Maureen Downey (Get Schooled, www.ajc.com) was kind enough to post my ramblings on the Milgram research of the 60’s. I’d been bothered for a long time at the self-righteous respoonses of so many posters on Maureen’s various reports on the educators accused of cheating at the two investigated school sytems in the state. Certainly those who transgressed will get their just due, but Milgram (and many others who replicated that research) showed quite conclusively that most of us when pressured by authority will in fact follow orders.

Here’s the piece:

This inferential statistician asks a probability question: Who among you think that two school systems in Georgia were the only ones in the nation that engaged in unauthorized test data manipulation (“cheating”) under NCLB?

I have watched the Georgia events unfold since questions arose about test results more than a decade ago. This saga has reminded me frequently of Stanley Milgram’s research in the 1960’s. An overview is at http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm.  Milgram wondered whether Adolf Eichmann could have “just” followed orders as he testified during his trial. In Milgram’s studies, participants readily administered what they were told were potentially lethal electric shocks to others after simply being told to do so. (The “recipients” actually just acted as if they received shock.) Numerous other studies have confirmed Milgram’s findings (a review of them was published by Thomas Blass in 1999). In his 1974 book Obedience to Authority, Milgram asked, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” Generalizing his findings beyond questions about the Holocaust, he concluded that “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Of course, the Holocaust was infinitely worse than any amount of student test results manipulation, yet if the Milgram study illustrates how readily so many will shock others, and if the Holocaust illustrates how readily so many will send others to their deaths, it’s not at all difficult to imagine that some educators might manipulate test scores if pressured by higher authorities. That’s not to say manipulating test scores (or shocking participants in an experiment) is excusable; it’s simply to suggest that current national accountability policy creates an environment in which we should not be surprised that some people behaved badly.  Perhaps we should be surprised, pleased, and perhaps even awed that the vast majority remained steadfast to their core educational beliefs and focused on doing what they knew was best for their students.

Given we’re so incessantly disposed to finger pointing, who in relation to NCLB would you choose as the equivalent to Hitler and Eichmann? Far more importantly, how might you suggest the-beatings-will-continue-until-morale-improves-prone policymakers rethink education policy so that we might begin making public education better rather than continuing to tear it apart? Will “Race to the Top” correct the mistakes of NCLB or is it just working around the edges of the same underlying approach?

I find this lesson from Milgram’s later work of interest: When a peer, told privately to refuse to administer high shock, was “planted” in the room, almost all of the participants also refused to administer high shock. Unfortunately, teachers who objected to cheating or refused to cheat were frequently threatened, punished or fired, and others learned that lesson. Perhaps if teachers were treated as respected professionals rather than as serfs (and scapegoats), they might have been heard when they spoke and we never would have had the sad tragedy of Georgia’s cheating scandals.  But then if teachers were treated as respected professionals, perhaps we would never have had the inexcusable travesty of NCLB in the first place.

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