Education Policy – Ideals versus Goals

As with all too many well-intentioned, but misguided, efforts, Superintendent John Deasy of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) conflates management science with philosophy.  Hence, while his recently announced performance goals are laudable as ideals, something for which each district in America should strive, as goals, SMART[1] or not, they are unattainable.  Something which the federal Department of Education should understand about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), as the mandates in that act are likewise unreachable.

Why is this so?  For both NCLB, and LAUSD, there are simply too many factors outside of the control of the district, said district encompassing everyone and everything from the superintendent to the classroom.  As many experts in operations management or manufacturing processes know, meeting quantitative quality goals without controlling raw material, or process inputs, is impossible.  Ask any businessperson selling any product or service if they can apply a process, or processes, to any input and consistently obtain uniform results; it is impossible.  This fact applies to education as much as it applies to any industry.  How corporate reformers from successful industries overlook that fact as they seek to “modernize” education using SMART goals, like Superintendent Dealy’s, is beyond explanation.  As the following report published in 2002 by ACT[2] reveals, even implementing the gold standard of quality management, the Baldridge Performance Excellence Program, is questionable as it applies to education.  Note how the fears mentioned below persist today, nine years later.

Critics fear that too much emphasis on measurable performance factors may inhibit creativity and that factors such as a love of learning and the enhancement of curiosity—considered by many the most important outcomes of education—are in fact not measurable (Holt, 1993b).

ACT (2002). The Promise Of Baldrige For K–12 Education.

Reaching out to the community, involving parents, and motivating students are all critical and necessary to improve academic achievement, attendance and safety; they will yield significant advances in primary and secondary education.  However, the blind adoption of arbitrary, albeit just sounding, quantitative targets is foolish at best, and tremendously harmful at worst.  It is foolish in that it ignores history, human nature, and the laws of probability and statistics.  Declaring something so rarely, if ever, makes it so, especially with something as complex as the educational achievement of 50 million or so youth with such diverse socioeconomic statuses.  It is harmful since it gives the false impression that these goals are reasonable and attainable, which simply delays implementing common sense based initiatives driven locally by communities that know their students and life circumstances best.  Rather than continue a failing policy, like NCLB, or set up similar goals for LAUSD, let’s empower and support local communities so they elevate themselves instead of subjecting them to ineffective mandates with untenable consequences, none of which address the core conditions impeding improvements in the academic achievement of those communities’ students.  Students are not products or service outputs; so let’s stop trying to apply industrial management science theories to them!

Notwithstanding the nuances involved in the above, all students should be held to high expectations, provided equitable access and opportunity, and supported for their diverse learning styles and preferences, but not expected to defy the laws of nature, as admirable as it would be if it were possible.

Today’s education system is failing students in each of these areas.  Something must be done, urgently, to improve academic achievement, especially in socioeconomic segments that struggle attaining high performance on today’s assessments.  What must be done varies though, by community and region, and likely requires rethinking today’s curricula, assessments, and educational paths.  Clearly, what we have is not working; let’s embrace and empower local leaders to lead their communities towards success, not besiege them with centrally planned criteria, as well-intentioned as they may be.

This post was inspired by John Festerwaldt’s post: John Deasy’s pressure chamber: LAUSD’s new leader needs to make things happen fast.

[1] Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely

[2] formerly known as the American College Testing Program

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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2 Responses to Education Policy – Ideals versus Goals

  1. Ford says:

    Thoughtful piece. Thanks Diane for posting.


  2. Pingback: Unrealistic Education Reform Goals: A Business Perspective « InterACT

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