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Incentives to Improve Education

A New Perspective

Robert McMeekin

Incentives to Improve Education identifies three categories of incentives: rewards, (financial rewards for teachers), competition (educational choice, often in the form of payment for education by voucher) and threats (introduction of external standards and accountability for performance).
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Chapter 5: Threats: External Standards and Accountability

Robert McMeekin


The subject of standards and accountability could hardly be more relevant today. The recently enacted ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislation in the US brings the Federal government’s power to bear by mandating that all US states will adopt some form of accountability for school performance based on a single test (see Madaus and O’Dwyer, 1999). States that fail to do so will lose a portion of their funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The reaction to this ranges from applause to deep concern, as recent articles by Andrew Rotherham (2002), an advocate, and Richard Elmore (2002), an opponent, demonstrate. The ‘threats’ category of incentives is extremely complex. In part this is because the same words are used to mean very different things by different parties to the standards debate. An example of this ambiguity is found in the metaphor used by Scott Thompson, an opponent of high-stakes standardized testing, who says that the ‘standards movement’ has an ‘evil twin’ that looks just like it but is perverse (Thompson, 2000). Tests and standards have played a central role in education throughout history. At the most basic level, every responsible teacher uses some form of evaluation to determine whether each student has learned what the teacher has taught. At the level of the individual school, tests serve to evaluate all students in a given grade and subject according to a common standard. School boards and higher-level authorities use the information from testing to guide policies, identify problems and, in some...

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