Archive for the ‘Teacher accountability’ category

Goals Gone Wild

January 15, 2010

I’ve often said that the moment you try to run schools like a business you succeed only in running it like the worst type of top down autocratic business where the big bosses make edicts that have nothing to do with the job reality of their work force.   In other words, think of Chrysler in the 1970s.   I love the blueberry story, which does an excellent job of explaining that since schools have no choice over quality control of our “ingredients” running us like a business is doomed to fail.  However, listening to NPR on the way to meet a friend for dinner tonight, I was struck by story about a paper that was produced last year by scholars from Harvard Business School, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Eller College of Management, and Wharton School entitled Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting.

As the Illinois Senate was busy tying half my teacher evaluation to standardized test scores, I thought it was a particularly relevant paper for those who want to base everything schools do around filling in circles with number two pencils.  The paper argues, ” that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”

There are some great anecdote’s in the paper such as when Ford was losing market share in the 1960s to foreign competitors and Lee Iacocca set the goal of producing a car that sold for $2,000 and weighed less than 2,000 pounds available for sale by 1970.  The goal and the tight deadline meant that many levels of management signed off on unperformed safety checks.   One of the safety checks involved the fuel tank which had less than 10 inches of crush space behind the rear axle.  As a result, the Ford Pinto had a nasty tendency of bursting into flame on impact.   The result of Iacocca’s Pinto was 53 deaths, millions of dollars in lawsuits, and serious harm to Ford’s reputation.

This doesn’t just apply to business.   This applies to the school setting as well.   The authors of the paper found that:

  • The harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged.
  • Goal setting harms organizations in systematic and predictable ways.
  • The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.
  • In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.
  • Managers should ask specific questions to ascertain whether the harmful effects of goal setting outweigh the potential benefits.

Do we really believe that the state legislatures around this country are going to be doing anything to monitor these goals to perform a cost/ benefit analysis?   The entire paper can be found here and makes for a very interesting read when looked at through the prism of standardized testing.  I think it might be helpful to look at the harmful side effects one by one:

  1. A Narrow Focus that Neglects Non-Goal Areas – In other words, teaching to the test and ignoring things like critical thinking, writing, art, and socialization.
  2. A Rise in Unethical Behavior – When you base people’s entire livelihood on one test, desperate people will cheat.
  3. Corrosion of Organizational Culture – When everybody is focused on the test, finger pointing will ensue.   The 6th grade teacher will be mad at the 5th grade teacher for things that were not covered in 5th grade.   A strong move is made from teachers as colleagues to competitors.
  4. Reduced Intrinsic Motivation – When everything is about the test score, why bother with anything else?  Why put in extra time on something that won’t increase scores if your job depends mostly on standardized testing?

The authors of the study never say that goal setting is bad.  As teachers, it is something we do all the time.   What they say, however is focusing too much attention on one goal will backfire because it will lead the employees to neglect everything, but the goal.   They offer many examples.  The paper is only 15 pages long and I see so many corollaries between the businesses they talk about and the current education reform movement.   Give it a read.  It’ll make a lot of sense.   I’ll say it again–If you run a school like a business, you run it like a very bad business.


Teach Locally, but Think Nationally

December 9, 2009

I’ve been getting a lot of traffic from Washington, DC lately on both of my blogs because of the writing that I’ve done on Michelle Rhee.   To my mind, Washington is definitely ground zero in the battle to privatize our schools.   What Michelle Rhee has done with her summary firings in our nation’s capital should be known to teachers far and wide.  However, we make a big mistake if we don’t see that the same forces that have hit Washington hard have also been at work in Chicago where mayoral control has displaced many teachers and despite a growing unrest by the parents and students of the city, charter schools continue to open leading to a huge uptick in teen violence.   In Milwaukee, the mayor is trying to take over the city’s schools.   In Detroit, they are trying to blackmail teachers into an agreement where each teacher would loan the school district $1,00o.  New York is threatening to tie tenure into test scores and let’s not forget the Race Off the Cliff coming from our federal government.

I really hope that each and every school district is able to fight off the threat to their districts, but if we are really to be successful we must unite together nationally because the threat that we face is national.   The people who are trying to bring corporate technique to the public schools are the same people who have joined together to ruin our economy.   It would make a lot more sense for the corporations to hire teachers to try to bring the classroom to the board room.   After all, our schools continue to lead the world in producing Nobel and Einstein Prize Winners even as our country has become a spending economy instead of a producing one.    For all of the Gates Foundation’s money, the American people would rightfully react with such horror, if they sent their children to schools that failed as often as any Microsoft Windows Operating System.

I’ve mentioned some big school districts, but I’d love to hear how your particular district is being privatized.  I won’t yell at you if you think it’s a good thing, but I want to know how are charters and corporate “accountability” moving into your schools.   What’s happening where you live?

Why Teacher Accountability Flounders

November 30, 2009

“If you catch a man a fish you can sell it to him. If you teach a man to fish you lose a wonderful business opportunity.” -Groucho Marx.

There was a blog post that I saw on twitter today from the ironically named Charter School Insights blog.   The post was entitled Michelangelo with a fillet knife and in it, the author makes a very compelling case why people who gut fish should be paid different rates based on their abilities.   Unfortunately, his post falls apart when he attempts to make an analogy between gutting fish and teaching children.

The problem with accountability is that in a school system like Chicago which is controlled by the mayor, the mayor is really not accountable for the schools.   Voters elect candidates based on a whole host of variables and the quality schools tends to be a very small part of any big city mayoral election.   Underneath our mayor is the Chief Executive Officer.  Despite a record of failure, our CEO went to Washington to run the Department of Education.  No accountability there.  Then you have the people who write the curriculum, the administrators, the area officers–nope, no accountability there.  In fact, the only people expected to be accountable are the classroom teachers.

Can you imagine the public outrage  if Obama gave his speech on Afghanistan this week and announced that the problem wasn’t our strategy, but the lazy and incompetent soldiers on the ground?  If only the grunts are accountable, you don’t have accountability.  What you have is a great place to pass the buck.

One example of the lack of accountability is the math curriculum mess in the city of Chicago.   The city’s teachers are required to use an ineffective curriculum that is based on the idea of not teaching to mastery, but of cycling through different topics.   That means that at any time if you were to ask a 4th grader if she knew what three times 12 was, she could tell you, “That’s multiplication.  I’m familiar with that”, but probably couldn’t tell you the correct answer.   Why do we have this curriculum?  The main reason is because the person who developed it at one of our local universities had a high ranking position in the city’s math department.  He then retired and sold this program to every school in the city.  Can you smell the accountability yet?

From teachers of young students who are left to potty train their students to teachers of older students breaking up gang fights, there is a large part of a teacher’s day that is not measurable by any standardized test.   If we really intend to make a move for accountability, let’s start with Washington where they continue to completely bungle health care.   Let’s look at childhood poverty.   Finland is supposed to have the best school system in the world.   Here’s a chart showing childhood poverty by country and tell me that it makes no difference in a child’s education:

Now, lest anybody think that I am making up excuses for teachers and arguing that teachers shouldn’t be held accountable because of all the difficulties they face in educating our nation’s youth, I must say I am not.   When we signed up to be teachers, we signed up for this.  From our first day of student teaching, we knew what we were getting into.   It is the job of a school’s administration to get rid of bad teachers.   I am simply saying that it’s real easy to scape goat teachers and demand accountability from them, but if we really want to make an improvement in our schools, we need to be better than that.