process are chastized for blocking education reform. It is simply not realistic to continually burden teachers and other public employees in this manner without expecting the instinct of self-preservation to kick in.

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