Monday, June 22, 2009

Gaming the System

In a speech to the IES conference on June 8, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out the current administration's educational agenda. As a life-long educator I have watched this with some interest. It seems, from my perspective, that we have a "kinder, gentler" version of the Bush educational approach; lots of belief in alternatives, but with some nodding to the need for more accountabilitiy for charter schools, a continued emphasis on testing with a nod to the reality that the tests we have aren't very good and lots of attention to creating a merit pay system for teachers. Since this administration came to office, in part, on the support of teacher unions this is seen as daring.

In his remarks Secretary Duncan was discussing some of the oppostion to their position and he stated that "somehow to suggest that we should not link student achievement to teacher effectiveness is like suggesting we judge a sports team without looking at the box scores." Now sports are something this secretary knows something about--he played basketball for Harvard, went to Australia to play professionally and his close connection to the president came, in part, through their shared pick-up basketball games. So he knows what he is talking about. Or does he?

Certainly box scores are important for giving an overview of how individual players performed. But we know that you can have one or two outstanding players with impressive statistics and still lose the game. In fact, bastketball coaches collect all sorts of data that does not appear in the box score--where shots were taken, fouls taken as well as given etc. But the greatest of current players and past players were great, not just for the statistics they generated. They are great beacuse of their attitude, their sense of competition and their will to win. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James are great players not because they score a lot of points but because they carry their teams on their backs.And each of them found that winning championships was not just about them and thier exploits. They needed the right team around them. Duncan is right in drawing the sports analogy. Like sports, education is a people activity but that implies things like motivation, belief and teamwork are as important to victory as box socre statistics.

As we look to improve American education let's not lose sight of the fact that the box score is uesful for explainging the final outcome, but the final outcome will be shaped by the attitude of the players on the team and their will to win. In constructing these new "improvements" to education, such as merit pay, let's make certain that we don't win the game but lose the championship. Oversimplifying the issue is probably not a great idea.

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