By: Dr. Benny Lile (Guest post)
If one has studied state assessment and accountability programs in much depth, it is a good bet there has been an encounter with “Campbell’s Law”. Coined by Donald Campbell in his 1976 work Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change he posited, “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.”
To interpret, if we are to be publicly measured and held in comparison by some indicator in which we contain a least a modicum of control, then we, being the humans we are, will manipulate said indicator to the extent it makes us look better in the court of public opinion.
As one who has worked extensively in the assessment field for over thirty years as well as completing doctoral studies in the arena, Campbell’s Law is no surprise. The effect is observed on a regular basis. What is surprising is how much we have in common with the animal kingdom in this regard.
As reported by CNN in August 2014, the Chinese panda Ai Hin was thought to be expecting a little baby panda earlier that year. She was rewarded with a single room, air conditioning, fruit and an abundance of bamboo. There was just one problem. Ai Hin wasn’t pregnant. It is suspected she faked it all, right down to a change in appetite and an increase in her progestational hormones.
Actually, Ai Hin may have thought she was pregnant. The enticement of the preferential treatment and ceaseless attention may have very well convinced her that life was better than it was. In reality Ai Hin was more like the 80% of other pandas that don’t become pregnant each year or even the 95% that don’t end in a successful live birth. This doesn’t mean Ai Hin is bad. No, she is actually an attractive, lovable, adorable, panda that any American zoo would gladly accept at a moment’s notice.
The point? Campbell’s Law in humans (read educators) is not much different than the Panda Effect. We desire the Blue Flags, the “Distinguished” label, the “Pacesetter” designation, the top ten status…to the point we are willing to act like the others and do what we “think” they are doing, and maybe even push the ethical envelope a bit just to get there. Oh yes, there are schools that have valid results…but after so many instances of false pregnancies…how do we know reality when we see it?
What if the panda isn’t pregnant? What if a school really doesn’t possess the strengths an arbitrary ranking system shows them to have? Just like Ai Hin who is still a wonderful creature, expectant or not…our children are just as adorable, just as special, regardless of what niceties are flourished upon them or withheld from them, based upon the label that a school holds or doesn’t hold.
The message to schools and school leaders? If you are not pregnant, don’t act like it. When the time comes, if there is no live birth the world will know, and so will the students.