The Pursuit Of The Magic Education Metric

Jeff Bryant

To address the nation’s struggling economy, the Obama administration has announced a bold proposal to require states to provide more useful data about the career success of business and financial executives who graduate from the nation’s colleges and universities with degrees in finance, accounting, and business administration.

Armed with this data, the administration plans to use tens of millions in federal financial aid as leverage to ensure that every state evaluates its business and financial education programs by several key metrics, such as how many graduates start new businesses, how long those businesses last, and whether they boost employment and higher wages. The administration will then steer financial aid to those programs that score the highest.

“Too often, business executives complain that before entering the workforce, they have not been given enough preparation actually running a business,” Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said. “We want to encourage states to promote more meaningful outcomes.”

Just kidding!

Imagine if the Obama administration actually did this. Imagine the response from the US Chamber of Commerce, from the nation’s elite business schools, from the editors of The Wall Street Journal, and the talking heads on CNBC. “Not everyone graduating with a business degree can be expected to start a successful business. Not every business can be held accountable for hiring new employees and raising living standards. This is a government intrusion! What an outrage!”

On the other hand, if this sort of crude metric approach were applied to higher education degree holders in another field – say education – then by all means, go right ahead.

That is indeed what has happened as the administration unveiled its endeavor to, as Stephanie Simon at Politico put it, “crack down on poor teacher training” by monitoring how education programs in colleges and universities produce graduates “who stay in the profession and … boost their students’ scores on standardized tests.”

This action was framed as part of the president’s “year of action” to – get ready for it – “help the middle class.”

Although the immediate benefits to the middle class are unclear, what it certainly perpetuates is a belief that education policy is adrift unless there is a simplistic metric –”rating systems” or grades – that make it easily discernible to people in state capitals and the bowels of think tanks and federal buildings in DC whether schools are delivering adequate education services to children in the hinterlands.

Somehow, intelligent people who readily understand that entrepreneurship and the success of business enterprises in a complex economy can’t be determined by looking at the stock market index or unemployment rates have this unshakeable faith that student test scores are a magic metric for guiding education policy.

Metric Mania

What the Obama administration has proposed for teacher preparation programs is just the “latest example,” as Valerie Strauss put it on her blog at The Washington Post, of its “obsession with standardized test scores.

“For years now, Strauss wrote, “school reformers have used student standardized test scores to evaluate not only the kids but schools and their teachers and principals, even as assessment experts have warned against doing so.”

In fact, the administration’s action followed closely on the heels of action taken against the state of Washington in the name of “accountability.” Leaders in that state, in order to be exempt from guidelines under the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, had committed to use student test scores as part of its new teacher evaluation process – an agreement the vast majority of states have also made with the US Department of Education.

But these promises became problematic, and two years later Washington was placed on “high-risk” status for losing its waiver, as Joy Resmovits reported for The Huffington Post, “because it did not meet the federal government’s guidelines, which tie students’ standardized test scores to teacher evaluations.”

Then, when “Washington’s legislature killed a bill that would have brought the state into compliance with those teacher evaluation requirements,” US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned that failure to comply could mean loss of the state waiver.

That warning became a reality when Duncan, “announced the state’s waiver will not be renewed, requiring the state to return to the Bush-era education law.”

Testing advocates immediately hailed this action. Resmovits quoted Anne Martens, a spokeswoman for the Washington chapter of Stand for Children: “It’s a good thing,” and “the right decision … a bright line,” from Kate Tromble, legislative director for The Education Trust.

But there were reasons Washington state lawmakers decided not to go forward with new test-based teacher evaluations.

Quoted by reporters for Education Week, the state’s teachers’ union president, Kim Mead wrote, “The Washington Legislature did the right thing … Republicans and Democrats alike saw that Duncan’s failed federal mandates would have done nothing to help Washington’s kids or their teachers.”

Education historian Diane Ravitch reminded from her personal blog, “The Legislature refused to bend to Duncan’s insistence that the state adopt test-based evaluation, which has consistently failed across the nation and has been declared inaccurate by the nation’s leading scholarly organizations.”

As Strauss reported in another one of her posts, “assessment experts have been saying for years that this is an unfair way to evaluate anybody, especially for high-stakes purposes … But reformers went ahead anyway on the advice of some economists who have embraced the method (though many other economists have panned it).”

Most recently, members of the American Statistical Association, the largest organization in the United States representing statisticians and related professionals, concluded that the most prevalent method of test-based teacher evaluations, and the being proposed for Washington state, is “unreliable.”

The evidence against this approach to teacher evaluations “is at this point overwhelming, Strauss wrote. “The refusal of school reformers to acknowledge it is outrageous.”

Ravitch called attention to Chris Rekydal, a Democratic state representative, who wrote on his official website, “Washington State has one of the leading K-12 systems in the United States. With 89% of our adult population having earned a high school diploma or greater, we are a national leader in student success, employment growth, and earnings.”

Why indeed would the federal government, cheered on by think tank inspired advocates, be making life so difficult for Washington when the state appears to be responding correctly to the best available evidence, and so many other states are so obviously much worse off?

Washington is not alone in this predicament. As Anne Hyslop explained for Real Clear Education, “Kansas, another ‘high risk’ state, is also struggling with teacher evaluation reform. And the situation in Washington is almost rosy compared to the dysfunction on display in Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and elsewhere.”

Failed K-12 Policy Goes To College

Much in the same way student test scores have proven to be an erroneous method for measuring teachers, they’re likely not going to work for programs of teacher education either.

As Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker explained on his SchoolFinance101 blog, “The idea that we can draw this simple line below between preparation and practice contradicts nearly every reality of modern day teacher credentialing and progress into and through the profession … The modern day teacher collects multiple credentials from multiple institutions, may switch jobs a handful of times early in his/her career and may serve a very specific type of student, unlike those taught by either peers from the same credentialing program or those from other credentialing programs.”

Further, current methods for identifying teacher quality used by federal and state agencies, Baker concluded in another post, “are substantially influenced by student population characteristics including income status, prior performance and even gender balance of classrooms.”

So, any “legit way” to compare teachers based on their preparation programs would have to have “enough of them, from each and every program, in each school, teaching similar kids similar subjects at the same grade level, across grade levels. Hmmmm…. How often are we really likely to meet this data requirement?”

Indeed the practicality of what the Obama administration has proposed seems implausible on its face. As classroom teacher Peter Greene wrote on his personal blog, “The US DOE proposes to start with tests that measure, at best, a small sliver of student learning which will be used to evaluate teachers, who only affect a small sliver of that learning, and then use that rating to rank the college of origin (which only affected a small sliver of that teacher’s professional skills).”

Despite these obvious shortcomings, advocates from establishment think tanks strongly supported the administrations actions: “This regulation is a much-needed first step towards ensuring that all students receive the quality instruction they deserve,” their statement went.

And on and on we go …

A Consultant Complex

Education advocates who want to make student test scores the basis for guiding education policy in all forms are not in any way disturbed by evidence and arguments they might be mistaken.

Like physical trainers determined to track their client’s weight gains when the only tool they have is a ruler, they’ll admit to maybe not having the ideal circumstances for their jobs. But at least, they contend, they have “something.”

We’ve seen this mindset before when befuddled leaders – whether private or public sector – bring in consultants who portend to magically solve the most intractable problems with the most keep-it-simple-stupid means. [Full disclosure: I’m a consultant.]

The usual promise is to work some spreadsheet magic to find that one data point that solves everything – like finding the baby in the king cake. And, “Now I’ll take my $50,000 check please.”

Much more difficult – and more honest – would be to inform education policy with less certainty and to answer tough questions about accountability by explaining, “it depends.”

Nevertheless, advocates who want to make high-stakes decisions about teachers and their preparation programs on the basis of standardized test scores have found their baby. And they’re sticking with it. We need leaders with the guts to reject that magic and seek more realistic solutions.

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