Business and education

I was at the annual meeting of a local Chamber of Commerce last week and couldn’t help but be struck by the simplistic way in which business leaders talk about education reform. I am frustrated by the double standard adopted by the business community when it comes to shaping and, in many cases, driving education reform efforts. Business leaders are vocal in opposing increased regulations on business generally and on all manner of specific industries.

They argue that politicians and bureaucrats do not understand the complexities of business; that regulations create hurdles and uncertainties that stymie innovation and growth; and that the money used to comply with regulations could be better spent on core business enterprise. Yet, when it comes to education, we see three growing trends among business advocates:

  1. A complete willingness to increase the amount and types of federal and state regulations being imposed on public education systems at all levels. Arguing that businesses are the end-user of the students the public K-12 systems graduates (an assertion which neglects the fact that education is about more than just creating tomorrow’s workforce), chambers and advocacy groups have been taking a very aggressive role in pushing education regulation.
  2. Indifference to or unawareness of the fact that reforms cost millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of person-hours to implement well. Take, for example, one line from the Chamber event that was repeated at least four times: “We support the Colorado Academic Standards, which will measure the important skills that Colorado businesses need students to have.” This statement demonstrates a lack of understanding of what standards actually are. First, standards do not measure anything – assessments do. Second, standards alone do not ensure that students will achieve higher levels of knowledge, skills and understanding. What will ultimately change outcomes for students is a shift in how teachers teach. Assuming that teachers around the nation have not been conspiring for decades to teach students badly, we must acknowledge that teachers need support in changing how they teach in order to help students develop the skills and knowledge business leaders say they want. And despite many business leaders’ love-affair with programs like Teach for America (TFA), unprepared teachers such as those brought into schools through TFA are generally not capable of delivering the high-quality instruction needed to create strong and independent learners (see linked previous posts). Moreover, the types of assessments that would measure higher order skills (like IB) cost about $100 per pupil precisely because they are written tests scored by human beings rather than computers. Compare this to PARCC tests, which are costing states $29.50 per student. We appear to be unwilling or unable to pay for the quality assessments we say we want.
  3. A concerted effort to limit collaboration with educators and a tendency to vilify many of us who push back on reform efforts. People like me question the reforms not because we are opposed to accountability, higher standards or change, but rather because we (like business people) have an understanding of the complexity of the overall enterprise within which we work and can thus anticipate the potential harm that simplistic reform policies can cause for children. I care about ensuring that all students have access to strong teachers, outstanding schools and an education that prepares them for life after school. I care that my children and others grow into creative, entrepreneurial adults who can think critically, collaborate with others, find good jobs and contribute to the world in meaningful ways. Yet, having been immersed in educational theory, practice and many of our current reform efforts, it is clear to me that some of the “reforms” business leaders advocate are likely to create young people who are exactly the opposite – extrinsically- rather than intrinsically-motivated; compliant rather than entrepreneurial; and afraid of taking risks and failing. Two (simplified) examples highlight at least some of the unintended consequences people like me anticipate when we promote caution in educational reform efforts:

Educator evaluation systems:

It makes intuitive sense to hold teachers accountable for the outcomes of their students. Yet, a driving principle of current systems is to try and reduce the perceived subjectivity of educator evaluations by tying an individual teacher’s evaluation to student performance. To be truly fair in measuring a teacher’s effect on learning (as opposed to the influence of factors such as a student’s socioeconomic background) the best measures of student performance are standardized ones. Yet these assessments are not designed to measure the sorts of skills we agree are critical for students to have: higher order thinking, creativity or collaboration.

They are also of little use in evaluating the types of skills and knowledge that student develop through non-traditional educational experiences that involve collaboration among groups of teachers and non-educators. For example, educators and business leaders agree that it is important to provide students with out of school learning experiences such as internships. But what happens to an individual educator’s evaluation when a student spends 30% of a biology course working in a lab conducting research? This is a fabulous learning experience and a far better way for the student to understand the application of biology.

Yet, she now works with a mentor, two graduate students and another high school student on a large-scale project whose outcomes are not easily measurable or quantifiable at the end of the semester. The biology teacher is being told that he will be held accountable for the student’s progress in the course and potentially get bonuses or base salary increases based on that student’s end-of-semester achievement as measured by a test. There is now an inherent tension for both an individual teacher and within the educational system generally between covering material that can easily be measured by a standardized assessment, and creating authentic learning experiences that are far more likely to educate, motivate and prepare students to work in the sciences.

Business performance is often measured by relatively straightforward metrics such as revenue earned or numbers of individuals served. A teacher’s impact on students is far more complex and difficult to measure “objectively.” No one seriously believes that even multiple measures of student academic outcomes can capture the breadth of what excellent teachers do. Furthermore, the systems we are developing to evaluate educators are intentionally trying to minimize subjectivity by reducing the weight given to observational data collected by principals, educators’ self-assessment and teacher-collected evidence.

Yet, these types of data are valued and included in most business performance review processes (note the difference in terminology). Moreover, given the structure of schools, principals are responsible for conducting far more evaluations than the average business supervisor. I have personally been in schools where one principal oversees 29 teachers teaching in areas ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade biology to eighth grade math. It is nearly impossible for one principal to know enough about each of those areas to understand best teaching practices. Moreover, these types of numbers make it impossible for evaluations to include elements such as initial goal-setting, mid-year reviews and adjustment of goals, and final reviews during which challenges and short-comings might be discussed and accounted for. No business leader I know would aspire to implement such a process and it would be a system that most business employees would rightfully question.

Third grade literacy legislation:

Students who are not proficient readers by third grade have trouble in later grades because they have a hard time “reading to learn.” Consequently, dozens of states now have statutes that mandate that students be proficient readers by third grade and retain students who are not. On the face of it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this aspiration. The challenge arises out of the complex nature of literacy and early childhood development and the proposed retention.

The linked post goes more deeply into the first issue, but the bottom line is that what matters in reading is both decoding and comprehension. Decoding is the act of identifying and making sense of letters on a page. Comprehension is the more complicated process of making sense of words and ideas, and being able to use what has been decoded in meaningful ways. Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows the difference between sounding out words and being able to make sense of a page of text. The former is decoding and it is relatively easier to achieve and measure.

Comprehension is a far more subtle process; the underlying skills develop over years and require students to access a wide base of knowledge about the world, the strategies necessary to link new information to past knowledge, and the ability to make predictions and inferences. What most literacy statutes have done is incentivize schools to ensure that students can ”read” as measured by standardized tests that are more effective at measuring decoding skills than comprehension abilities. This has led to a push to focus on “academic” skills such as literacy at younger and younger ages, depriving students of the time, open play and non-structured experiences needed to develop many of the foundational skills needed for comprehension.

The fear that many of us who study and understand early childhood development share is that we will end up with children who can “read” but still have trouble learning because they did not have the early childhood and elementary years support needed to develop the subtler skills needed to comprehend. Retention is problematic because merely repeating third grade will not, in and of itself, ensure that reading improves. Schools and teachers need additional resources in the form of literacy coaches, additional training for teachers, and the ability to individually support struggling readers. The statutes that have been passed do little to address the implementation costs and challenges of the mandates.

Business leaders will argue that they collaborate with organizations that claim to represent the “voice of business in education.” However, these groups tend to have boards comprising only business leaders are generally staffed by individuals who have little to no experience in classrooms. Those who have been in classrooms often come from the ranks of Teach for America, an organization that is now being critiqued by its own alumni for being more concerned about creating “leaders” who will advocate for education reform than about developing strong teachers who stay in classrooms long enough to gain an appreciation for the complexity of teaching.

Business leaders need to part of the education conversation and there is important value they can bring to the table. However, they must first acknowledge that they do not adequately understand the complexities of education and the potential long-term implications of the reforms they advocate. In order to effect the change they want, they must actively engage with experienced educators who have a deep knowledge of the profession, the work, and the implications of reform at the various levels of the education system. Legislative sessions in states around the country are gearing up for the new year and there are likely to be proposals put forth to thoughtfully consider the structure of existing and new reform mandates, and current implementation timelines. Business leaders need to step back from the rhetoric of “staying the course at all costs” and “not allowing the work we have done to be undone” and work with educators to ensure that educational reform have the intended outcomes for our kids.

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