August 18, 2014

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

By Bellwether

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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. 

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