Education Problems and Solutions # 6: Competition vs. Education

 In Article 4 of this series—“Mission and Responsibility Creep” I spoke about shifting responsibilities where they not only don’t belong, but where they do great harm (all of the articles in this series are in the SMM Education archive).  I also spoke of the damage that occurs when the primary mission of any school—providing the best possible educational opportunity for students—is forgotten or diluted.  Perhaps the greatest harm occurs when schools are forced to shift their focus toward competing with each other rather than pursuing their primary mission.  This is, of course, a consequence of the “accountability” movement.

The reasoning—such as it is—behind such things is that schools should be graded so that parents, educrats and politicians can compare them.  This will theoretically force schools to improve.  This is accomplished in a variety of ways, usually by means of state laws, commonly with much overbearing federal “encouragement.”

Commonly, your local school will find itself having to document all manner of trivia from day to day attendance rates, the proportion of kids taking advantage of reduced and free lunches—which thanks to the Fed’s and First Lady’s make-you-eat-what-we-want-because-we-know-better-than-you initiatives—many kids no longer eat—test scores, graduation rates, and a blinding array of similar data.  Virtually all of this is also scored and recorded by race.

Wait a minute!  Didn’t we fight a long and costly battle for racial equality so that we didn’t treat the races separately?  And didn’t the Attorney General himself call Americans cowardly because we’re not properly obsessed with race?  All true, but to ensure that some races—often called minorities—are also performing on state measures at appropriate levels, to ensure that every student is above average, we must keep particular, separate track of those groups that have historically been academic under-performers.

To which minority groups do I refer?  Historically, Blacks and Hispanics have lagged behind their Caucasian peers in common academic measures.  Asians, on the other hand, have tended to do better than the average student of the Caucasian persuasion, which tends to cause the politically correct considerable cognitive dissonance because it directly suggests that culture does play a role in such things.  As a result, Asians are often not separately tracked but are merely turned—for statistical purposes—into Caucasians.

In determining a school’s “grade,” mandatory high stakes test scores also play a prominent role.  There are a variety of types of terminology employed, but many states use a four-tiered terminology, such as: “Academically Unacceptable,” “Academically Acceptable,” “Accomplished,” and “Outstanding.”  The difference between tiers can be as tiny as a single minority student failing a mandatory high stakes test, or a single student dropping out of high school.  Unlike rational education theory which dismisses the inevitability of the Bell Curve (the idea that academic performance/grades for a given group plotted on a chart will always resemble a bell because a few will fail, most will be average and only a few will be exceptional), such systems routinely embrace it, more or less arbitrarily deciding that only a tiny percent of all schools will ever be “outstanding,” and writing their regulations to fulfill that prophesy.

The primary “benefit” and product of such mandates is the production of data, massive amounts of data, reams and reams of data.  And who is the primary beneficiary of this data?  Educrats and their bureaucracies, which constantly expand so as to crunch the ever-larger amounts of data their ever-increasing mandates require.  And the primary consumer of their data-analysis product is politicians, who use that data to write more laws requiring the collection of even more picky and infinite amounts of data, and who disburse funds based on that data.

As I’ve pointed out before, the data is essentially meaningless to local schools and communities.  If a community is truly so disengaged and clueless that they need the state to tell them that their schools are terrible, data suggesting the terrible status of their schools is unlikely indeed to prod them to positive action.  Individual teachers know far more about the academic abilities and needs of their students within the first few weeks of the school year than any data set can tell them.  Often, they find state data sets at odds with reality, but at best, they tell teachers only when they already know, and know with much greater detail and insight without the data.

Of what value is it to a parent to learn that the school district in a nearby town scored 5% better—or worse–than their school district on state assessments?  Should they abruptly pack up their family and move to that supposedly better performing district?  Should they assume that their children’s teachers who have always appeared to be highly competent, caring role models, are suddenly diminished somehow?  Is their ability to judge human nature so faulty and the ability of state and federal educrats to quantify all that matters in life so great?

Here’s a brief rundown of the problems produced when what matters in your local school is no longer Johnny and Suzie’s responsibility for their educations and how they discharge that responsibility, but their school’s responsibility for scoring big points in state rankings:

Administrators: In order to promote “buy-in” to lunatic, wasteful mandates, most states include draconian penalties, including taking over schools, entire districts, and firing everyone and their dog should ratings drop too low for too long.  As a result, Administrators come to see their primary responsibility as getting the highest test and other scores possible.  For competent districts and honest people, this is commonly manifested in teaching to the test on a grand scale, and to hyper-attention to detail in every aspect of record keeping and data production.  Rules and policies are also written with an eye toward proper data production rather than genuine need, their effectiveness, utility or unintended consequences.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how Administrators worried about their jobs and careers at the hands of school boards and the public become a bit paranoid with the addition of state and federal overseers also looking over their shoulders.  Instead of assuming their proper role in seeing that their subordinates have the funding, support and facilities they need to accomplish the primary mission of education, they focus instead on appearances, slogans, slavish devotion to every state and federal initiative, and ruthlessly hectoring their subordinates to ensure the timely production of the highest possible test scores and all related data.

On the worst end of the scale, incompetent districts and dishonest people do what one might imagine: they cheat.  They cheat with varying degrees of success and élan, but they cheat.  A school district where I worked for a short time (realizing I’d surely eventually end up suing my principal, I fled for saner pastures) e-mailed a list of absent students to the faculty every school day.  Despite the fact that list commonly represented 10-20% of the student body, when the time came to send attendance data to the state, miraculously, less than 2% of the student body had ever been absent!  Mirable dictu!  To my knowledge, this—and other subterfuge—has never been uncovered.

Principals: Ideally, a building principal should be focused on seeing that his teachers have what they need to fulfill the mission.  He or she should be out in the classrooms on a daily basis, fully engaged in talking about and improving instruction and encouraging everyone to new levels of excellence.  They should be focused on maintaining strong and reasonable discipline, and on dealing with parents to make it possible for every child to have the opportunity to do well.

Unfortunately, principals find themselves focusing on the grades of their buildings rather than the improvement of each student.  Some can even come to see teachers as impediments to the promotion of their building or themselves.  Their time is taken up not by dealing with people to the benefit of all, but to mountains of paperwork and minute attention to the racially-oriented data that will determine the grade of their building and thus, their future employment and career prospects.  And of course, they are frequently out of their buildings at the administrative offices for various meetings and training sessions necessary to introduce the latest policy, mandate or “new idea” that will change the face of education.

Forced to not only accept, but to cheerlead for policies, curricular “innovations,” and programs they know are not only wasteful but ineffective, they become ever more cynical and find themselves caring less about people and more about compliance, because all that truly matters is that the data they collect and send to the state will produce the correct grade for their school—and themselves—at the end of the year.

In some larger districts, a sort of “dance of the lemons” occurs where students that might lower a school’s grade are “encouraged” by various means, to attend elsewhere.  Instead of investing human concern and capital in encouraging such students to take greater responsibility in their learning, they’re shuttled off to become someone else’s problem.

And some principals, people who any rational parent would want as the principal of their child’s school, abandon the profession entirely.  Imagine you’re the principal of a good school, a school that actually takes the mission seriously and provides an excellent educational opportunity.  You deal with all the petty foolishness and data for data’s sake, but you have a real problem, a problem that will almost certainly eventually get you fired: chance and geography have dictated that 18% of your student population is a minority that speaks and understands English with varying degrees of ability.  No matter how hard you work, no matter the brilliance of your staff, you’re never going to be better than “academically acceptable,” and year after year, you teeter on the brink of “academically unacceptable,” and professional ruin.  A larger than usual influx of new students with limited English abilities any given year might sink you for good.  You’re either going to find someplace where it’s possible to succeed on an honest assessment of your abilities and performance, or you’re going to bail out entirely.

Teachers: Like principals, teachers find themselves more and more frustrated by the reality that they are losing more and more instructional time, and that what is replacing real education is nothing more than fads, teaching to useless tests and collecting and producing data about things that mean nothing at all to the process of educating students.

For good teachers, nothing is more frustrating that being prevented from teaching as well as possible.  They fret over the loss of minutes of their time.  They worry that they’re not doing all they can or should for their students, and try to determine how to do better next week, next semester and next year.  Knowing that they must waste time on things that will not further the mission, that will deny their students the best possible educational opportunity, wears on them.  Sadly, the best teachers tend to push back against such things and do whatever is necessary to fulfill the mission.  In doing this, they tend to catch the attention of principals and administrators who will tend to see them as trouble: too many of the best move on to other endeavors.

The average, people who see teaching more or less as a job, tend to do well under such circumstances.  For those not predisposed to see teaching as a calling and sacred public trust, filling out forms and collecting data is, in many ways, easier than actual teaching and preparing for teaching.  It’s not difficult for such people to appear to be entirely on board with whatever is currently required, regardless of its relation to the mission.  Cheerleading is easier than teaching too, and as long as they’re competent enough to produce at least acceptable test scores, they—and their principals and administrators–are happy as clams.

The great tragedy is that in order to achieve the highest scores, schools need the best teachers, yet the entire accountability culture serves primarily to limit their effectiveness and drive them out.

Students: The best students will thrive almost anywhere. Their family culture and personal drive is such that they’ll do whatever is necessary to make up for the failings of their schools to make up the difference in their educations, for they believe that they are primarily responsible for educating themselves and do their best to take advantage of the opportunity.  It is the rest that suffer most; ironically, they may care little or not at all—if they recognize the problem.

The best teachers bring out the best in students, and the best students bring out the best in the best teachers.  When such people work together toward the primary mission, students will build bigger and better brains to the maximum extent possible.  But kids are smart.  They know when people are just going through the motions.  They know when the work they’re doing is busy work as opposed to something meaningful.  They know the difference between drilling for a meaningless test and actually learning something worthwhile.  And like dogs, they know who really likes them and who merely tolerates them.

Kids are tested unto death.  They know how to game the system, so they learn what is required to achieve acceptable test scores—commonly the lowest levels of academic skill and application—and because they have so little time for things like literature, never develop the habit of reading and thinking about what they read—apart that is, from the ability to read a brief literary excerpt and spit back a formulaic answer in paragraph or one page form.

Because failure rates are also a large part of virtually all school ratings systems, particularly for minority groups, kids quickly learn to take advantage of already lax grading systems established to minimize failure.  For example, many schools allow grade averaging.

You’re a high school Junior in Smithville High School.  Your grading periods are divided into three six weeks per semester.  To pass the semester and the year, and graduate from high school, you have to do only two things: pass the mandatory high stakes tests your junior year and have at least a 70% average at the end of the year.  What this means is if you manage 90% for Algebra the first six weeks, you have it made for the rest of the semester.  As long as you average 60% for the next two six weeks, you’ll pass the semester with 70%.  For 2/3 of the semester, you can safely ignore more than 30% of the work, perhaps more.

But let’s say you miscalculate and end the first semester with only 62%.  As long as your second semester average is at least 78%, you pass the year.  What this means is that students can ignore much of their work for significant portions of each year—they can actually be failing for significant portions of the year—and as long as they pass their mandatory high stakes tests, and pay attention to that 70% bottom line, still graduate.

For such students—and their schools—the mission of education is completely lost.  It becomes a game, and the acquisition of knowledge, skill, growth and the development of the personal habits necessary for individual survival, success and responsible citizenship are, at best, a secondary concern.  Such foolish and destructive policies can be implemented even without an accountability culture to be sure, but they are the unintended consequences of that culture.  Some, no doubt, see them as features rather than bugs.

Parents: It is deceptively easy for parents to be lulled into thinking the accountability culture is actually reflective of the quality and depth of educational opportunity their children’s schools provide.  Reading the data periodically published or sent out with report cards, seeing “Outstanding” banners plastered on schools, or listening to self-serving pronouncements by administrators and politicians can convince parents that their children are in the best of hands.  Too often, they aren’t.

Final Thoughts:

I am not saying that good schools cannot deliver good educational opportunity while simultaneously jumping through all of the hoops and producing all the dog and pony shows the accountability movement requires.  Fortunately, many can and do.  But even in the best of schools, an enormous amount of time is lost to the tedious and trivial, time that could and should be spent on the profound and productive.

Remember that schools are not just about the up and downloading of information, but the development of habits and character.  We must be very careful indeed about the lessons we teach, intended and unintended.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that the accountability culture does little or nothing to fix the worst schools.  Data collection and production and test taking can’t fire corrupt school boards and incompetent administrators, principals and teachers.  It can’t transform the destructive, failed political culture of entire communities.  It can’t build healthy families, correct faulty state and federal policies, or restore broken homes.

In the next article, I’ll propose some simple solutions to the problems I’ve identified.  These solutions won’t cost a penny.  In fact, they’ll save enormous amounts of money.  Above all, they’ll seem familiar to those of us that, like me, attended high school in the 1400’s.