Will The Reformer Who Thinks Only Test Scores Matter And Schools Should Run Like Businesses Please Report To The Front Office

I usually find David Kirp’s writing to be interesting but his weekend op-ed in The Times was full of straw men and an unfortunate exception. Kirp writes that,

TODAY’S education reformers believe that schools are broken and that business can supply the remedy.

The first part of that sentence is generally true (and is true for generations of reformers across a range of social policy issues, if something is working, why reform it?) but the second part? You hear this claim a lot but a more accurate rendition would be something along the lines of, ‘and reformers believe there are lessons to be learned from other sectors, including business, the non-profit sector, the military, medicine, and other professions.” I hear businesspeople sometimes say that schools should run like businesses but you rarely hear it from someone actually in the education world.  Later in the piece Kirp points out places schools could learn from business.

He then writes,

“High-stakes reading and math tests are treated as the single metric of success, the counterpart to the business bottom line.” 

That would be a stronger point with an example of someone actually saying it. That’s going to be hard though because no one really does. The simultaneous and ongoing criticism of reformers for favoring choice and competition and for wanting test scores included in accountability systems show’s why this is a strawman. To varying degrees reformers believe that accountability systems can’t capture everything that matters about schools and the best way to capture those other elements is by giving parents choice. For some that means choice in the public sectors, for others via public charter schools as well, and for others (on the right and left) those options  and/or  private school choice is the remedy they see is optimal with test scores used for informational purposes or not at all. In fact, the only people essentially arguing that test scores or similar metrics alone are the only way to judge schools are those supporting high metric but low-choice policy models. They believe that more centralized systems, like those often found in Europe, provide more coherence and that choice is a distraction. And you know where you generally find people who believe that’s the best approach? Hint: It’s not the reform world.

All this is too bad because Kirp points up two important issues: Human endeavors like schools are messy and policy must find ways to account for that messiness, including just getting out of the way of it at times. And technology isn’t going to render those issues obsolete.  But those ideas won’t get the hearing they should because I know a lot of people who stopped reading after those first few caricaturing lines.

Update: Neerav Kingsland with additional thoughts. 

7 Replies to “Will The Reformer Who Thinks Only Test Scores Matter And Schools Should Run Like Businesses Please Report To The Front Office”

  1. >> “High-stakes reading and math tests are treated as the single metric of success, the counterpart to the business bottom line.”

    > That would be a stronger point with an example of someone actually saying it. That’s going to be hard though because no one really does.

    Here’s what we had until very recently in California:

    “The [Academic Performance Index] is a single number, ranging from a low of 200 to a high of 1000, which reflects a school’s, an LEA’s, or a student group’s performance level, based on the results of statewide assessments. Its purpose is to measure the academic performance and improvement of schools.” (http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/ac/ap/documents/apiexecsummary.pdf)

    Now, the API wasn’t completely based on ELA and math, but from a practical standpoint, those were the tests that mattered. I never heard any public discussion or comment about any other tests, never heard a teacher or administrator give the science or history tests a thought. (And the CA high school exit exam is all ELA and math). API was the sole determinant of a “failing” school – and persistently failing schools are subjected to disruptive “turnaround” policies and potential targets for parent triggers.

    And as CA stepped away from that model, education policy makers were pressured by reform groups who felt the state was backing off on accountability.

    The parent trigger situation hasn’t played out in other states, but otherwise, I don’t think CA is so unique. So, you might wish Kirp had used his limited NYT column inches to give more specific examples, but if you look at policies that are entirely (or very nearly so) based on test scores, the claim above rings true to me.

  2. Hi David –

    Good comment but this is probably a definitional issue. The API takes into account things like poverty and distance from goal so I would not describe it as just based on a test score (it’s also adding data points as part of the Common Core transition.) It’s a single number, yes, but one derived from a bunch of measures including non test-based ones as well as test-score ones. (NCLB offered a lot of flexibility on what to measure and how to measure, as well, but it was rarely used).

    In addition, having a policy like that does not necessarily mean people think it’s the only thing that matters. It might mean they think it’s what government can measure as part of an accountability system but that other things and preferences should be articulated in other ways.

  3. Funny comment Andy.
    Like your tin hat support of Campbell Brown’s fantasies that teacher unions prevent the police from arresting teachers who abuse kids and prevent the DA from issuing charges.

    But if I remember correctly, you were on the Virginia state school board a decade ago as it published shoddy school progress reports.

    I’ll return to my sabbatical from commenting on your fantasies.
    (PS You don’t seem to get much traffic nowadays. Maybe it is time to close up shop.)

  4. Sandra –

    Appreciate the comment but doesn’t it inadvertently make the point?

    One of those links is about a conference for investors and isn’t even about running schools like a business but instead about investment opportunities in companies serving the sector. By that standard the American Federation of Teachers wants to run schools like a business because they have a for-profit corporate partnership around Common Core curriculum materials. I don’t think anyone would argue that’s the case.

    Another is an NPR story with the headline of “Run Schools Like Business” but the interview subject, Eli Broad, didn’t raise that and answered only that there are operational lessons businesses might teach school districts (something I don’t think anyone who works on the operational side would disagree with and pretty much the point I make in the post). It’s a clickable headline but no representative of the article. When asked about bottom line Broad said that the bottom line is student learning and called for public funding of schools and mentioned the limits of the philanthropic approach he’s leading.

    Another is by a political columnist somewhere and the fourth by the purveyor of some website from 2003.

    So again, who in the mainstream of the reform debate is actually saying business alone is the remedy? My point is not that no one says this ever. It’s that no one who is an influencer in the education world is running around saying it but rather are offering perspectives with a lot more nuance than the Kirp language allows.

  5. I’ll tell you exactly who thinks schools should be run like businesses: Joe Williams and his hack buddy Barone at DFER. Looking for the quote now from DFER’s blog stating exactly that point.

  6. When the second in command in my largest in my state public school district says to a ballroom full of staff last week that “we need to remember that our students and teachers are end-users” I kinda think the business model rules.

    How messed up do you have to be calling children end-users?

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