Friday, March 9, 2007

If You Reduce it All to a Single Number, that Number is Almost Certainly Wrong!

There has been so much grief over the Bush Administration's obsession with standardized tests and scores as a "remedy" for the current educational practice that there is a certain comfort (albeit cold) in finding other countries that also fail to "get it." A case in point is a report from the United Kingdom by Jon Boone and Simon Briscoe for the Financial Times. I had not realized that all secondary schools in Britain are ranked according to a single number, computed on the basis of students' examination scores. The punch line of the Boone-Briscoe report is that this computation does not take into account the subjects of those examinations. Thus a high score in mathematics carries the same weight as one in "leisure studies" (and, yes, that is a specific example given by Boone and Briscoe). This is particularly important because British parents have some ability to choose where their kids get their secondary education; and, if they have the power of decision, then they are entitled to the power to make an informed decision. The "bottom line" (literally the final paragraph) of the Boone-Briscoe report concludes that British parents are being denied this power:

The government figures make it particularly hard for parents to differentiate between a reasonably good comprehensive school that still primarily teaches traditional academic subjects, and a comprehensive that bulks out its results with softer subjects.

This is the sort of situation that begs for a Neustadt-May analysis that begins by asking, "How did we get into this mess?" Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Studies, claims it is a problem of a system that forces the comparison of apples and oranges. That's a nice metaphor, since I have yet to meet anyone who goes into a supermarket and tries to compare apples and oranges. Speaking for myself, I might want to know which of the two fruit options is cheaper, which looks fresher, or which may have been the story of a pesticide scandal; but I never think in terms of whether the apple itself is better than the orange or vice versa.

Raymond Callahan has argued that, in the United States, such attempts to "score" educational institutions is a product of the "cult of efficiency," which, in turn, had been fostered by Frederick Taylor's theory and practice of "scientific management. Put another way, this is a matter of trying to view education as a production industry rather than a service profession. As I have tried to argue in the past, this just illustrates how hard it is for us to get our brains around what service professions are and how we value them, even both the world's oldest profession and education (which I have called the second-oldest profession) are based on providing services. However, I am not sure that the British ranking system is a symptom of this American cult of efficiency. Sadly, it may just be a matter of laziness, based on that assumption that British parents do not want to be confronted with the problem of comparing apples and oranges; but I have to believe that, since most British parents know how to deal with a grocery store or supermarket, they know better than that. They have at least a vague idea of the sort of education they think would be right for their kids; and, having decided whether that is an "apple education" or an "orange education," they are then ready to talk about comparison. So perhaps it all comes down to whether or not British parents will let their government know that they are mad as hell about having their intelligence insulted and are not going to take it any more (to steal a turn of phrase uttered by a British actor)!

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