On Nobel Prizes That Do Not Yet Exist and Other Exciting Matters

Cross-posted at Education Week.

First, a shout-out to Hank Levin, who wrote me to point out that, in attributing a Nobel Prize in Economics to Nikolai Kondratieff in a recent blog, I awarded him a prize that did not yet exist when he died.  That was embarrassing.  I work hard to be accurate in these pages, but now a whopper like that gets through.

Mike Petrilli picked up on my recent blog on system gateways and honesty in setting education goals in his most recent Flypaper blog.  He did a great job.  You can read it here.

In that blog, I made the point that failure to be honest about things like graduation rates leads to widespread cynicism about the achievements of students who actually have done what they are supposed to do to earn credentials that ought to mean something.  Sure enough, along comes a research report from AEI on “credit recovery,” the very thing I was talking about, that presents clear evidence that the increased use of credit recovery by high schools is closely correlated with poor performance on statewide accountability tests.

When queried on this point by the press, a District of Columbia schools official cited the importance of taking factors other than test score performance into account when judging student performance.  Say what?  I was incredulous when I read this.  If it is so important to take multiple factors into account, why would you do this only for students who could not reach the minimum standard on the accountability test?  Surely, the standards—if there are any—for getting a high school diploma ought to be the same for all students in the system, not different for different students.

Which puts me in mind of another communique I received last week from a colleague who dismissed the growing interest in using the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment scores to compare student performance across countries by saying that, after all, we all know that many factors not measured by these tests are important in school, work and life, things like the ability to collaborate with others, persist in the face of obstacles, work independently and so on.  Which left me a bit befuddled. Should we measure nothing because we cannot measure everything of interest?  Wouldn’t it be better to measure what we can, be clear that it is not everything that interests us and work harder to measure the things that are important but hard to measure?

The debacle caused by the poor implementation of the Common Core has led to a backlash against testing in all its forms that is now thoroughly irrational and dangerous.  Performance—of individuals and of the system—is important and so is accountability—of both individuals and the system.

I have long argued that there are good measures available for many things that we value or at least ought to value highly but they are more expensive to measure and we are not used to paying so much.  Maybe instead of measuring nothing, we should pay more to measure the things we say are important but have been too cheap to measure.  Good writing is the best, and by far the most important, example.  And, just to be clear, computer evaluations of writing are not what I have in mind.  What I have in mind is writing that involves good thinking and compelling expression and it still takes humans to evaluate that…at least for now.

Ted Kolderie wrote to his e-mail list this week about the same blog that Hank Levin wrote to me about, the one on long-cycle changes in economies and social systems (in particular, education systems).   Ted has me pegged as calling for what economist Thorstein Veblen would have termed the “creative destruction” of the education system as we know it at the national level and wants to know whether I would agree that it is needed at the state and local levels.  But I have for some years focused the work of NCEE, my own organization, not national policy but on the state and local level in the belief that the federal government is playing an increasingly peripheral and not particularly helpful role in education policy.

Ted’s assumption, though, is that, if I were interested in focusing on state rather than national policy, and see current policy as largely the actions of people who have an interest in keeping themselves in positions of authority, that I would be in favor of a form of “creative destruction” that would take the form of devolving authority all the way down to the school as much as possible.

I got another note from David Osborne this week along the same lines.  David wrote a great book in the early 1990s titled Reinventing Government.  Where Ted believes that the next inevitable step in reinventing the governance of education lies in giving schools much more autonomy, David, like many others, would reinvent the government of education to provide for much more competition among schools.  I see no evidence that either approach works at scale to significantly improve the outcomes for all students.

Well, that is not quite accurate.  I think that one of the most important determinants of the quality of large-scale education systems is the quality of the staff and the degree to which the schools function as professional work organizations, in the same way that high-status professional service organizations typically work.  When this works as it should, school faculties do have more professional autonomy than the vast majority of American school faculties now have, but no more than the faculties of public schools in the top-performing countries have had for a long time.  In those cases, the autonomy comes with higher standards for teachers and school leaders, more control over curriculum, more control over compensation and career structures and more direct accountability to the state than is typical in the United States. In other words, many things are different, not just the degree of autonomy.  It is the way the whole system is put together that makes the difference.  Woe betide the nation or state that greatly increases the autonomy of the local school and its faculty that does not pay a lot of attention to the quality of the teachers, the leadership and the curriculum, for example.

When it comes to the proposition that competition will fix the schools, with a bare minimum of state regulation, I am stuck.  I have seen no evidence that that will work at scale.  Nor can I come up with a theory that convinces me that it should work.  Public education is the classic public good.  All should invest because all, not just those who are educated, will benefit.  Private competitors should avoid educating the disadvantaged because they are harder to educate to a high standard and take in the well-to-do, because they can get the best results at the lowest cost.  Parents are interested in results, not economists’ concepts of value-added.  What’s more, parents often put factors other than student performance higher on their priority list than results on accountability tests.  Lastly, it is easier for wealthier parents to take advantage of whatever choices are available than for low-income parents.  The research has shown that these things are true all over the world.  It is also true that some of these problems can be mitigated, if not overcome, by state regulation, but most of the proponents of choice in the United States are opposed, as a matter of principle, to more state regulation.  This issue, of course, has sharply divided the choice and charter movement here in the United States.  My sympathies are with those, like Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli, who acknowledge these realities and are prepared to advocate for tough regulation to get charter systems that will hold the authorizers accountable for the performance of their students while still enabling them to offer choices not available in the regular public schools.

Those are just a few of the things that have come my way in the last few days in response to my blogs.  What is at least as interesting is what has not come my way.  When I first started doing my blog, I got a lot of responses from readers on the Education Week site.  Then, over time, there were fewer names attached and the site was used mainly by people who used my blog simply as a prompt for venting spleen in ways largely unrelated to anything I had actually said in my blog.  Now that Education Week and many others are imposing some useful rules on the users of their airwaves, the responses have become much more civil and also many fewer in number.  As this whole trajectory has unfolded, however, serious colleagues like those I have mentioned in this blog have written me directly in greater and greater numbers, preferring the private communication to the public melee.  My thanks to all of you who have done so, whether with criticism or in support, or both.  It always nice to know when I have written something worthy of your attention.