Lowering Standards in the US and “Hidden Rules” in China: Campbell’s Law and The Causes Education Corruption
On October 28, the New York Times reported a federal study that finds that nearly a third of the states in the U.S. lowered their academic standards in recent years, a phenomenon called “Race to the Bottom” by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. A day later, the same paper reports a story about a New York City school principal being accused of tampering with student grades in order to boost graduation rates in the school. Stories like these are not new. There have been many other reports about schools, states, and teachers engaged in activities that can be considered “undesirable” or even unethical in order to meet high-stakes mandates.
Coincidentally, on October 31st, the day China replaced its Minister of Education, China Central Television (CCTV), the state-run national TV station, exposed eight persistent education problems, or cases of corruption. The station called them “hidden rules” in contrast to “transparent rules” set by government policies.
- “Enrolling in neighborhood schools without selection exams” became “struggle to select schools.” As early as 1984, the Chinese Ministry of Education made it a policy that public schools must enroll students from their own neighborhood districts and are forbidden to take students from outside their service area. But over 20 years later, parents are still struggling to get their students enrolled in better schools outside their neighborhood through all sorts of means.
- School Selection Fees become Voluntary Donations. In 1991 the Ministry of Education issued regulations about school fees, forbidding schools to ask for or accept school selection fees from parents. But today, parents whose children are not eligible to enroll in the “good schools” but desire to do so still have to pay a hefty school selection fee to these public schools. Worse yet, these fees are labeled “voluntary donations” to evade government rules.
- Math Olympiad becomes “Hope Cup” or other types of contests. Although in many places, government and education agencies have banned the practice of “Math Olympiad” and its associated prep classes [because it was deemed harmful to students’ education], a new series of contests have mushroomed, which in substance is the same as the Math Olympiad—the same items, the same teachers.
- College Admissions Rate still the #1 Indicator of Quality of Schools. As early as 1983, the Ministry of Education demanded that schools not to pursue college admissions rate as the sole indicator of quality of education. But in fact, schools still compete on this indicator.
- “Key Classes” become “Innovation Classes.” “Key classes” is a common practice to sort students in Chinese schools. The “good students,” those who test well, are placed in “key classes,” which often are given more resources and better teachers. Theoretically the practice has been banned to ensure equity but in reality it continues to exist under different names such as Experimental Classes or Innovation Classes.
- “Extra Classes” now Have “Parents Committees.” Schools are forbidden from offering extra lessons during holidays and vacations to students to reduce student burden but now schools continue to offer them (with extra fees). To evade the rules, these lessons are now supposedly offered by “Parents Committees” and students are asked to sign testimonials.
- “I Teach Your Students.” The Ministry of Education has explicitly expressed its opposition to “paid tutoring by teachers.” But teachers continue to do so, except that they swap students and emphasize that what is taught in tutoring sessions are not taught in regular classes.
- Full-time Training Classes Offered in Different Locations. In 1988, the Ministry of Education issued an order that forbids schools to offer any form of fulltime repeating classes for entrance exams for any reason. Now schools continue to do so, except that these classes are held outside school in different locations.
Underlying all these “hidden rules” is something very simple: the desire to help students obtain high test scores in the College Entrance Exam so the students can get into college or a better college. Parents want that, schools want that, so whatever measures are out there to re-orient schooling in China toward true education instead of test preparation are not going to have much effect. Schools, parents, and students will continue to work for test scores in subject areas that count.
On the surface, the corruption cases in the US may seem different from those in China, the root cause is actually the same: the desire to demonstrate good performance according to some standardized quantitative measures.
This phenomenon has been termed Campbell’s Law after the social scientist Donald T. Campbell, who observed: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
Specifically about testing, Campbell said:
achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.