Accountability This!

The October 6th issue of the New Yorker has an entertaining little missive in the letter column. Rod Paige, our current Secretary of Education, defends the No Child Left Behind Act against claims that the NCLB emulates Henry Ford’s manufacturing production principles for education. Mr. Paige tries to justify the comparison of business to education, and blames public school monopolies for what he considers to be the current abysmal state of public education. He glosses over the reality that comparing business to education is frequently like comparing apples to oranges.

One has to wonder just what business model Mr. Paige considers worth emulating. Is it the General Electric model personified by Jack Welch, who’s been quoted as saying his ideal location for a factory would be on a barge, so that it could be moved around to take advantage of the lowest global wage rates? Or the model of those corporate managers who show profitability in their corporations by slashing payroll to make the quarterly numbers look good instead of improving production? What about banks that charge higher fees for fewer services? Enron? Arthur Anderson?

A hard look at our public schools shows that such emulation is already in place. The model of slashing payroll while maintaining current production can be found in your closest crowded classroom. Failing and faltering students get outsourced to GED and dropout programs, preventing them from dragging down a school’s test score average. Parents and guardians pay higher fees for educational services. Schools in richer neighborhoods have PTAs and foundations which provide funding for books, enrichment programs and basic classroom supplies while poorer schools struggle through with little outside financial help. Parents in poorer areas struggle either to supplement their public school, scratch up the bucks to pay for private school, or, if they’re lucky enough to have the luxury to have one parent at home, home school.

The free market at work. Doncha just love it? If the minds behind No Child Left Behind have their way, things will only get worse, because the main schtick behind NCLB is the withdrawal of federal funds from low income population schools if their test scores don’t turn around within a set period of time. Explain to me, carefully, how this withdrawal of funding is going to do anything other than cause faltering schools to plummet even further? What is this supposed to achieve?

I have some major problems with this concept of business being held up as the ultimate model for education. As Mr. Paige points out in his letter, both business and education share a common interest in outcomes. However, in business, sacrificing loyal employees to meet a bottom line, as required to streamline production, is a viable management technique. Explain to me how this works with students with disabilities? Students with low socioeconomic status who haven’t been properly prepared to learn and lack the background and/or support needed to succeed? Students whose first language isn’t English? All of whom can bring down a school’s test scores? What are you doing with these students, Mr. Paige?

Well, I suppose I really do know the answer to these questions, after all. Public school accountability has been a common theme for politicians ever since Sputnik flew and they panicked over a perceived lack in science education. Political fads have pulled public education back and forth. The twin goals of preparing our students for what businesses want in their employees and the concept of what it takes to create well-educated, well-rounded, thoughtful and knowledgeable adults have been at war with each other for ages.

The education of our youth is far too important to leave to the tender ministrations of business, especially given the current focus upon production over quality and faddish devotion to trends such as outsourcing and just-in-time production. Despite what Mr. Paige and others want us to think, business suffers from the same fads and follies as public education. Trying to run schools on a business model will do little but add to the current chaos of school reform, with the probable result of little change in current outcomes. While accountability is an admirable aim, we have to look at the purpose shaping this drive toward accountability, and, like good managers of any ilk, ensure that the measures we take produce the results we desire.

And if they don’t-then we need to question just what the true agenda is here.