The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Our Schools Are Not Businesses–And our Kids are not Products

on January 5, 2016

Today’s post was written by Doug Garnett, a fellow member of the Oregon Save Our Schools organization. He is a business owner with more than 20 years experience with metric based marketing programs. He also taught for 12 years in the School of Business Administration at Portland State University.

Underlying the US obsession with testing is a misapplication of specific business management programs called a “continual improvement process.” Business schools and corporations are rife with these programs – and in the right controllable situation they are excellent. Within business these programs are successful, but also quite often they are mis-used or used in the wrong situations.

The theory is that the best way to manage is to establish goals for every unit and establish “objective” metrics to determine the effectiveness of those goals. Then employees, departments, divisions, and executives are all rewarded or punished according to how well they achieve their metrics.

However, as Edwards Deming noted, metric driven management leads to situations where every one meets their metrics yet the company fails. It happens over and over because only rarely do metrics truly lead to company success. And in many cases, managers manipulate the metrics to ensure that they get bonuses regardless of the outcome.

And while metric management may work well in, say, a factory, it is a horrible way to manage areas where the needed results can’t be measured well. In these cases, continual improvement leads to a narrow focus on what can be measured rather than what matters. Hence, again, it leads to failure.

Much of the testing mania in education is driven by businessmen or business backed foundations. Those entities have misapplied in education the same systems they misapply in their businesses. But their businesses aren’t as sensitive to error as education is.

Testing arrived because in order to apply a system of continual improvement to education, business leaders needed numbers. So standardized testing became their metric-despite the fact that as a global measure of education success the tests are worthless. Any amount of data can only summarize a small portion of educational results. As an advertising guy who uses data extensively, I have learned that data is a fickle friend.

Over the past decade the do-gooder business foundations and philanthropists, along with the national Chamber of Commerce, have lobbied to impose laws that mandate testing to impose a continual improvement process on education. With the help of Congress they’ve succeeded, despite clear evidence that it’s a huge waste of money and effort.

It is key to remember that business is not always a human oriented endeavor. This means businessmen, like Bill Gates and Walton, aren’t at all aware of how metric based programs affect human beings. So it’s not really a surprise that they don’t understand their errors in trying to improve education.






2 responses to “Our Schools Are Not Businesses–And our Kids are not Products

  1. Compounding the problem of invalid measurement is the fact that it is difficult if not impossible to isolate the variables that spur or hinder success in a social setting such as a classroom.


  2. Don Bellairs says:

    Mr. Garnett presents evidence for his anti-testing stance with rhetorical flair. I an having trouble ferreting out his reason for assuming metrics are providing absolutes and will operate in a vacuum outside other, less objective standards which are applied to most “evaluations” involving all aspects of education efficacy. Mr. Garnett has acquired this insight in his business environment; my understanding of the concept (and I’ll wager Dr. Yatvin’s also) comes from the domain of the English lit classroom, where we teach kids about similes like Andrew Lang’s: “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.” Mr. Garnett’s life experiences and Andrew Lang’s poetic observation are inarguably worthy considerations lest we overvalue what we glean from the much-maligned “standardized” test (aside to Garnett: How ’bout using your advertising expertise to re-brand that word? Jeez…). Good classroom teachers use tests not only to evaluate and rank (the REAL fear behind the movement), but to motivate and increase self-awareness–both behaviorally and existentially. Mr. Garnett’s essay presumes that test results are used detrimentally; he would be nearer the truth if he argued that they CAN BE. This is self-evident, and a danger that requires built-in safe guards and steady diet of oversight and scrutiny. But numbers are the language of the physical world, and measurable, objective standards have a valuable function, especially in a domain like public education, where there lives some understandable concern about transparency and accountability. The anti-testing people must not realize how much they sound like the gun owners on this one.


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