Saturday, May 21, 2011

Klein Not Cake

It turns out, that although I still like to make cake, I really want to say a few things to say about Joel Klein's Atlantic article. Instead of a long post about everything, here I'll restrict myself to one point about accountability and the application of market measures to the classroom.

In discussing the need for assessments and teacher accountability Klein writes:
"Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms. First and foremost, markets impose accountability: if people don't choose the goods or services you're offering, you go out of business. Second, high performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands."

Clearly, Klein gives these two instance of market accountability for specific reasons. In the first instance, he wants to remind us that people should be able to choose their schools just like they choose their shoes, which might be right in theory but might not. I'm not sure that school choice taken to the degree Klein would like to see it doesn't undermine the potential a local public school has to cultivate community and support its students through that community. And, I'm not really sure I can come up with an example in education where everyone gets to choose their school - even when talking about private schools. But I'll leave the bog of choice for a different day to turn to Klein's second example of accountability. That's the one where companies develop "internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands."

I'm not 100 percent sure I get what Klein is saying, but I think he's arguing that in a well-run company, when employees as well as the company itself hit quarterly (and annual) targets in sales or profits, they get rewarded by a bonus or higher market valuation. Translate this to teachers: When teachers prove they can teach thorough students' test scores those teachers should get rewarded with cash bonuses.

Putting aside how "value added" metrics are extrapolated from the state standardized tests and assigned to specific teachers, I want to ask if the internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands have been all that successful in the marketplace itself.

I believe even before the spectacular breakdown of the financial markets driven by the creation of financial instruments designed to bring short term profits regardless of long-term consequence, the focus on short term performance had been shown to be corrupting throughout corporate American, not just Wall Street. (Remember Enron?)

By focusing on short term performance, whether you're measuring corporate earnings or yearly test results, you're not emphasizing what can be achieved, and measured, over the long term through careful planning and finely-tuned execution of those plans that responds to consistent and meaningful assessments within a designated scope. No. You're looking for instant fireworks that resist any impulse toward collaboration and continuity that institutions might cultivate as a mechanism of achievement. Plus, you invite cheating. (Klein's article must've been put to bed too early to respond to reports of unusually high rates of eraser marks and corrections in Washington DC schools lauded for their improved test scores under Michelle Rhee.)

I'm not arguing against assessments and I'm not arguing against professional accountability. But, if you want to apply a model from the business world to education (and if you want to do that, you wouldn't be doing anything new, it's exactly what reformers did in the 19th century), why not choose a model that actually works toward long-term sustainable growth as opposed to one that corrupts?

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