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  • Writer's pictureAllan J. Mucerino


Updated: Nov 1, 2023

An overwhelming negativity surrounds public schools and has become a national narrative.

I kicked off the Fall semester in my education leadership class on data collection and analysis today by leading a spirited discussion revolving around misguided reform. It didn’t take much to ignite a firestorm of opinions. The catalyst was the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2001). We applied the principles of Campbell’s Law to it. According to social psychologist Donald T. Campbell, 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. Applied to a factory model, as an example of the law’s basic principle, if success is measured in how many widgets are produced the quality of the widgets will suffer (look at W. Edwards Deming’s work as a quality guru). The essence of Deming’s continuous improvement model is constant refinement. It was also about relationships and efficiency. All of which are fundamental to any endeavor that measures outcomes.

Campbell corollary: Once a measure becomes a target, it is no longer a good measure.

I asked my students, "What if Campbell's Law was applied to all education reform?" Would the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2001) have been abandoned, repurposed, or at the least reconsidered? Given the reformist animus from within the political party in power at that time, even noted education scholars like Diane Ravitch were snookered, as Gerald Bracey used to describe someone who is misled. Bracey, the author of the “Bracey Report” and "Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered" was among those of us who considered NCLB a weapon of mass destruction. I was a principal at that point in my career. I came to see the carnage first-hand. NCLB corrupted education at its very core. NCLB was all about measurement and the consequences of not measuring up.

Often referred to as “unintended,” those consequences set education back fifty years to the time of the Coleman Report when social injustice in education was first publicly identified as a threat to democracy.

Time has proven Bracey correct, and Ravitch incorrect. Diane Ravitch gets a pass, however. An ardent supporter of NCLB in her position as the assistant secretary of education at that time, she has since acknowledged her shortsightedness in her mea culpa, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public. But we are still recovering. Had she applied Campbell’s Law she might have anticipated the corruption that was soon to follow. It’s not a stretch to say that the current corporate education reform agenda spewing out of Washington D.C. is aimed at breaking public education, as NCLB may have been secretly designed to do (an intended consequence?) almost twenty years ago.

An overwhelming negativity surrounds public schools and has become a national narrative. Bracey (he died in 2009) believed that laypersons and even researchers lie in wait to prove public schools are terrible. NCLB helped to advance that agenda too. The take-away from today’s lesson was how remarkably easy it is to use data destructively, as Campbell’s law has proven.

Our next task will be to apply Campbell’s Law to the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). Will we find that it too will lead to unintended consequences? After all, the LCAP metrics are targets. We’ve been down this path before. Stay tuned….we’re just beginning.


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