If only education were that simple - Tucson Local Media: Editorials

If only education were that simple

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Posted: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 11:00 pm

The minds and spirits of school children don't fit neatly onto the rows and columns of an accounting ledger like a corporation's profits and losses. Try though they might, number crunchers will never create an Excel spreadsheet that can accurately tally up teacher inputs and student outputs.

But the unhappy fact is, we have entered an educational era where the corporate model is king. Scores on standardized tests in reading, writing and math are the bottom line. When scores are high, a school is successful; it's showing a profit. When they're low, a school is failing; it's operating at a loss.

What could be simpler?

If only education were that simple.

A recent article about Dell Computers in the New York Times presents one of the many cautionary tales educators should pay heed to — about what happens when the corporate focus on immediate, short term gain trumps the longer, more comprehensive view.

The Dell corporation has always kept its eye on the bottom line. It sells computers that are more-or-less equivalent to its rivals' models, charging lower prices and making a profit on volume.

The company manages to undersell the competition by focusing with tunnel-minded intensity on keeping costs down and moving product out the door. According to the Times article, "(The) 'Dell model' became synonymous with efficiency, outsourcing and tight inventories, and was taught at the Harvard Business School and other top-notch management schools as a paragon of business smarts and outthinking the competition."

But the "Dell model" focus on profits and cutting corners came at a price. The company forgot why people and businesses buy computers in the first place. They want machines that can be counted on to perform a wide array of tasks with unerring accuracy and store vast quantities of data reliably.

In 2003, Dell began selling computers with faulty capacitors that swelled and leaked, causing the computers to fail. Worse, since correcting the problems was bad for the bottom line, Dell told its customer service employees to claim the computers were fine, that the users were somehow to blame for the problems. And when Dell had to replace bad parts, it substituted more bad parts.

Now Dell is facing lawsuits likely to cost the corporation hundreds of millions of dollars.

Dell thought it was in the business of making profits, and it did whatever was necessary to reach that goal. Dell's customers thought they were buying quality computers at a good price. Everything was fine so long as the money was rolling in for Dell and its customers were getting quality merchandise. But when profits and quality collided, the weaknesses of the "Dell model" became clear.

Importing the corporate model into education has the potential of creating the same kind of disconnect in our schools. Parents and business leaders want well-educated students graduating from our K-12 schools. The people behind the current educational reform movement want to see test scores go up. If higher test scores are the result of improved education, everyone's happy. But when higher scores become an obsession, they turn education into little more than a test-taking enterprise.

A confession: I taught my students some perfectly legitimate tricks to boost their standardized test scores. The tricks worked; the scores went up. But did my students learn anything of value when I focused on adding a few points to their test scores? Honestly, I can't say they did.

Take my limited attempts to help my students gain a few points on their tests and multiply it by every teacher, administrator and educational consultant in the country, many of whom employ strategies far more intensive and questionable than mine. The result is a massive distortion of the educational process.

The "Educational Testing model," like the "Dell model," seems pretty good when it looks like it's producing results. But too often, those results come at the expense of the kind of comprehensive education our students deserve.


Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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