The basic business principles school reformers ignore

School reformers have for years taken a business approach to changing schools, meaning that they believe that running public schools like businesses would improve student achievement. It hasn’t worked. Here, Robert D. Shepherd explains the mistakes the reformers have made in applying business principles. He is a writer and editor who has produced, over a 30-year career, more than 100 textbooks for students, K through college, in writing, grammar, literature, social studies, computer science, and mathematics.

By Robert D. Shepherd

There’s an old story that business people tell. You’ve probably heard it. I’ve heard it many times and have no idea where it came from. (All these stories end up being attributed to Warren Buffett, who is, of course, a masterful storyteller.) A grocer buys a hundred watermelons for $8 a piece. He puts them on display for $10. No one buys. He lowers the price, first to $9, then to $8, then to $7. The watermelons sell out. Wow, the grocer thinks, if only I had bought a hundred more of those melons! The moral is clear: When something isn’t working, doing more of the same is a stupid mistake.

But that is precisely what we are doing with the new Common Core State Standards, high-stakes tests, and teacher evaluation systems being rolled out around the country. We’ve had 10 years of failed mandatory state standards, high-stakes tests, and evaluations of educators based on test scores, of an accountability policy that has turned our K-12 schools into test prep factories. In schools across the nation, now, a third of each school year is spent doing test prep, taking practice tests, and taking high-stakes tests. That’s failed. It has clearly, utterly failed. And so we’ve decided to do a lot more of that.

What’s behind the push for ratcheting up standards, high-stakes tests, and evaluation systems based on those? Well, a lot of very powerful politicians and business interests want to apply a business model to bring about education “reform.” They are attempting to apply to education the business principle that you get what you measure. Fine, but in doing this, they are violating a number of other fundamental principles of good business that the reformers ought to be thinking about. Business people ought to understand better than anyone that real change, real reform, real improvement happens when competing models vie with one another in a free marketplace.

But what they are pushing, instead, is one model, one dictated learning progression, one set of what are, de facto, mandatory scripts that every educator, every textbook or online education developer, must slavishly follow. In other words, the new standards overrule every curriculum coordinator, every textbook writer, and every teacher in the country. They say, in effect, we know better than you do. The cumulative expertise of hundreds of thousands of professional educators is rendered, by the new national standards, entirely moot. The unspoken subtext of the standards, ominously readable by every educator, is this: What you know about your field, about what to teach and when and how, no longer matters at all. Those decisions have been made for you. Follow the script, or else.

Compounding this problem is the abundantly obvious fact that the new standards are sloppy, unimaginative, retrograde, and full of glaring lacunae. Furthermore, they seem to have been prepared in complete, perhaps blissful ignorance of most of what we have learned, scientifically, in the past 40 years about the domains that they cover, such as child language acquisition—how kids actually learn the grammar and vocabulary of a language.

The language arts standards for the early grades are wildly developmentally inappropriate. The language standards for focus at each grade level seem to have been chosen almost completely at random. The writing standards call for students to do narrative writing, informative writing, and argument at each grade, but ever since No Child Left Behind enforced a nationwide emphasis on standardized tests, we’ve had kids being drilled, drilled, drilled to produce formulaic five-paragraph themes in these three writing “modes.”

It’s an awful pedagogical practice, but because of the way these standards are written, the pressure will be on educators to do more of the same, and anyone who tries to innovate in curricular design will be pink slipped. Reading through and working with these new standards, one gets the impression that they were prepared by non-experts based on vague memories of what they were taught in school 60 years ago. If these standards had been prepared by a graduate student as a master’s thesis, her adviser would have had to say to her, “These are a mess; they are not ready for submission to your committee; you need to get some practical experience before you attempt something like this.” Educators around the country are finding that the more they attempt to work within the confines of these supposed standards [sic], the sloppier the standards [sic] turn out to be.

OK, so maybe the new standards are mediocre at best and completely off base at worst. But what’s wrong with standards in general? Wouldn’t a world without standardized rulers and clocks and specifications for screws be completely dysfunctional? Of course. But there are a couple of problems with this argument.

First, students and teachers are not rulers and clocks. Student needs and propensities vary enormously. Second, a complex, pluralistic society needs an educational system that will recognize the differences among students and build on their particular talents and propensities, and good teachers and curriculum designers have learned a lot about how to do that. What a complex, pluralistic society doesn’t need is robotized students, robotized teachers. The new standards and high-stakes tests are less like uniform specifications for screws than they are like a single set of specifications for screws and shoelaces and football teams. Surely, the business interests pushing the Common Core understand the dangers of over-regulation, of centralized authoritarian mandates that keep people from being able to respond flexibly to actual market conditions (or to the actual abilities and challenges of their actual, differing students).

And then there’s the problem of the evaluation systems based on the standards and tests. There’s a school of thought in management and process control theory called Sociotechnical Systems Design. It says, basically, this: In any complex operation like a modern corporation (or a modern educational system), when you impose from the top a new system-wide change, you will INEVITABLY be doing this in complete ignorance of hundreds of thousands of details that might well make the change completely unworkable. Given this, you would do well to follow a few practical principles:

  1. Don’t mandate the change from the start. Make it flexible so that people can fix its bugs, can adapt it to their particular needs.
  2. Implement slowly, in stages.
  3. Don’t just seek to “secure buy-in” to an inflexible mandate. Build from the ground up. And where possible, allow competing versions to operate so that workers will be encouraged to innovate and you can see what works best.
  4. Don’t place too much importance on a single metric (like last year’s sales or the data from standardized tests). The whole Balanced Scorecard revolution in business was based on this very principle. If you look only at historical financial data, you’ll miss a lot of important stuff—like the fact that the world around you is changing and your organization is not. If you look only at how well the student’s five-paragraph theme responds to standard W.4.3a, . . . well, you see what I mean.
  5. To the extent possible, don’t tell people what they have to do. Tell them what the goal is and then stand the hell out of their way, as Theodore Roosevelt famously put it. The new standards do not simply tell educators what the goal is. They micromanage curriculum designers and teachers. They tell them what the process to achieve the goal has to look like. And any knowledgeable businessperson will understand that in a complex system, that’s a horrific mistake, one that robs workers of the autonomy they need in order to care at all about their jobs and to meet the specific challenges that no one saw coming or that no designer of the new system had the specific expertise to understand.

A couple days ago, Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan called on The Chamber of Commerce to ratchet up its support for the new standards, tests, and evaluation systems. These are businesspeople. They ought to understand better than anyone what a mistake that would be.

There is much to love in the philosophy informing the new standards, in the emphasis, for example, on close reading of related, significant texts. And competing, voluntary standards should be welcomed. So should balanced evaluation systems that place power and authority at the local level where experienced educators know what the hell they are doing.

But this is supposed to be a capitalist democracy. We don’t like mandates from the top because we know, we know, as citizens and educators and business people, that they simply don’t work, and the reasons why they don’t work are particular and complex. They can’t be covered adequately in a soundbite or a memo or an op-ed piece.

That’s the point, and business people ought, more than anyone, to understand that.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 20, 2013