Why School Reform Advocates Aren’t So Businesslike After All

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In her book Curriculum Mapping, education consultant Kathy Glass invokes Peter Drucker—and his deep knowledge of the corporate world—to help explain why schoolteachers need quantifiable goals and standards.

“Drucker . . . states in his book The Practice of Management, ‘Setting objectives enables a business to get where it should be going rather than be the plaything of weather, winds and accidents,’” Glass writes. “In teaching,” she adds, “standards help to set objectives as they provide teachers with a target to shoot for and allow for measurement. One cannot manage or teach effectively what one does not measure.”

On some level, this is undoubtedly true, which is why I’ve previously advocated more accountability in K-12 education through the use of performance measures. But what if most schools, in a bid to be more businesslike, are measuring things in a very different way than Drucker would prescribe?

I’ve become convinced that this is precisely what’s happening—with harmful consequences for teachers and students alike—since I’ve started reading a remarkable blog called Gatsby in L.A.

Written by my close friend Ellie Herman, the blog chronicles her yearlong journey into a series of Los Angeles area classrooms, as she endeavors to discover what makes a great teacher. (The name is a nod to the fact that most students read The Great Gatsby in 11th grade English, where Herman is hanging out.)

Herman, who in a past life was a successful television writer and then spent five years teaching drama, creative writing and English at a charter high school in South L.A., intentionally seeks out exemplary educators in all sorts of settings—schools with very poor kids, rich kids and those in between. And in every case, the educators she profiles are exactly what I’d want for my own children: professionals who are clearly passionate, caring, innovative and, yes, effective.

Yet by highlighting these role models—some of whom teach by the book, but many of whom don’t—Herman constantly questions whether our current obsession with standardized test scores, one-size-fits-all teaching techniques and teacher-performance rankings amounts to anything genuinely useful.

In one post, titled “The Day I Taught to the Test,” Herman recounts how Joana, one of her own composition students, offered up a startling insight into a poem that everyone had just read. Joana’s sensitivity and astuteness stopped the class cold—so much so that Herman never got around to teaching what she had originally intended: a basket of essay-writing tricks that promised to boost her students’ test results.

“If my goal that day was to get them to be better writers of academic, AP-style essays . . . I’d have to say I totally failed,” Herman says. “If anyone had been observing, I couldn’t have said what I accomplished, except that I didn’t achieve my day’s objective. I wouldn’t have even scored a ‘2’ in questioning, or, for that matter probably, in anything.

“On the other hand,” she continues, “their academic writing got a lot better over the year. But was that because of that class? That poem? Their hard work? The fact that they came in very motivated? Their outside reading? Their amazing parents? The synergy of those particular crazy kids in one classroom throughout a year? And even if I could answer those questions, it wouldn’t capture that single moment when a whole classroom of people stopped still, dazzled, thinking. As we talk about what teaching means, is there a space for wonder?”

Wonder is, of course, difficult to measure. But it’s not impossible.

Could we not, for instance, devise a more flexible and nuanced system in which we give as much credence to how much a particular teacher inspires her students to love to learn as we do to a hard-and-fast test score?

“It is up to the manager to think through what kind of measurement is appropriate to the phenomenon it is meant to measure,” Drucker advised. “He has to know that ‘larger’ and ‘smaller,’ ‘earlier’ and ‘later,’ ‘up’ and ‘down’ are . . . often more accurate, indeed more rigorous, than any specific figure.” What’s more, according to Drucker, there are always “important results that are incapable of being measured” at all.

The best businesses recognize this. Amazon, for example, “relies on metrics to make almost every important decision,” Brad Stone explains in his bestseller The Everything Store. “Yet random customer anecdotes, the opposite of cold, hard data, can also carry tremendous weight and can change Amazon policy.”

At its heart, teaching is a social event; schools are charged with molding human beings, not pieces of metal. And to judge any such activity, Drucker believed, we must devise “a calculus of qualitative change,” not quantitative change.

This seems especially crucial in low-income communities, where, along with having to navigate a host of serious socioeconomic challenges, many students have become wary of the institution of school after years of bad experiences—falling far below what Herman calls “the Trust Line.”

All the while, our fixation with statistical outcomes carries another cost: We have sharply limited what students are being taught. “We are really rather contemptuous of everything that is not reading, writing or arithmetic,” Drucker pointed out. “Today’s school imposes a value system on the human being, which, in effect, eliminates something like three-quarters of human gifts as ‘irrelevant.’ This is not only inhuman in the most literal sense of the word. It is not only stupid. It is also incompatible with the realities of our economy and our society. We need people who are craftsmen in thousands of areas.”

The great irony in all of this is that “reformers want education to become more like business,” as Diane Ravitch puts it in her latest examination of the American education system, Reign of Error. But if you read Gatsby in L.A., you’ll quickly see that they are only half succeeding at best.

By promoting the tyranny of one narrow type of measurement, we may be forcing schools to be more like businesses—but lousy ones.