Federal Opinion

Children Become Risky Assets as Business Practices Come to Education

By Anthony Cody — June 25, 2012 4 min read
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A report from the El Paso Times revealed last week that school administrators in that city may have engaged in some questionable practices to make their all-important data appear better than it ought to have been. The key element in the District’s data portfolio is the 10th grade standardized test. Administrators apparently went to great lengths to prevent students likely to score poorly from taking this test. These steps included:

  • Placing students entering the country into the 9th grade, regardless of where their transcripts indicated they should be.
  • Allowing schools to reclassify students to a higher grade, without requiring they take the test - essentially skipping them over the test.

Former El Paso schools superintendent Lorenzo Garcia recently pled guilty to cheating federal accountability systems through these maneuvers. The fate of those who worked with him to implement this scheme is unclear.

This scandal echoes the patterns of manipulations associated with the “Texas Miracle” more than a decade ago, when schools in Houston reported zero dropouts. In Houston, principals who failed to hit their data goals were terminated. So they held students back, or covered up their drop-outs in other ways. This “miracle” was used to prove that educators elsewhere should be expected to produce similar results -- and thus was born No Child Left Behind.

Across the country, under NCLB and its nameless successor -- the NCLB waiver program, administrators continue to face the demand that their numbers always improve.

The ideology driving this is rooted in the belief that public schools and their employees must, like businesses, suffer bad consequences if they are “unprofitable.” But in the world of education, the bottom line of dollars and cents has been replaced by data tables that show rates of graduation and standardized test scores.

The behavior of these administrators in Texas bears some similarities to the world of business, where managers seek to jettison “risky assets,” that weigh down their portfolio. Education professor Julian Vasquez Heilig pointed out,

This is how corporations deal with assets that are risky to their bottom line. They do the exact same thing that educators are doing. They don't want these kids because these kids are a risk to their school, their reputation, to their jobs. And, just like corporations want to get rid of their risky assets -- mortgages that they know are problematic -- they want to get them off their books, schools are doing exactly the same thing.

This erosion of integrity undermines our whole system - especially as it becomes increasingly dependent on data as a driver of supposed quality. A year ago, Secretary Duncan wrote to state and district leaders urging them to protect the integrity of their test data.

In my view, this behavior reflects a crisis of purpose created by No Child Left Behind. Daniel Pink, in his book (and animated talk) Drive, described one of the three key motivators as purpose. As educators we enter our schools driven by a strong sense of purpose regarding our students. Daniel Pink explains that “when the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen.” In our public schools we do not have much of a profit motive, but thanks to the business minds that came up with NCLB, we have an analog “accountability system,” that forces us to treat data gains as profits, and students as potential liabilities. Administrators who want to survive in this environment sometimes “do what it takes” to get the numbers the system demands. As a result we also have systematic cheating, especially in high poverty districts.

It should be noted that even the totally commonplace and expected “obsession with data” that is demanded by the current reform policies results in educational malpractice -- preparation for tests above all else. And this is just as much a manipulation as the more overt maneuvers subject to prosecution. Harvard professor Daniel Koretz explained the problem with test preparation in an interview here several years ago:

...if you focus too much on the tested sample of mathematics, at the expense of the broader domain it represents, you get inflated scores. Scores no longer represent real achievement, and if you give students another measure--another test, or real-world tasks involving the same skills--they don't perform as well. And remember, we don't send kids to school so that they will score well on their particular state's test; we send them to school to learn things that they can use in the real world, for example, in later education and in their work.

The problem is that we are placing such huge pressure on our schools to constantly increase their scores. The waivers that the Department of Education has been granting allow states relief from the absurd demand that 100% of our students be proficient by 2014, but this goal has been replaced by ever-rising targets that, while less astronomical, are still arbitrary. In the real world, scores do not always rise. Student populations change, crises sweep through our communities, and our students are affected. Our schools have a limited ability to respond to these circumstances, and cannot always rise above them. Requiring that they do so is irrational, and is likely to produce the sort of behavior we are seeing in Texas and elsewhere.

If we want to restore integrity to our schools, we need to return some balance to the way we judge their performance. If we value many dimensions of learning, we should not only judge a school by its test scores. We should develop systems like the ones proposed by the Broader and Bolder Approach, that create teams of inspectors able to visit a school and make some qualitative appraisal of their quality.

So long as we set arbitrary and often impossible to achieve goals, relying on narrow indicators like test scores and drop-out rates, we will encourage manipulations such as the ones we saw in Texas. And that is not good for our students.

What do you think? What sort of manipulations have you witnessed in the pursuit of better school data? How can we restore integrity to our schools?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.