Saturday, December 08, 2012

Bonanza Column 262 - Education Needs to Learn from Business

I'm well aware of my tendency as I grow older to look upon the past as a time when all was good and to worry about the present and despair of the future, and I do my best to control it. I try to remember that the idyllic small-town youth I remember was obtained only by a tacit agreement to ignore institutionalized poverty, racism, homophobia, gender bias, and all the rest of the ignored factors that made the 1950's a fool's paradise for the white, male-dominated, heterosexual middle and upper classes. 
Notwithstanding those very real flaws, the bitter fruits of which we are harvesting to this day and likely will continue to harvest for years to come, there were some things we did right. Even in the backwater upstate New York town where I grew up, everyone got a solid educational grounding for adult life. To be sure, there were two tracks, one for those destined for college and the other for those whose education would end at High School, but care was taken that both groups got an education that did more than merely pander to their transitory teen-age tastes or prepare them only to pass tests, and too much of today's education seems to be about those two dubious goals. In this the educational establishment is showing itself to be decades behind the business world.
In the latter stages of the manufacturing economy, roughly from 1850 to 1950, American business measured its success by the numbers - units produced, revenue in, profits out, etc. Peter Drucker, a leading management thinker for much of the 20th Century was famous for the dictum that "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it," and American industry took this to heart. Measurement and its cousin statistics became the supreme power worshipped at the altar of American business.
With the transition to a new age of business - call it the Information Economy or the Interaction Economy, or the Experience Economy - there probably won't be an "official" name until after the next transition - the primacy of "the numbers" began to be challenged. Not that numbers and measurement won't always have a place, but the importance of Drucker's other maxim, "you don't measure what you get, you get what you measure" began to become clear. If you measure salespeople's activity (e.g. number of sales calls) you will get a lot of activity; if you measure their productivity (e.g. number of sales closed), you will get a lot of productivity, and so qualitative factors, considered "soft and fluffy" in the Manufacturing Economy came into increasing prominence.
Our education system seems to be going the other way. Under the banner of "performance-based" education, what is being emphasized is test scores, and just as when you measure salespeople's activity you get more sales calls but not necessarily more sales closed, when you measure test scores you get higher test scores but not necessarily more education. In other words we are in danger of turning out skilled test-takers rather than educated people.
One unintended consequence of the emphasis on test scores is a dumbing-down of the education system. Makes sense doesn't it? If you want higher test scores, teach easier material! So increasingly we find the "harder" subjects being dropped or made optional. For example, in more and more school districts, the classics are no longer required or in some cases even taught. The classics of world literature, music, philosophy, as well as the forms of mathematics that taught us to think - algebra, geometry, trigonometry, are going by the wayside in favor of whatever is currently trendy in too many schools.
The culprits in this unfortunate trend are not the teachers. Ive yet to meet a teacher who is happy with "teaching to the test." Rather it is the educational administration, beginning with the Federal Government that seem to be looking for a simple way to measure and have neglected to pay attention to Drucker's second principle. If you measure test scores, you will raise a generation of good test-takers, not educated citizens. Secretary Duncan should take a leaf from Business's book, see what is at the source of real learning, and measure that, messy as it may be.

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