The US push toward improved education needs to be careful. As I read simultaneously about the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund and the rise of evidence-based management, I see a discontinuity. The top bullet in the Department of Education’s release says: “Adopting internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace.” I agree with the evidence-based management approach from my friend Bob Sutton and his colleague Jeff Pfeiffer. Education measurement requires scientifically valid experiments that prove what works and what doesn’t about measurement. The idea of benchmarks that stand on shaky scientific footings, as most do, will lead to the perception of improvements in our schools, not necessarily real improvements because we don’t have objective facts that define what good is.
I have similar issues and questions with the other bullets in the release:
- Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals; (as I have blogged before, we don’t have a good model for teacher performance, because we don’t have a good model for knowledge work. Until we create an effective model for teaching, we are guided by personal experience, anecdote and myth, not by the measurement of results that are consistent across educators and institutions).
- Building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices; and (same point as above. If we don’t have good models, we will build tools that measure the wrong things. We need to be extremely cautious here because measurement will drive behavior, and the President’s heart may be in the right place, but at this point, the collective brain for government won’t know how to measure success. A couple of simple questions: what is success in education? Is it people prepared for work? People prepared to be engaged citizens of the country? People prepared to be engaged citizens of the world? Something more, something less? Until we define the desired outcome, we can’t start to hypothesis about how to reach it, let alone consistently measure our progress.)
- Turning around our lowest-performing schools (again, how is performance measured? What is the goal?)
This work to improve education should include funding for understanding performance, at the broadest level. We need to develop a scientifically valid understanding of education performance and we need to craft a strategic definition of education goals for the nation. Only then can this level of funding be applied in a way that is meaningful. If we have truly elected a government that wants to have its decisions governed by facts, it needs to equally acknowledge when frameworks for facts don’t exist, where theories of measurement are lacking, and fund that work while it remediates short-term issues.