By Marc Tucker
I was trying to explain the American focus on accountability as a driver of education reform the other day to an old friend, who recently retired as managing director of a regional law firm he had built into an international powerhouse. He could not understand it.
“When we are reviewing applications from attorneys who want to join our firm,” he said, “beyond a certain threshold, we are not interested in how well the applicants did in the courses they took. We are more interested in certain other qualities that are far more important to us, like ethics, drive, grit, general savvy, ability to figure out what they need to learn to cope with a problem and to learn it quickly, the kind of empathy that makes it possible to help others grow and avoid unnecessary conflicts, finding creative ways to get out of a tough situation, leadership qualities, capacity for independent thought and action, ability to get along with a wide range of people….” and the list went on.
We do the same thing in our own organization. When presented with a candidate for a job, I will look at their resume, but I will forgive significant omissions in formal qualifications if I can get the sort of people I am looking for. What mostly interests me in the resume is whether there is anything in it that suggests someone who is not a plodding careerist, someone who will not just do what they are told but will seize the day. I always ask to see something they have written, something that will provide some insight into their ability to think clearly, to organize their ideas, to draw on a wide range of knowledge to come to conclusions that go beyond the received wisdom of the field, to be insightful.
But the heart of the process comes when I ask them to tell me what amounts to their life story. And this is where I am looking for very much the sort of things that my attorney friend looks for. I am interested not so much in what the candidate did as in why they did it, how they saw the dilemmas and opportunities they faced and how they resolved them, what they took into account, what interested them, where they looked for help, how their understanding of how the world works was modified and informed by their experience, whether they did what was expedient or thought long and hard about what was right, and did that. I want to know what they see as the major inflection points in their lives and how they approached them and why.
We are a very small and very flat organization. We don’t have the time to rewrite what they wrote. We cannot afford to hire people who need to be told what to do, nor can we afford to hire people whose shoulder we need to be looking over all the time or whose work needs to be constantly reviewed and redone. We don’t have many scheduled meetings or appointed working groups. When I worked in government, I often heard the announcement that, “That is not in my job description.” So we have no job descriptions. When people see that something needs to be done, they go and do it. When they need to reach out to others to achieve their objective, they shoot them an email. When they need to get others involved, they have a meeting. We need to hire self-starters who set high standards for themselves and have the social skills to operate in the way I just described. They need to know what’s right and what’s wrong and do what’s right, especially when that’s difficult.
Very little of this is revealed by the resume (including, by the way, whether they can write well or not). None of it is in the high school transcript. So what, exactly, are we doing when we hold our teachers accountable for student’s performance on standardized tests of academic performance…when we reward some teachers and punish others based on those results? Teachers have known for a long time that there is a “whole child” behind the test scores. The best of them care deeply about those whole children and have done their very best to help their charges develop the kinds of qualities I have talked about here. But, now, we are going out of our way to tell them that we are not interested in any of that. The time and energy and care that they put into developing the qualities I have been talking about are not important, do not count, will be ignored as we consider whether they are worth rewarding or deserve punishment. Really!
Countries like the United States that have placed a big bet on test-based accountability have deliberately built incentives systems that would lead the independent observer to believe that all they care about is student performance on tests of proficiency in their native language, mathematics and, sometimes, science. Proficiency in those subjects is undeniably important. But my friend and I are finding it harder and harder to find the kinds of people we need to hire for our enterprises to be successful. These policies, I submit, are born from a form of myopia that has blossomed into madness.
The underlying issue here is the degree to which we are willing to trust our teachers. The central place that test-based accountability now has in the United States and some other nations is the result of a catastrophic fall in the nation’s trust in its teachers, in their competence and dedication. It seems obvious to those who favor test-based accountability that, if the teachers are not performing, they need to be held to account. It seems no less obvious that they cannot be held to account with assessments that they themselves devise and administer. So they have to be held to account by independent, “objective” tests. And it turns out that those tests not only fail to measure much that is important about the subjects tested, they do not even pretend to measure the qualities of student performance that are the subject of this piece.
But we persist in forcing teachers to abandon their natural interest in helping our students to develop many of the qualities that will spell the differences between success and failure in the workplace and in life. That is very foolish.
Suppose, just for a moment, that I lived in a country that is not committed to driving national education policy with test-based accountability. Suppose that this country embraced a policy requiring its educators to pursue the aims that my attorney friend and I believe to be so important. Is it likely that we would be home free, on the road to realizing that set of goals?
Probably not. And that, I submit, is because most countries, whether or not they embrace these goals, still design their education system around the goal of teaching school subjects and still measure their success by the performance of their students on tests of the usual school subjects. In a sense, these systems, and there are many of them, are suffering from a gentler form of the same disjunction between the design of their education system and the needs of their students that we find in those countries devoted to test-based accountability.
Many—not all—of the qualities described above are developed most naturally not in a school but in the workplace. But not in just any workplace, and not by accident. They are learned by watching, and doing and being critiqued by an expert and trying again until you become very, very good at the work. They are learned in a place where the quality of the work you do really matters, not just to you and your teachers, but to everyone else around you. They are learned by taking on responsibility for increasingly complex and demanding assignments, getting the information you need when you need it, integrating it with what you already know and using it to produce things of value to others.
In medieval times, these functions were performed by the apprenticeship system for producing skilled craftspeople. That system did more than provide a method and a setting in which young people could acquire the skills they needed. It also provided a setting in which young people could become adults, acquire an ethical framework, become responsible contributors and learn how to relate to others as members of a community that had high standards and certain expectations about behavior.
We, instead, have developed an education system in which dependence is extended and real responsibility is denied for far too long. In my view, part of the reason that many employers like my attorney friend and I have such a hard time finding young people with the qualities we are looking for is that it is so hard for young people to develop those qualities in the environment called school.
I recently returned from a trip to Switzerland, where I found a modern solution to this problem. It is not the only solution, but it is indicative of the elements that need to be present for a solution.
Seventy percent of young Swiss go into their vocational education system, not the university-bound system. But they cannot do so unless they first get a contract from an employer. With the contract comes an offer of an apprenticeship position in the firm. These young people spend part of their time in a vocational school and part of their time at the employer’s site. This is not a work experience program, in which students can be given any sort of assignment and simply become another member of the staff, typically doing work of modest value to the employer and learning little except the importance of showing up on time, dressing appropriately and speaking to others with respect. Instead, the employers are expected to perform as a key player in an education and training system designed to provide the young person with an explicit set of technical skills developed by the industry group of which that employer is a part. If a particular employer cannot offer the full range of expected experiences, then the employer group makes arrangements for the young person to work in other settings to get the complete range of knowledge and skills needed. The demands on employers are substantial. The employers are eager to do this because, first, apprentices wages are kept sufficiently low, by law, so that most employers get at least as much value from the apprentice’s work as it costs the employer for their services and, second, these employers get to take their pick of the apprentices when their apprenticeships are over.
I recall our visit at an ABB factory making turbines for the power plants of ocean-going ships. The turbines are manufactured with advanced technologies and machined to very, very fine tolerances. The people who work there have the pride that comes with knowing that they are among the best in the world at what they do.
Our group was bowled over by the ABB apprentices with whom we spoke. They had the quiet self-confidence that came from knowing that they had earned the confidence of the exacting people who were their teachers and bosses, from knowing that they had personally made pieces of equipment that ABB put its logo on and was selling to customers all over the world, from being asked to represent a company famed for its high standards. They were very well-spoken (in English—which is not their native language), thoughtful, mature, and considerate of one another. They had the bearing of natural leaders about them. When they talked about their work, it was clear that they knew how to plan and execute, that they were prepared to take the initiative, that they were no less prepared to play their part on a tightly integrated team. They appeared to have many of the qualities I look for in my staff members.
ABB is held accountable for the quality of their apprenticeship program, as are all firms permitted to offer apprenticeships. Their instructors are required to meet high standards set by the Swiss government. The students are most certainly held accountable for the quality of their work at ABB.
But this is not a system driven by test-based accountability. Apprentices are given practical and written tests when they have completed their apprenticeship, but those tests are not used to determine whether their instructors at ABB are rewarded or punished. ABB’s instructors are expected to develop the qualities I’ve been talking about in this piece, but no one pretends that those qualities can be assessed with a written multiple- choice test. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the instructors’ report to ABB management concerning those qualities is an important part of the decision ABB makes as to whether or not to make an offer of regular employment to an apprentice when that person has completed his or her apprenticeship.
The Swiss case makes it clear that it is possible to develop an education system that provides for the vast majority of its young people a very high quality education in conventional terms (Switzerland is a top scorer on PISA) and, at the same time provide a setting in which young people can develop these other skills and qualities that are so much in demand in advanced industrial economies. But none of this can be done, as I see it, in countries that do not trust their teachers and do not have a way to provide students with the kind of real-world settings in which they can acquire the skills and qualities they so badly need.