Monday, June 01, 2009

Standardized Testing, Education & Aid

William Easterly is no fan of standardized testing:

The US already has RBM [results based management] in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act, which rewards public schoolteachers when their students score high on standardized tests. Some of the pitfalls were revealed when I interviewed one of the customers --a 12 year old rising 8th grader in an average public school -- about how this was working out. She said “Teachers remind us everyday about the test, and they spend more time teaching us how to phrase answers to test questions than actually teaching us facts.” Finally, the nightmare was over: “And then after the tests were over and taken, they stopped teaching, and the rest of the year we watched stupid movies.” (Less anecdotally, academic evaluations find this Act to have had some payoffs for the worst schools, but note the idiocy of applying it universally to previously well-performing or even average schools.)
I get the issues, but I have to wonder if the problem is standardized testing, the tests or the management of the organizations being tested. I just don't see how having a baseline of information to compare can be a bad thing.

Granted, the question of whether or not we're measuring the right things is obviously a valid one - e.g. creativity and problem solving. But maybe such things can't be measured - which is an explanation that strikes me as a cop out by those who don't want to be compared/measured.

Perhaps I lean towards agreeing with standardized testing because education doesn't allow for choice - in a marketplace of ideas, bad schools are subjected to the harsh realities of not achieving a willing market. So at least given a public school's captive audience, there is baseline information on both good and bad schools with standardized testing. In private markets, there is value for useful information and private enterprises are often better at filtering out gaming in the system when their own reputations/livelihoods are on the line - e.g. Zagat's for restaurants. Where public schools are subject to private markets is in real estate markets. The rich (or even the better off) have the option of moving to a new school district. The rest get 'left behind'.

LA Times profiles the American Indian Public Charter schools (via Donald Luskin):
School administrators take pride in their record of frequently firing teachers they consider to be underperforming. Unions are embraced with the same warmth accorded "self-esteem experts, panhandlers, drug dealers and those snapping turtles who refuse to put forth their best effort," to quote the school's website. [...] Not surprisingly, many Bay Area liberals have a hard time embracing an educational philosophy that proudly proclaims that it "does not preach or subscribe to the demagoguery of tolerance."

It would be easy to dismiss American Indian as one of the nuttier offshoots of the fast-growing charter school movement, which allows schools to receive public funding but operate outside of day-to-day district oversight. But the schools command attention for one very simple reason: By standard measures, they are among the very best in California.
Most of the kids who go there are poor. But what are they doing that's so different?
The short answer is that American Indian attracts academically motivated students, relentlessly (and unapologetically) teaches to the test, wrings more seat time out of every school day, hires smart young teachers, demands near-perfect attendance, piles on the homework, refuses to promote struggling students to the next grade and keeps discipline so tight that there are no distractions or disruptions. Summer school is required.

Back to basics, squared.
Of course if you read on (and I would highly recommend that you do), you realize just how draconian some of their policies are but at the same time they clearly promote a culture of excellence. While I might personally think that they go too far, it's also hard not to see that they at least provide an excellent foundation with high expectations to students who would otherwise not get it. But are they preparing students with the creativity and problem solving skills to succeed? The article doesn't say. On the other hand, should we also be worried that such paternalism results in workforce workers who are governed like those at Canon (Danny Choo)?
According to his book, employees can concentrate on the meeting at hand without chairs and they have been able to half the number of meetings each year. [...]Also in the photo you can see a blue sign on the floor. When Nikkei went to interview the president, while walking in the corridor a siren and flashing lights went off. The corridor was designed to detect whether employees were walking at least 5 meters for every 3.6 seconds.
While Easterly notes how aid agencies can game the system to skew results to profit, I figure that it's much like markets and profitability. Companies may choose to pursue profitability for its own sake while offering a given service or seek to be an innovative service provider and profit by design and as a byproduct. While I might make the argument that the latter is more sustainable and productive, won't both organizations being governed and subject to the accountability of consumers create value to those consumers? In the same way, while (often) subjective measures might be useful to organizations who don't rely on their users for sustainability, isn't it at least a useful starting point?

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