Targets don't make children smarter. Investing in having better teachers and giving them the freedom to teach does

Today the Government announced a target for 80% of Year 8 students to achieve national standards in writing and maths. This is on the back of the target to ensure 80% of students leave with NCEA Level 2. 

Sounds pretty good huh? Who wouldn’t want more of our children to have better maths and writing? The trouble is that you don’t make a pig fatter by weighting it. There are a whole swag of problems with a target based approach to learning. Basically it assumes that our teachers are lazy, can’t be bothered doing their job, and that giving them a target will help focus their mind. It assumes they can be motivated like they are factory workers of old, but the education system is supposed to be preparing for the modern economy. 

Problems with targets

Targets can work well; some of the Government’s Better Public Service have successful. Others have failed like the target for reduced reoffending rates which has been dropped after they achieved only 4.5% compared with a target of 25%. Still others look like they have succeeded, but may not be all that they appear. The target for 80% of students to reach NCEA Level 2 and the new target for writing and maths at Year 8 are a good example.

Even when these sorts of targets are achieved, they tend to fail in terms of helping students learn. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Tests, marking and administration of these targets take up valuable school time that would be better spent teaching and learning.
  2. The targets aren’t fair. Some children, particularly poor ones, come to school 2 years behind. The schools with many poor children have a much harder job hitting these targets than schools full of rich kids.
  3. Most tests are pretty subjective, national standards included. So if you set a target the risk is that grades will simply be inflated (i.e. standards lowered) until the target is hit.
  4. In an effort to overcome the point above, tests are often made more objective. This means that more complex thinking skills are ditched in favour of ‘surface knowledge’ like memorising facts. This is not the sort of teaching that will prepare our children for a modern economy.
  5. Setting a high stakes target means that teachers will teach to the test, regardless of whether that is the best thing for the child. Another variant of this problem is that schools will put more resource into the children that are just below the target to boost their pass rates. Meanwhile successful children and those in real need of help miss out.

Time and time again around the world studies have shown that focusing on testing and targets doesn’t make children smarter. Investing in having better teachers and then giving them the freedom to teach make students smarter.

UK Case Study

To give some context we can examine what has been happening recently in the UK and US.  Monitoring of A level results through a government target saw a considerable rise in student pass rates; while over the related period PISA results fell. 

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Pass levels increased from around 70% to 98% and PISA results fell from 529 (9th position) in 2000 to 494 (26th) in 2012. When looking at this grade inflation there are a number of potential factors (as discussed above) that could have influence on these scores, however the results are in line with evidence provided by Hattie, McKinsey and others around the effects of monitoring and result targeting.

Targets can be a useful way of sharpening the focus of public sector agencies. But high stakes targets need to be set very carefully as they risk distorting the whole way people work. And they are certainly not a replacement for looking at the evidence of what works.