Beginning of July already, can you believe it? I feel like spring break was just a couple of weeks ago. At the same time, it’s only two weeks since we were getting to start HQI Live in Milford, and that seems like a very long time ago—so much has happened since then. The Strategy Workshop was at the tail end of last week, and that was very fun, although also jam-packed with information, and we still didn’t have time to talk about all the things I would like to have included. Having faced that harsh reality, I now turn to the next best thing I have, which is to write about these ideas in the Coaching Letter. So let’s talk about Campbell’s Law.
Campbell’s Law is the big idea that once you publicize a measurable outcome, it acquires power, but it loses meaning. It no longer tells you what you think it’s telling you. In education, we fall victim to this all the time. Rick Hess, who releases 60 second videos on Twitter frequently, and is worth following @RickHess99, shared a 60 second video on Campbell’s Law that is worth watching. You can also read about it here and here.
Let’s say, for example, that a district identifies writing scores as a goal for your strategic plan or school improvement plan. I was just telling the participants at the Strategy Workshop about a deputy superintendent I used to work for. He would say, “the superintendent’s goals are my goals, and my goals are your goals.” So the way this often plays is out is that principals go back to their buildings and tell teachers that they (the principal and the teachers) are being held accountable for their writing scores. The logical thing to do at this point is to focus on increasing the writing scores. Which sounds like a smart thing to do—don’t we want all students to be better writers? Well, kinda sorta. Because frequently there is a trade-off whereby an increased focus on scoring well on a particular test means spending more instructional time on tasks that are not necessarily beneficial for students in the long run: for example, by spending more time on discrete skills rather than by writing.
I had this conversation with my bestie Ann O’Doherty this morning over Katy Crofts’ blueberry muffins, and we reminisced about how the scoring of the writing test in Texas corrupted the teaching of writing. Teachers, understandably, taught the features of the rubric as good writing, leading to students thinking that all essays had to have five paragraphs and all paragraphs had to have eight sentences.
You have to ask yourself, at that point, whether broadcasting the focus on writing scores is worth it. Because, assuming that the test scores actually increase, you don’t know whether the quality of students’ writing has increased, or whether you have actually sacrificed the overall richness of good writing in service of the poverty of a checklist.
You may have, in others words, incentivized poorer rather than better practice.
The worst case scenario is that the stakes are so high that people not only game the system, they start betting against it. Bad things happen when you incentivize goals that people don’t know how to reach. Probably the nadir of this effect is epitomized by what happened in Atlanta, which you can read about in this New Yorker article. I feel very bad for the educators caught up in this mess, many of whom went to jail: here is the New York Times coverage of that.
What, then, is the solution to the problem posed by Campbell’s Law? Because surely it’s irresponsible not to have goals, and not to have accountability? It certainly is. We live in a data-obsessed world. But not everyone should be paying attention to the same data. Rick Stiggins, another one of my intellectual heroes, was very clear on this point. We should have measurable outcomes, but that doesn’t mean that everyone should have those outcomes as their goal. An evidence-based approach to goals would suggest that leaders at the organizational or program level should be paying attention to outcome measures, but the people at the chalk face, so to speak, should instead be focused on improving their own capacity to implement the strategy to reach those goals.
So here’s how savvy leaders think about this, expressed as questions that will be familiar to attendees of the Strategy Workshop:
- What is the outcome that you want for students? This can be expressed as your district vision, or could be nested within that; if your district vision requires that students become critical thinkers, or self-directed learners, how would you measure that in 8th grade science, or 4th grade language arts, or Kindergarten? This is, traditionally, the object of focus of the “my goals are your goals” conversation.
- What is your theory for what curriculum and instruction should look like in order to produce the outcomes you want? And what does that look like in 8th grade science, or 4th grade language arts, or Kindergarten? THIS is what you should be holding people accountable to: enacting the district strategy for improvement.
- How will you know that the strategy is being enacted the way you think it should? And if it isn’t, how will you know why not? Could be that they don’t have the capacity (which is a leadership challenge), could be that they don’t have the resources (which is a leadership challenge), could be that they don’t really believe in the theory of action/strategy (which is a leadership challenge), could be that they are lazy scum-buckets (which is a leadership challenge), could be that the system is actually not set up to support a shift away from previous practice (which is a leadership challenge), could be… I could go on.
I hope you understand that I’m not suggesting that you should abandon outcome goals. I think you should have them. What I am suggesting is that you NOT make a big deal out of them, because that has unintended undesirable consequences. Instead, you should focus on constantly monitoring, improving and refining your strategy for reaching your goals—a process that Amy Edmondson describes in this article, which I have linked to before. To loop back to the writing example, instead of “holding people accountable” for writing scores, what should be emphasized is the improvement of writing instruction.
Finally, a big shout-out to the participants in the Strategy Workshop, who came from across Connecticut: Cheshire, Canterbury, Region 13, Milford, Bridgeport, Naugatuck, Bristol, and Stratford. They worked really hard and were really great to work with.
I hope you have an explosive Fourth of July. Best, Isobel