Education Opinion

The Letter From: Provider Accountability is Arbitrary and Capricious (I)

January 23, 2008 3 min read

Last week I argued that in the context of public education policy, accountability consists of standards, consequences and due process. Moreover, whatever its other faults, No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) provisions meet that definition.

If schools are held accountable for their role in student performance, what about those who supply schools with the products, services and programs employed in teaching and learning? In my view, NCLB made at least as good a start here – on paper, but the law has been implemented in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

To make this case, I need to provide a background of concepts and history.
The common law of product liability law incorporates the idea that sellers implicitly warrant that what they sell is fit for the purpose it is advertised to meet. A new car that doesn’t run is not fit for its purpose as transportation. The rule is not firm; a car that breaks down daily is not fit – but monthly, every six months? Not so clear. Still, there is a basic principle, and reasonable people generally come to the same judgment on the facts.

Prior to the passage of NCLB, the concept of fitness for purpose did not extend very far in the case of products, services and programs sold for teaching and learning. Textbooks had to hold together, pages had to be in order, text had to conform with generally accepted forms of spelling and grammar – in short, they had to have the attributes we expect of books.

What they did not have to do, and no provider would warrant on their own volition, is play a value-added role in the teaching and learning process. To be specific, they did not have to demonstrate a contribution to student learning. For many years education science did not possess the capacity to distinguish the role played by products services and programs, and even today the state of the evaluation art is not entirely satisfactory. Moreover, to the extent that providers were held accountable for their offerings, they focused more on specific subject area content – in a word the textbook adoption process. Finally, one can argue that schools were not accountable for student outcomes until NCLB, so there wasn’t much reason to inquire into the contribution of providers’ offerings.

When results are not an explicit part of school accountability, how do schools make decisions about the products, services and programs they will use for teaching and learning? Even more important, once patterns of use have been established, what are the incentives for change? And how do those incentives shape the market?

The primary product, service and program employed for teaching and learning is the textbook. It is not terribly useful to explain the century of market developments that led us to a handful of multinational textbook publishers and hundreds of small companies providing supplementary materials. What is important to understand is that in the absence of objective standards of quality accounting for impact on teaching and learning, “brand” became the surrogate for quality, and the gross margins on sales generated from the attraction to brand allowed the major publishers to create and reinforce barriers to entry by competitors. One hundred years of growth and mergers leave the publishers in a market protected by Everest-sized barriers to competition. That power extends so far as to slow the adoption of materials other than textbooks through the lobbying process, move them to the supplemental realm, and so keep most of the dollars spent for classroom teaching and learning in the print market they dominate, and perpetuate their political power.

Next: Nonprofit technical assistance and independent consultants.

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