Here’s an interesting look at the false metrics of success that characterized the Vietnam War, and now, school reform, by Steve Cohen, a senior lecturer in education at Tufts University.

By Steve Cohen

I have been reading a new book, “The Generals,” by Tom Ricks.  He looks at individual American military leaders from World War II until the present day and offers thumbnail sketches of their successes and failures. Ricks also made some interesting points about the changes in personnel policy in the military over time.  One of his arguments was a critique of common practice in the late 1950s and leading into the Vietnam Era when the Army decided to rotate officers to provide them with more and varied experiences.  This, of course, led to the phenomenon in Vietnam when officers, like the soldiers they led, served for one year “in country.”  Those in command positions generally served for six months in a staff position and six months in the field.  When individual stints were up, officers and soldiers left the field and substitutes arrived.  Back in the field, no community was built.  No sense of allegiance to each other emerged that was as strong as that which had helped soldiers and officers survive so many other conflicts.  Officers tended to leave with medals and promotions as their careers moved along.  As one historian noted, it meant that rather than having an Army in Vietnam for eight years (1965-1973), we had an army in Vietnam for one year eight times.

As the war continued and  “victory” remained elusive, the military adopted a metric to convince the public that the United States was winning.  The “body count” became the measure of success.  As long as the U.S. military could show that American soldiers were killing more enemy soldiers than they were killing Americans, the road forward was clear.  The numbers proved that we were doing what we needed to do.  We could compare them, publish them, and show what was happening in Vietnam.  The numbers, it soon became clear, actually did no such thing.  They were often untrustworthy and even fictitious.  As numerous observers reported, the books were cooked.

This led me to reflect upon the current love affair with certain education reforms such as Teach For America and charter schools.  Rather than prepare young men and women to teach for an extended period of time, Teach For America trains new college graduates for five weeks and then sends them into classrooms full of needy students, with a promise that they will spend only two years there. Many charter schools have failed to create environments where teachers stay to hone their craft; rather, teachers often “burn out” and go on to other things.  New and eager young people take their places and then follow the same career path.  They rotate in and leave; few will ever return to the classroom.  They remain “corps” members for life, although their experience was actually quite short.  They gain “street credibility” for their two years of service.  They leave teaching before they are very good at it, but they become the experts in education, in whatever leadership position they end up in.  Who benefits from this program?  Is this really good for their students?

Improving educational opportunity for young people takes a great deal of will and a great many resources in order to make up for the truly challenging conditions that many of our children face every single day.  Instead of extensive efforts to change the conditions in which children are expected to live and learn, educational reformers have claimed that the data on standardized tests will reveal what works.  The numbers will tell us whether we are on the right road.  They tell us that uniforms work, or that silence in the hallways work, or that some other change will make all the difference. These changes are tracked against test scores and they become the educational reformers’ metrics of success.  Indeed, educational leaders argue that these tests will allow us to track our progress, determine which teachers should be renewed and which should be let go, and whether certain schools and principals should vanish from the scene.  These tests give numbers, and numbers put students, teachers, schools, and principals in rank order.

But those numbers do not tell the whole story any more than the body counts did.  At worst, they have been temptations waiting for cheaters to game the system.  In many places, cheaters have prospered, at least in the short run, and received bonuses for fraudulent test scores.  But even at best, statistical spreadsheets do not tell us all that we need to know to evaluate students, teachers, and principals.  We will see that schools work when we visit schools and watch.  We can see learning taking place.

Will a rotation of teachers and the worship of standardized testing serve our students in the long run?  Will they lead to successful schools and a deep understanding of education and how best to help our students learn?

Or will it lead to some of the same problems that we experienced in Vietnam?

Robert Komer was a former CIA analyst who became a civilian expert on pacification efforts during the Vietnam and he and reported back to Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. military operations in Vietnam.  After reporting one success after another, reporters badgered Komer with the observations that his comments didn’t square with the reality that they were witnessing.  Komer didn’t deny that.  He said that they misunderstood his job.  “I am supposed to report on progress,” he said. He did just that.

Reports of great gains in education seem similar.  The reforms are always successful.  It’s just that nothing changes. The light remains at the end of the tunnel.