Enough with the education olympics

Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for All, suggests in the Wall Street Journal that we call off the education arms race.

I agree. She’s referring to viewing education system effectiveness, as measured by standardized test scores across countries as a competition.

We should be happy that other countries are doing so well. Isn’t that good for us to live in a more educated world? Perhaps we might even be able to learn something from them, if we care to.

Or maybe we’ll just discover that they’re really good test takers.

The Wall Street Journal also offers this piece today about the education arms race, which says:

Since 1998, the Program for International Student Assessment, or Pisa, has ranked 15-year-old kids around the world on common reading, math and science tests. The U.S. brings up the middle—again—among 65 education systems that make up fourth-fifths of the global economy.

I have a few other thoughts to consider.

How well do PISA scores on reading, math and science correlate with prosperity now and in the future? Perhaps there’s a threshold that is good enough and, for whatever reason, the other countries are, to their own detriment, are far surpassing that.

For years I’ve heard that U.S. doesn’t have government health care and it results in sub par medical care performance vs. countries that do.

We do have government education, yet that still seems to result in sub par performance. So, maybe whether the government provides something isn’t the key to success. Maybe there are other factors.

Though, I must say that I do see as one bad outcome of our education system our inability to be able to put such results in proper perspective.

That’s not “market based reform”

In the Wall Street Journal, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, writes that Markets Aren’t the Education Solution.

Market-based reformers advocate using student test scores to evaluate and compensate teachers, increasing the number of charter schools, firing teachers in low-performing schools, and relying on corporate executives and business practices to run school districts.

She concludes:

But there is increasing evidence it doesn’t work.

Using test scores to evaluate and compensate teachers is not market-based reform.  It’s test-score accountability.

As a market-based reform supporter, I agree that it makes little sense to use test scores to judge teacher performance. Test scores should be used to judge student performance.

Also, relying on corporate executives and business practices to run school districts are not necessarily market-based reforms.  But, they may not be bad ideas.

The distinguishing characteristic of a market-based reform is that it gives more power to choose to the end users of the education system — the parents of school age children.  Any reform that does not clearly do that should not be referred to as market-based reform.

Pay for performance in education

Today the Wall Street Journal reports that School ‘Bonus’ Plan Comes Up Short.

In short, $57 million has been spent in a school bonus plan in New York City Public Schools since 2007 to see whether it could improve test scores.  It didn’t.

As pointed out in the article, part of the problem might be with the bonus plan design.  Generally, the bonuses were not paid to top-performing teachers.  Rather the bonuses were pooled at the school level based on test scores and distributed evenly.  That might be part of the problem.

Personally, I don’t expect much test score improvement from such pay-for-performance attempts for two reasons.

First, I don’t think test scores are a good measure on which to base performance.  There are too many variables that impact test scores when averaged at a teacher or school level.

I don’t choose new restaurants based on test scores, nor do I choose which school to send my kid to based on test scores.   I generally choose both based on reputation and recommendations of my friends and family.

The better measure of performance is the percentage of parents who would recommend the teacher to other parents and/or the number of parents who request a specific teacher.

In a world with a competitive education market, the teachers who garner high recommendations/requests from parents are rainmakers for the school.  Administrators would generally hire, retain and pay teachers who bring in students.  This would act as a buffer against the politics and arbitrary decision-making they currently fear from their administrators.  There would be no need for the faux and limited-dimensional accountability system that branches up to the highest levels of government.

Second, I don’t think pay-for-performance operates in the manner many people think it should.

Generally, when I hear pay-for-performance discussed, it seems people believe that it is supposed to improve the performance of the existing teacher population.  They seem to think it will make bad teachers mediocre and mediocre teachers better.

But, that’s not how pay-for-performance can improve education quality.  It improves education quality by attracting better and more talented teachers.

If you put me on an NBA team, do you think paying me more to produce better results will cause me to produce better results?  Probably not much.  The NBA pay-for-performance works because it attracts people with immensely greater basketball skills than most.