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Why Business Leaders Should Not Be in the Driver's Seat

Dear Deborah,

I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving. We have much to be thankful for in this wonderful country. I am forever thankful that my mother came to this country after World War I (from Bessarabia), and that my paternal grandparents came to this country in the mid-19th Century (from Poland). When I visit Houston or Savannah, where each grew up, I am reminded of how lucky they were to escape the fate that awaited the family members who remained behind in Europe.

One of the institutions that made this country a great haven for immigrants was its public education system. After only a few years in Houston, my mother learned to speak perfect English, and she was a proud graduate of the Houston public schools (circa 1926). Free public education helped our country to prosper. And above all, it provided almost everyone a chance to make a better life for themselves and their children.

Our public schools were never perfect. There was never a golden age when everyone graduated high school and learned to a high standard of excellence. Improving education and expanding equality of opportunity have been the slow, steady work of generations.

Yet now, we live in an age when it is the custom to bash the public schools, not to thank them for helping to build our nation. It has become commonplace for the president, the secretary of education, and the leaders of the business community to lament the terrible state of our schools and to demand radical, one might even say revolutionary, changes. We live in an age of data, and the data (they say) are awful. They look at NAEP test scores, international test scores, graduation rates, and anything else that is measurable, and they demand solutions, now.

Note that they never speak of the state of learning, nor even the state of education, because those words connote many intangibles that cannot be measured and converted into data. The politicians and business leaders do not speak about whether young people read in their spare time, whether their reading consists of good literature and non-fiction, whether they know how to write an engaging essay or a well-constructed research paper, whether they can engage in an informed discussion of history, whether they are knowledgeable about our governmental system, whether they perform volunteer service in their community, whether they leave high school prepared to serve on a jury and vote thoughtfully.

No, instead what we now hear from our business leaders is that the schools must be redesigned to function like business. They conveniently overlook the fact that business practices and the ruthless pursuit of a competitive edge nearly destroyed our national economy a year ago.

Last week, an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal by Harold E. Ford Jr. (chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council), Louis V. Gerstner Jr. (former chairman of IBM), and Eli Broad (founder of the Broad Foundations) enunciated the new wisdom about school reform. (Leave aside the fact that these three have never reformed a school; nonetheless, they know how it should be done.) Schools with low scores must be closed, and states must open the flood gates to unlimited numbers of privately managed charter schools. Schools must compete for students. Teachers must compete with one another for higher test scores. Everyone must be evaluated by those scores. Everything else is an "insignificant" idea.

In the same week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City announced that he intends (despite a state law to the contrary) to evaluate teachers for tenure on the basis of their students' test scores. He will ask the state legislature to require all school districts to use test scores to evaluate teachers. And, of course, he wants the state to remove the cap on charters.

Never mind that in many states the test scores are phony, doctored, and meaningless. We might start, for example, with New York and Illinois. The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago released a report ("Still Left Behind") earlier this year that documented the lowered cut scores on Illinois's state tests, which gave the illusion of progress in Chicago. Chicago students are still far behind, and progress during Arne Duncan's tenure was meager. The report reaches these key findings:

"Most of Chicago's students drop out or fail. The vast majority of Chicago's elementary and high schools do not prepare their students for success in college and beyond.

"There is a general perception that Chicago's public schools have been gradually improving over time. However, recent dramatic gains in the reported number of CPS elementary students who meet standards on state assessments appear to be due to changes in the tests made by the Illinois State Board of Education, rather than real improvements in student learning.

"At the elementary level, state assessment standards have been so weakened that most of the 8th graders who "meet" these standards have little chance to succeed in high school or to be ready for college. While there has been modest improvement in real student learning in Chicago's elementary schools, these gains dissipate in high school.

"The performance of Chicago's high schools is abysmal—with about half the students dropping out of the non-selective-enrollment schools, and more than 70 percent of 11th grade students failing to meet state standards. The trend has remained essentially flat over the past several years. The relatively high-performing students are concentrated in a few magnet/selective enrollment high schools. In the regular neighborhood high schools, which serve the vast preponderance of students, almost no students are prepared to succeed in college."

Similarly, the scoring of the state tests in New York was dumbed down dramatically from 2006-2009, and it became possible for students to reach Level 2 by random guessing. Proficiency rates on state tests soared dramatically at the same time that the state's scores on NAEP remained flat. As a result of the state's dumbed-down tests, New York City's accountability system crashed, and 97 percent of all elementary and junior high schools were rated A or B because of their alleged gains on the state tests. Having just launched its own "merit pay" plan, New York City was required to pay out more than $30 million in bonuses to teachers, triggered by the remarkable (and phony) gains on state tests. My friend Andrew Wolf, who wrote an education column for the now-defunct New York Sun, described the collision of the state tests and the city accountability system thus: "It is like two thieves trying to rob the same bank at the same time."

New York City and Chicago are two districts that adopted competitive business practices, aggressively closing down schools and spurring competition. What are the results? Grade inflation on state scores, but neither district saw significant improvement on NAEP since 2003. (NYC did get a gain for its 4th grade students in math in 2007, but not in 4th grade reading, 8th grade reading, or 8th grade math, and in 2009, the state's math scores were flat, which indicates that the city's were, as well.)

Living as we do in an age when test scores are so easily manipulated and so often fraudulent, we should proceed with caution before using them to determine the fate of students, teachers, principals, and schools. I give Mssrs. Ford, Gerstner, and Broad the benefit of the doubt: They think that school data are as meaningful as a profit-and-loss statement or a price-to-earnings ratio. Presumably, they don't realize that what is measured and can be measured may not be the most important things that happen in schools.

Where I do not give them the benefit of the doubt is that they assume that the Race to the Top is "enforcing academic standards." That is simply not true. In fact, it is sad or laughable, I am not sure which. The main themes of RTTT are privatization via charters and evaluation via phony test scores. How this translates into "rigorous standards" defies my understanding.

Nor do I admire their belief that schools will get dramatically better if they compete, just like businesses do. Maybe people in business win by competing, maybe competition produces better mousetraps, but that is not the way that schools function. Schools work best when teachers collaborate with one another to identify students who need extra attention or a different program or to mentor weak teachers; schools work best when they collaborate around common goals. Schools are not trying to build a better mousetrap. They are trying to educate our citizenry. Schools are not businesses, and we will continue to flounder so long as we put politicians and business leaders in the driver's seat on education policy.

Diane

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