Thursday, April 19, 2018

Response to a great question on school accountability

Kristi Hassett, a trustee in Flower Mound Texas posed the following via Twitter: Many ed reformers want schools to run like businesses. @testsensejt, I wonder what an Industrial Engineer would say about our current testing & accountability regime. What would they look at to determine value? What would they conclude?

My response is a smidge long for a tweet, but the question is a good one and the answer goes right to the heart of the matter:

People in organizations are generally accountable for the quality and efficacy of their decisions, as judged by a supervisor. Organizations are generally held accountable via market forces, and failure via the market generally signals bad decisions by its people. This is true whether you’re a non profit or an engineering firm.

Current school accountability pretends to have invented a competitive market by which to judge schools and then presumes that the position of a school in the market signals the quality of decisions. This is flawed In the extreme.

First, it presumes schools all start with similar raw material and therefore any differentiation in the output can be attributed to those in the school. When it acknowledges that schools do not start with similar raw material, it further presumes that the failure to match the outcomes of those at the highest positions (or at least grow towards them) can also be attributed to those in the school. Having done so, it then presumes that some sort of market force (or public humiliation) can serve as a corrective tool.

But the definition of a quality outcome for a school differs a great deal. The poorest school in America should focus on all of its students walking across a graduation stage with the grit and determination to succeed in life, even though their circumstances may have left them somewhat behind their wealthier peers in academics. That academic deficiency need not have a crippling effect if other skills essential to a successful life can be instilled. That is not to say that a deficiency in academics is irrelevant, but rather, it is a school’s job to make up to the extent possible the gap between what life throws at a student and what he or she needs to thrive. To the degree a school can do that, those deficiencies can be overcome.

And the richest? It’s position in the market as defined by school accountability signals almost nothing regarding the quality of the school. It would have a difficult time not being declared successful. And yet that would not signal if the school is a quality place to learn, if it placed a special emphasis on its small population of less affluent students to ensure they weren’t marginalized, or if the decions being made were in the best interest of the students, parents, and the community.

Which brings me to my second point: school accountability has adopted a market-based accountability that imposes a judgment without ever considering the quality and efficacy of the decisions being made. We know this because had they done so we would not see the high level of correlation between a “quality” school and the relative wealth of the community. Rather, we would have high quality poor schools and low quality rich schools, which is extremely rare in what currently passes for school accountability.

Finally, the signal for a market force chosen for school accountability was a standardized test score. Standardized test scores have the distinct advantage of confirming the bias most people have that rich schools are good and poor ones bad. However, consider this: what if the "market" had been defined as creative output, not standardized test scores. Creativity in students doesn’t follow socioeconomic lines, and so you couldn’t predict from the census data which schools would and would not succeed. Rather, success of the school would be largely dependent on the quality of the decisions made by those who work there.

What the industrial engineer would say, I think, is that educational accountability suffers from a misunderstanding for what accountability is, how it works, the inability to actually recognize quality, and an inability to recognize in the judgments a confirmation bias rather than the truth.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

How charter and choice starve public schools

Policy makers continue to set forth choice and charters as the cure-all for what ails education. I can argue the fallacies behind that thinking until I’m blue in the face. However, in this blurb all I want to make clear are the simple economics of the thing. The economic argument alone, I believe, is enough to cause us to rethink the entire charter enterprise.

Imagine within a community it costs five dollars a year to educate each general education student. That would be an average. Some students would cost more, and some would cost less, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to identify the actual costs for a particular student.

Now imagine you are someone motivated by profiting from public school dollars and you open a charter to do that. Like the public school, you would be given five dollars for each student who comes to your school.

If all the kids who come to your school cost more than five dollars to educate, your business would fail—you would either spend what was necessary to educate those kids and lose money, or you would serve those kids poorly and make your profit, but the odds are in that case you would lose your charter pretty quickly. A charter full of kids who cost more than five bucks each is doomed.

It is also true that if you took kids such that they mirror the population, you would need an average of five dollars per student to do the work, which would suck up the profit you’d hoped to earn (presuming you were true to your word and properly served those students). Again, as a business with a profit motive that makes for a bad model.

The reality is that the best way to maximize profit and ensure your success is to find as many kids as possible who cost less than five dollars a year to educate. That way you have sufficient resources to do the work with some left over.

This is where the idea of choice is the perfect beard. While seemingly democratic, it is anything but. It confuses the invitation to participate in a democratic process with actual participation. The simple truth is that only some segments of the population have the capacity to actually choose, which tends to be parents whose children are the least expensive to educate. Parents with few resources, multiple low-wage jobs struggling to put food on the table, or who lack transportation, often have children who are more expensive to educate given their lack of opportunity outside school. This is not a criticism, but a fact, one public schools accept as part of their ethical responsibility of being a public school.

The idea of choice is the perfect vehicle for finding the least expensive students to educate and pulling them out of the public schools. This creates an economic disparity that furthers the gap between the haves and the have nots: the charter school will have more than sufficient resources to educate the children that attend it, while the public school will be left underfunded given the needs of the children who remain behind.

The only thing fair or equitable about this is nothing. Arguments about quality have to be pushed to the side: if you were running an over-funded school the odds of success would be relatively high, just as they would be relatively low in an under-funded school. The fact that much recent research suggests charters in general fail to outperform publics should be an even bigger economic argument against them: that means they are using their resources poorly while making a profit on the backs of our most vulnerable students.

On the surface, what appears to be happening is a simple exercise in democratic choice and market forces. What is actually happening is the undermining of our public schools at the expense of those who most need the benefits a quality education can afford.