Employers Don’t Test

In principle, I don’t have a problem with evaluating public school teachers by the test scores of their students. Compared to evaluating nearly all of them without any objective criteria (virtually all teachers evaluated by peers and principles are deemed satisfactory), test-based evaluation is an incredibly impartial and fair device. But, as many opponents have pointed out, testing is a rather blunt instrument. Even the “value-added” methodology (comparing students’ incoming test scores to year-end improvement) is likely to lead to dismissal of good, alongside the bad, teachers. Test evaluations fluctuate so wildly as too be almost random. Neither do they flush out the very worst teachers, who are causing real damage.

The idea of test-based evaluation works on the notion, a notion I agree with, that public schools should be run more like private companies, if we expect them to create value the way profit-driven companies do. However, the test-based approach is, I think, using the wrong model for imitation.

If a school is like a business, the reasoning goes, the students are the product. If the teacher (worker) adds value to the product, then the company (society) will profit. The best way to tell if the workers are adding value is to test the products to see if they are well produced. Finally, keep good workers, fire bad workers, and definitely fire workers who subtract value. I’ll call this the “assembly line” model. The thing is, if there are problems on the assembly line it is a relatively straightforward task to root out the issue and identify the cause.

Outside of actual product manufacturers, almost nobody works in an environment like this. Teachers included. Productivity in large systems is difficult to measure and predict. Most employees contribute in nebulous ways to company productivity. Often, employees themselves don’t understand just how they add value and profit even when they actually contribute quite a lot.

How does the private sector deal with this kind of uncertainty? Manager evaluations. Companies with employees whose value is unclear rely primarily on exactly what public schools already rely on: Subjective evaluations.

Private companies aren’t exclusively wedded to manager evaluations the way schools are. They sometimes bring in outside firms to evaluate their efficiency (a trend I would be heartened to see in schools) and they do have profit as a measuring stick. But ultimately, most decisions are up to a supervisor, just as they are in schools. This strategy doesn’t work very well for schools for a whole host of reason from lack of defined purpose (e.g. profit) to bureaucratic constraints (e.g. labor contracts), but not because they don’t emulate private companies enough when they hire and fire. Because they do.

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