Schooling, Testing, Cheating, and Michelle Rhee

All of my instincts call for competition in public services rather than monopoly bureaucratic supply, and for measuring results rather than relying on professionals organized in guilds to tell us that their traditional practices are just fine and that therefore we should pay them a lot of money and let them alone. With respect to public K-12 education in particular, the drastic decline in the quality of the labor pool must surely be part of the problem.

That said, No Child Left Behind (like other approaches relying on high-stakes once-a-year standardized testing) violates every known principle of quality assurance and process improvement: Deming was right, and Taylor is therefore obsolete, but no one in the Department of Education seems to be aware of that. And charter schools live, so far as I can tell, primarily by selection bias: if you take all the well-behaved kids with ambitious parents, and kick the ones who get out of line back to the public schools, it’s not hard to get higher measured performance.

The Atlanta scandal is just the latest illustration of Dukenfield’s Law: “Anything worth winning is worth cheating for.” Whatever the incentive is for actual good performance, the incentive for simulating such performance by fiddling with the tests is exactly the same. (Campbell’s Law enunciates a related principle: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” The pithier version, the Goodhart/Strathern Law, holds that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”)

Scandals have already erupted in Houston, Chicago, New York, and Washington DC. In each case the top school administrators, having taken credit for producing impossible results, were shocked – shocked! – to find that their subordinates had cheated rather than working miracles. Replacing the ethics of lazy bureaucracy with the ethics of a crooked stock promoter doesn’t strike me as progress.

It might have helped if Georgia governor Sonny Perdue had been half as enthusiastic about funding schools as he was about investigating them for doing what they had to do to survive in a hyper-competitive, resource-starved environment. (Any bets on how many suburban systems with Republican school superintendants were – are – doing the same thing?)

High-stakes testing wasn’t an obviously unreasonable idea, but in practice it turns out to be a double con game: politicians bamboozle voters with the idea that they have a potion that will produce educational gains in the face of budget cuts, and school administrators and teachers rig the test results.

Clearly, the rules have to change. If we’re going to keep making those tests high-stakes, we have to put resources into making them high-integrity. Audit should be as routine a part of testing as it is of financial accounting.

Having said that, let me say a word in defense of Michelle Rhee.

Rhee was one of the chief boosters of high-stakes hoo-hah, and it turns out that her prized results were substantially faked. She is now partnering with wingnuts to win school board races for teacher-bashing”reformers.” So she’s hardly one of my heroes.

But I don’t see the scandal inRhee’s sending her own kids to a high-priced private school run on progressive principles. Rhee’s whole point is that public education currently runs badly. Sending her kids to private school is the opposite of “hypocrisy”: it shows she’s prepared to put her money where her mouth is. And so what if the school isn’t run on the principles Rhee tried to put in place for a big-city school system serving a mostly-disadvantaged population? The Deweyan idea, quoted approvingly by Diane Ravich, that “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children” sounds good until you think about it for ten second and it occurs to you that the optimal schooling for the child of two people with Ph.D.s might not be the same as the optimal schooling for the child of a single mother who didn’t graduate from high school.

More generally, the practice of attacking the private lives of public officials, like the practice of underpaying them, might have been designed to drive talent and ambition out of the public sector. That’s a feature for the Grover Norquist crowd; but progressives should recognize it as a bug.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.