Education Opinion

Blame, Economics and “Notable Exceptions”

By Nancy Flanagan — March 31, 2011 1 min read
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What is it about Michelle Rhee? Why does she get to run to Uncle Jay and get a public platform to re-spin the undeniably ugly scandal that happened on her watch? Under her merit-based policies, in fact? Carried out, in no small part, by teachers who were hired when she was Chancellor? Why is she still out there shamelessly raising a billion dollars “for the kids” --the notable exception to personal accountability in education?

And worse--why is this humiliation now coming down hard on D.C. teachers and administrators?

Hasn’t anybody read Freakonomics?

The great irony: an increasing percentage of education policy now hinges on economic incentives. The United States Department of Education has based its entire ed-policy package on incentives: The Race to the Top, a funding competition. Merit Pay. Loosening caps on entrepreneurial charter start-ups. Evaluation based on test scores. Prizes and rewards. Carrots. And for a small, sad percentage, sticks.

Yesterday, in the NYT, Paul Krugman highlighted this quote from Alan Greenspan:

Today's competitive markets ...are driven by an international version of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global "invisible hand" has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

Notably rare? And speaking of unredeemably opaque--what about the process of attaching standardized test data to the value provided by classroom teachers? Another would-be-funny-if-not-horrifying example in Krugman’s column: With notably rare exceptions, Japanese nuclear reactors have been secure from earthquakes.

The Invisible Hand of Education Policy-Making might say: With notably rare exceptions, Michelle Rhee did an amazing job of elevating student learning in D.C.


One of the great pleasures of social media for a veteran teacher is re-connecting with former students, now fully grown and astonishingly articulate. When I posted a link to the data-laden cheating story in USA Today on my Facebook page, one of my formers--whom I remember as a skinny, whip-smart 12-year old, Matt-- posted this comment:

On MN Public radio, Monty Neill referred to merit-based pay producing test prep-based schools. As a parent of two children in a merit-based experimental school district, I would have to agree with him. The classroom is geared towards taking the test rather than learning, and for children who learn differently, the focus is on exempting them from testing. I do not blame the teachers, their take-home and thus their very livelihood depends on the tests.

Thanks, Matt. Someone taught you well.

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