Achievement first

Does it improve student achievement? That is the question, writes Alan Bersin, who’s leaving his job as superintendent in San Diego to become Gov. Schwarzenegger’s top education advisor. Productivity tools such as “flexibility, competition, incentives, efficiency and innovation are not used systematically in our schools,” Bersin writes.

Existing power relationships, and the fiscal allocations that follow, are absurd from the standpoint of productivity. Consider the peculiarities of teacher assignment. No one would expect a doctor fresh out of medical school to take on the responsibilities that a surgeon with years of experience must shoulder. Yet in education, we regularly assign our newest practitioners to our most challenging inner-city classrooms.

. . . With novice teachers regularly assigned to the most intractable classrooms, we end up with what we prescribe: Many children remain significantly untaught, and half of our beginning teachers leave the profession within the first five years of practice. The so-called teacher shortage is much more the result of our incapacity to retain teachers than our inability to recruit them in sufficient numbers.

. . . We point to students’ absence of motivation and their low socioeconomic standing or family dysfunction as prime reasons for the system’s failure. Cold opposition follows any suggestion that teachers must improve their practice for student achievement to improve, or that substantial changes in teachers’ education and training are needed.

This logic produces a central anomaly: In public education, the evaluation of teachers and administrators rarely involves linking their performance to levels of improvement in student achievement. In no other sector is this disconnect in the measurement of productivity so firmly rooted: Teachers don’t fail; only their students do.

Education reform is paralyzed by the need for all stakeholders to agree, Bersin writes. Only competition will shake up the system.

Read the whole thing.

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Comments

  1. Tom West says:

    Of course, it all depends upon what your metrics of achievement are. Given that competency exams seem to be the only metric that matters with regards to rewarding/punishing schools and teachers, it would make good business sense to eliminate any elements of education that don’t promote those scores.

    In business, it is a mistake to spend money making a product any better than the consumers can measure. That money belongs to the shareholders as increased profit. By the same standard, it makes no sense to spend money educating students who are already certain to pass their competency exams. That money could be spent to boost achievement elsewhere, or returned to the taxpayers as unnecessary expediture.

    Schools are not businesses, and businesses are not schools. Businesses have a single metric by which they can be judged. For schools, using any particular set of metrics is fraught with peril, especially if the metric is treated as the only real measure of teacher/student achievement.

  2. SuperSub says:

    You point to the solution of your own concern…
    “especially if the metric is treated as the only real measure of teacher/student achievement.”
    Plain and simple, have a method to evaluate teachers that uses a variety of means to measure performance. I love it when people naysay an idea not because of faulty logic or principle, but because its simply guaranteed to be implemented wrong.

  3. Choice of metrics is certainly crucial. Proper choice of metrics and their manipulation is one way in which poor performers in private industry can make themselves look good. Since the public education system for a good part of its existance was free of the constraint and discipline of metrics, the imposition of metrics would certainly be seen as a defeat. After all, when you’ve gotten along just fine without any accoutability even a discussion of the merits of accountability is a defeat.

    Contrary to the advice of the old expression, there is a point to crying over spilled milk, the first response to the imposition of metrics being to complain about the entire concept. Merely complaining loud enough and long enough might convince enough people that the idea that this particular political entity shouldn’t be measured for efficacy. Since in the political process convincing enough people is all you need to get what you want, loud, long complaining is simply a good idea.

    One of the really annoying aspects of private industry is that customers tend to do what they want, when they want with little deference shown to the experts who’ve already decided what they should want and when. The history of business is littered with products that were hailed as groundbreaking and generated only a yawn on the part of consumers.

    That’s part of the reason for urge to monopoly that seems to be the outcome of any one business assuming industry-controlling prominence, Microsoft being a recent example. The customer has to be given as few choices as possible because they can’t be relied upon to make the right choices. That is, the choices that the industry leader has deemed most advantageous to themselves.

    To get back to your rhetorical sleight-of-hand, Tom, it’s not that competency exams are the only metric it’s just that they’re the only metric that the convoluted and necessarily difficult political process has generated. Parents, as human beings, would really rather set their own metrics on their own schedule but that’s a luxury only allowed in the private sector. The public sector is a smorgasbord and there’s no off-menu ordering. So, it is artful of you to portray the only extant measure of public education as leading to some unappetizing results. The problem is, it’s an education system and suggesting that some of the ancillary functions that the system has taken on will have to be trimmed to support it’s core function has an appeal only to those people who are more concerned with those ancillary functions then the core function. Maybe in your part of the world a significant portion of the parent population will opt for a hockey team, or whatever, over literacy but in most of the rest of the world I assure you the decision will go the other way.

    In business, it is a mistake to spend money making a product any better than the consumers can measure.

    Well, that’s one mistake but it isn’t necessarily a mistake, it isn’t the only mistake and it certainly isn’t the worst mistake. In business the only mistake that’s unforgiveable is the one(s) that result in the extinction of the organization. Since a means of measuring the value of your products is, to a reasonably well-run business not even an annoyance, trying to make the connection between the use of metrics and unacceptable choices depends more on your having unquestioned authority then on the inate credibility of the position.

    By the same standard, it makes no sense to spend money educating students who are already certain to pass their competency exams.

    Yeah, but Tom, you’re not competent to make that sort of choice unless you’re talking about your own kids. I you don’t want to spend any more on them then the minimum necessary to get them to pass the tests then that ought to be your choice since you’re the only person who’d have a credible claim to the privilige. An expert in the field might offer guidence based on their years of experience and professional expertise but the decision is best left to those who have the greatest stake in the outcome.

    Schools are not businesses, and businesses are not schools.

    This seems to be one of your favorite mantras. I’d invite you to expand but I’m reasonably sure that if you could have expanded on this bald assertion you would have by now.

    Businesses have a single metric by which they can be judged.

    While that’s demonstrably untrue, it hardly does your case any good to draw attention to any comparison between business and public education. After all, once you start contrasting and comparing you’re liable to open the door to that process and the public education system, contrary to your obvious bias, does not do well in a comparison to private enterprise. To begin with, any legitimate business relationship is voluntary in nature. You really don’t want people to start thinking on that Tom.

    For schools, using any particular set of metrics is fraught with peril, especially if the metric is treated as the only real measure of teacher/student achievement.

    So far the only “peril” you’ve illuminated is the concentration of the education system on education. Care to try again?

  4. Mr. Davis says:

    Schools are indeed businesses. But like Mr. West, the union makes the mistake of assuming the business is one of manufacturing physical products. And that is why the factory model dominates educational thinking. (It is also worth looking at what happened to the manufacturing industries that were so easily unionized.) Schools provide a service, intelectual nourishment.

    And the business I have concluded education is most like is restaurants. (note all the unionized restaurants.) Food is critical to life. Yet there are no government run restaurants! Why? Despite the absence of government involvement beyond minimal health inspections, restaurants exist to meet every need; low cost, standard fare, expensive gourmet meals, elaborate locations with atmosphere for meeting instead of good food for eating, you name it, you’ve probably eaten there.

    What’s the metric for success in the restaurant business? People come back. Why? The reason varies with every hungry person and every restaurant. When the restaurant is no longer meeting the need of its customers, it goes out of business. Happens all the time. Chefs get burnt out, owners die, tastes change and the menu doesn’t. New ones sprout up.

    Education is less critical to life than food. Yet we have government dictating how much of our lives must be spent in the institutional custody of government wardens. (interesting how the Teachers Union and the Prison Guards Union always seem to be on the same side of an issue supporting the same candidates.)

    How did this come to pass? Could it have been that the unions wanted to keep the young out of the labor market? What have been the repercussions of this unnaturally extended adolescense?

    One final observation, the one service in which the government is constitutionally prohibited from engaging is religion. Western Europe has established State sponsored churches that teach the the one truth of the state religion and where every one must pay for the church through government collected taxes. The churches are empty. In the U. S. anybody can open a church and spout whatever they wish but nobody has to pay for it. Attendance is high by western standards. Would schools have American attendance or European if there weren’t truant officers?

  5. Mike McKeown says:

    Bersin didn’t bother to learn a lick about what actually worked when he was in San Diego. He played corporate manager and brought in Tony Alvarado, the guy wanted by all the (education) consultants, to run education. What followed? Whole Language, fuzzy math (Chicago), rotten physics first (Active Physics) for most ninth graders.

    In fairness, the bones of his Blueprint for Success could have worked. The idea was that students who couldn’t do math or read and write needed to concentrate on those subjects and have fewer non-academic options and fewer courses they were unprepared from because they did not have the basic skills.

    The real flaw was that the programs to teach this stuff were weak. The flaw he was lambasted for was removing students from all the things that made education fun, like music, art and other things that they and teachers could pretend the students could do well in without knowing the rest.

  6. Andy Freeman says:

    > In business, it is a mistake to spend money making a product any better than the consumers can measure.

    That’s why no one makes high performance cars. Oops – they do.

    In fact, consumers usually choose the best that they can afford. However, they do so over all of their needs, and different consumers value quality and products differently. Some save money on clothes to overspend on books while others do the opposite.

    Moreover, West is not only wrong, he’s ignoring much of the problem. Teachers who buy his fallacy aren’t the only players – many parents who can choose are going to choose teachers who go beyond the minimum that West finds acceptable.

  7. Andy Freeman says:

    It’s interesting that West thinks that parents are only able to perceive “passed competency test” and “failed competency test”.

    I don’t know any parents that limited. Is West that limited? How does he know that other parents are that limited? Does he think that most parents are that limited?

  8. Richard Brandshaft says:

    I like the notion of using innovation systematically. Whoever figures that out will revolutionize more than education.

    Decades ago, I heard and engineer comment that some people said, “We need a breakthrough here.” in a tone/context that suggests it was just a matter of understanding that one was needed.

  9. Tom West says:

    Plain and simple, have a method to evaluate teachers that uses a variety of means to measure performance.

    I don’t think NCLB allows for measuring schools in that fashion, and to be honest, I don’t think many of the posters on this board (for example), would be happy to allow subjective measurements of teacher’s abilities.

    the only metric that the convoluted and necessarily difficult political process has generated.

    Good point. My concern is that any given metric is pretty much guaranteed to alienate a large bunch of people. Go for matriculation exams (requiring mastery of final grade material)? Watch the screams as graduation rates fall through the floor in poorer schools. Go for competency exams? Now optimizing for our metrics means not wasting money on those who are going to sail through them easily.

    I really don’t think there is a metric or set of metrics that will work well given our current diverse society. I agree that subjective measures are useful. The trouble is that such measures are inevitably used as the *only* measure.

    Maybe in your part of the world a significant portion of the parent population will opt for a hockey team, or whatever, over literacy but in most of the rest of the world I assure you the decision will go the other way.

    Actually, being elitist :-), my concern is that the educational system will opt for increasing competency scores at the cost of education beyond the grade 10 level. If we’re optimizing for literacy, it makes no sense to spend any money on higher grades in schools were the vast majority are going to pass the competency exam.

    Either incentives/penalties are proposed are going to work, in which case there goes higher education, or they’re not going to work, in which case much of the whole reason for these exams goes out the window.

    Okay, yes, I’d also like my sons to actually get some physical education, some musical exposure, etc.

    Selfish? Of course. But the schools need to support a wide-variety of academic needs, and I do worry that high-stakes metrics are a one-size fits all.

    In business, there is one metric – profit.

    Schools serve many purposes. They are expected to perform dozens of duties (complain as one likes, schools that only provide knowledge to willing learners don’t last long – current society requires fare more from schools, and school have responded to those needs).

    many parents who can choose are going to choose teachers who go beyond the minimum that West finds acceptable.

    We can argue school choice (although I tend to lean towards regulated choice) in some other topic. This one was about approaches to our current system.

    In the current system as it stands, it’s not the parent’s choice, but the teacher’s, the school’s, and the funding agency’s. It’s alteration of their behaviour due to the metrics that is important.

  10. Andy Freeman says:

    > In the current system as it stands, it’s not the parent’s choice, but the teacher’s, the school’s, and the funding agency’s.

    Umm, the parents ARE the funding source.

    Other than that, the above is a nice summary of the “root cause” of the problem.

    > schools that only provide knowledge to willing learners don’t last long

    Umm, folks are complaining that schools don’t provide knowledge to willing learners. Instead, they provide babysitting to the unwilling, social indoctrination, etc.

    > In business, there is one metric – profit.

    West writes that like it’s a bad thing. It’s not. However, the key thing is the connection between revenue and performance. We let failing schools and education programs continue to get money, and then we’re surprised that they continue to exist.

  11. “Yet in education, we regularly assign our newest practitioners to our most challenging inner-city classrooms.”

    This is a consequence of staffing the schools with teachers who are union members rather than professionals. In unionized industries, job assignment nearly always goes by seniority, which means the newest workers get the hardest jobs in any particular category. OTOH, a professional expects that increased skill and experience will qualify him for a more challenging job, which will pay more.

  12. Tom West wrote:

    Good point. My concern is that any given metric is pretty much guaranteed to alienate a large bunch of people.

    Thanks and when you figure out how to manage a political compromise without alienating a large bunch of people, write a paper. The Nobel Prize committee will probably jet over to your house to deliver the medal personally. You can serve them some wine you’ve converted from water.

    Regardless of your complaints about the NCLB it was the result of the spotty, inconsistent, eroding, state-level accountability schemes. Those schemes resulted from the public preception that while the cost of public education was going up, seemingly without limit, while results stagnated.

    Actually, being elitist :-), my concern is that the educational system will opt for increasing competency scores at the cost of education beyond the grade 10 level.

    ..which would be a pretty good working definition for “elitism” since any opting that’s going to take place will do so out of a response to public pressure and for purposes of self-preservation.

    Okay, yes, I’d also like my sons to actually get some physical education, some musical exposure, etc.

    Selfish? Of course.

    Glad you understand that, as a parent, the welfare of your children is the central concern of your life. It’s a common characteristic. Unfortunately, the public education system is inherently poorly equipped to deal with that selfishness. As it is poorly equipped to deal with the differences among children.

    In business, there is one metric – profit.

    Which, in a word, encompasses the problem of public education.

    Profit is what ensure organizational survival in the private sector. What ensures organizational survival in public education? It’s a pointless question akin to asking “what if the sun doesn’t rise tomorrow?” The pointlessness of the question points up the fact that organizational survival simply isn’t part of the motivation of public education and that lack has ramifications.

    If you don’t have any concerns about organizational survival you don’t do the sorts of things that ensure organizational survival. What would be the point? The organization’s in no danger.

    Since many of those organizational survival activities are directed toward the customer base, which is why private enterprise has made a large secondary industry of divining customer opinions. In public education customer desires can be safely ignored. They’ll have no impact on organizational survival and not much impact of any kind. So who cares?

    We can argue school choice (although I tend to lean towards regulated choice) in some other topic. This one was about approaches to our current system.

    But, school choice and getting the most out of the current system are part of the same problem.

    The current system’s inherently resistant to responsiveness to “customer” preferences hence will be resistant to any measures of accountability that take into account customer preferences.

    In the current system as it stands, it’s not the parent’s choice, but the teacher’s, the school’s, and the funding agency’s.

    Right you are which is why….

    It’s alteration of their behaviour due to the metrics that is important.

    …and is so contentious. They, the teachers, administrators and funding agencies are in charge now so why, they would reasonably ask, should anything change? Metrics are an implicit repudiation of their authority and you’ll have a hard time getting anyone with power to see the value of them losing power.

  13. From Tom West:

    What’s the metric for success in the restaurant business? People come back. Why? The reason varies with every hungry person and every restaurant. When the restaurant is no longer meeting the need of its customers, it goes out of business. Happens all the time. Chefs get burnt out, owners die, tastes change and the menu doesn’t. New ones sprout up.

    I tend to agree. Customer satisfaction is the only real metric that will work for education, where the customers are the students and parents. Most other metrics assume that all students are the same, with the same needs, same personality, and the same outlook on life. The conscription-based education “industry” has the attitude that “We, and only we, know what’s good for you.”

  14. Andy Freeman says:

    > In business, there is one metric – profit.

    I just realized that West doesn’t know that the same is true of public institutions, including public schools.

  15. Tom West says:

    I just realized that West doesn’t know that the same is true of public institutions, including public schools.

    Mr. Freeman, I’m a little confused here. Are you asserting that profit is the metric for schools or public institutions? Or are you stating that there is some other, single measurable metric for public institutions?

  16. Andy Freeman says:

    > Mr. Freeman, I’m a little confused here. Are you asserting that profit is the metric for schools or public institutions?

    Bingo.

    We may find out if West knows what profit is.

    I’ll give some hints. I’ll bet that West is paid in things that he values. Some of those things look a lot like money. Others don’t, but that doesn’t imply that they’re not part of his profit.

  17. Tom West says:

    For heavens sake. If you define profit in a business as “what I happen to want”, the shareholders will have your head. The entire *idea* of profit is that it is an entirely objective measure. You have dollars or you don’t.

    In education, the whole question of “what is a good education” has approximate 6 billion different answers, making any universal metric certain to be wrong to the 5,999,999,999 others. It’s why I appreciate the flexibility found in my local school, so that it can define success in a way that is meaningful to my local community.

    I don’t have anything against wide area testing per se, except that instead of providing a single useful data point, it becomes (in the eyes of people desperate for any metric) *the* rating for a school. In my opinion, *any* single rating for an entire school is counter-productive.

  18. Andy Freeman says:

    Interestingly enough, shareholders seem to demand some things in addition to money.

    But, it was nice of West to combine abuse with yet another confidently stated falsehood.

    However, his fuse is getting short. I hadn’t pointed out that public schools are extremely concerned with money, just like those greedy shareholders, and West (on the off chance that he isn’t paid in coconuts).

    > It’s why I appreciate the flexibility found in my local school, so that it can define success in a way that is meaningful to my local community.

    A single definition for his community is “flexible”? Would West be satisfied if there was only one definition in any other area?

    Then again, he’s Canadian.

  19. Tom West says:

    But, it was nice of West to combine abuse with yet another confidently stated falsehood.

    Abuse??? I’m terribly sorry if I abused you, but I’ll need to be educated here. What did I say that in your opinion constituted abuse?

    Interestingly enough, shareholders seem to demand some things in addition to money.

    Mr. Freeman, I’d actually love to see an example where shareholders have successfully forced policy upon a board that was expected to lower profit. The only time I’ve seen stakeholders succeed in defying a board’s wishes (or turfing out a board altogether) was because the shareholders believed that there was a greater profit potential than the board was delivering.

    If you could provide an example, I’d be quite grateful.