Tag Archives: Race to the Top

“How am I doin’?”

Americans are obsessed with performance measures and evaluation. Giving and receiving feedback is a vital component of today’s competitive, meritocratic America. It is, of course, also essential in a services-oriented economy. The quality of an experience with a company, at a restaurant, or in a shop is critical to the success of that enterprise. All hope for a positive, affirming experience—especially one that is then commended to others.

In some countries, concern about the quality of an experience or engagement is nonexistent. In others, like Japan, excellence is assumed. In the United States, concern about performance is persistent.

A simple verbal exchange with a cashier at a shop often results in the person, for example, mentioning their name, circling a website or phone number printed at the bottom of the receipt, and requesting that one connects with that site or calls the number to volunteer information about one’s experience that day. This person would also note that a discount or some other kind of financial incentive would be made available if one did this.

Interaction with cashiers or others in retail that result in this patterned behaviour can make one cynical. People here are hyper aware of being perceived as friendly, even though it is obvious when interaction is disingenuous “sales speak”. I always cringe at the rhetorical, pro forma “Did you find everything you were looking for today?” or “Do you need help out to your car?”

When we moved to Washington nearly three years ago, acquiring a car was an early necessity. A visit to a dealership that carried the car in which we were interested turned out to be rather efficient. The car salesman appeared incredibly happy at the quick, seemingly effortless sale. Upon our leaving, he noted we would be asked later about our experience with him and he hoped our response would be favourable. A couple of weeks later, we received two requests for an evaluation of our experience. One was a phone call, the other a written survey, and I responded to both. I was amazed when the salesman called not once, but twice, to check whether I had responded. He was desperate to get his commission or bonus.

An experience last weekend partly motivated this blog post. I needed to make an airline reservation, was unable to get the job done through the airline’s website, and hence called the company’s toll-free customer service number. The usual long series of automated questions had to be answered, the last of which was whether I would be willing to answer a customer survey after speaking to an agent. I heartlessly answered “no”. And then waited for an agent to come on the call. And waited. And waited. After fifty minutes of holding, I put down the phone in utter disgust. A couple of days later, I endured the whole rigmarole again, only this time I answered that I would be willing to respond to a survey. Guess what: an agent answered my call within eight minutes! Was this a coincidence? I don’t think so.

The American education system also reflects this obsession with evaluation. Indeed, many complain that the testing craze has gone too far. It’s “SOL” time now for many school-going children across America. These “standards of learning” tests assess core competencies and are fundamental to all evaluations of students, teachers, and schools. How well students do in these subject-based, state-wide tests has a significant bearing on teacher evaluations. Student performance in these tests also affects states’ assessment of schools. The federal government too considers these test outcomes in rewarding schools and states with federal money as part of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative.

Belief in key performance indicators (KPI), feedback loops, and accountability permeates American society. Compensation is then based on the data.

Wall Street is the epitome and distorted extreme of this data-driven society, where quarterly reviews and results are the only name of the game.

The ultimate assessment tool in American culture is, of course, its electoral system, while the Constitution itself enshrines a balance of power between government functions.

Overall, the performance-driven and results-oriented culture of America is invigorating—even if the constant requests for assessment can be irritating and draining. The compulsion here to quantify so much interaction is also of concern though. Sometimes there seems too much emphasis on quantifying and meeting targets, as apposed to the quality and depth of encounters. One could also ask whether the right things are being quantified. And isn’t the system too often being gamed? Are the unaware and uneducated able to participate?

And yet a results-based culture is probably “the worst form for [society] except for all the others that have been tried”—with apologies to Winston Churchill.

“S-c-h-o-o-l’s out…for…summer!”

Those iconic yellow school buses really do transport American children to and from school every day; they are not Hollywood fiction. But the buses are not currently lumbering through American communities to collect or discharge riders. The 2011–12 school year is over; the long summer vacation is underway.

The buses symbolize the fundamental principle that education should be accessible to all. Education is the great leveler in society, and access to local public school education is every American’s right. So local counties facilitate taking school-going children by bus to school each day and then bringing them home safely afterward. Lack of transport can never be the reason for children not attending school.

We live in Fairfax County in Northern Virginia. Fairfax County Public Schools maintains the largest school bus fleet of any U.S. school system, although it is the eleventh largest school district in the United States. The FCPS operating budget is $2.2 billion per annum. Over 175,000 students are enrolled in the system, giving an average annual expenditure of $12,820 per student. Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest U.S. counties, allocated an impressive 53.5% of its 2011 fiscal budget to the school system. Its well-regarded schools are the reason many are drawn to living in the county.

Yet, within the county, the quality of schools varies. The provision of transport to and from school masks the very unequal access to good community-based schools due to school boundary lines. School district boundaries determine eligibility to attend particular schools. These boundaries are not immutable, but are not easy to change or appeal. Which entity can change the boundaries varies from state to state. In Virginia, county school boards have the authority.

That old mantra for retail success—“location, location, location”—also sums up American public school education. Where one lives determines the quality of local schools. The wealthiest communities, usually in the suburbs, have the best public schools, while inner cities, some post-industrial suburban neighbourhoods, and poorer rural areas typically have the worst public schools. Put differently, property values correlate directly to the quality of local public schools. The academic achievement gap between children from high and low-income families is, unfortunately, well recognized. Although this gap is not only because higher-income children have access to better schools, it does explain much of the phenomenon.  Degree of parental involvement; family type (e.g. single or two-parent home); and access to early childhood education, extra-curricular, and other literacy-enhancing activities are some of the other explanations that typically determine individual academic achievement.

Poor, middle-class, and wealthy children in theory receive the same education, but this ideal of equality remains elusive. Reform initiatives have sought to close the achievement gap by bringing competition, choice, and accountability into school systems. A significant change was the shift in the 1990s to include school choice. If a school was perceived as failing its students, those students could transfer to another school within the same school district, opt to attend an independently operated but tax-payer funded charter school, or receive a “voucher” to attend a private school (including faith-based schools). This resulted in an exponential growth in public charter schools, and the closing of failed neighbourhood schools.

Many aspects of the debate about closing the achievement gap and reforming the traditional American public school system resonate with this South African. The circumstances of the two countries are obviously different, yet there are huge similarities in the challenges. Discussions on turning around failing schools have particularly caught my attention, with the hopeful experience of post-Katrina New Orleans being especially instructive. The academic results of pre-Katrina New Orleans public school students on state tests were notoriously low. Test results have turned around in the last five years primarily because enrollment in charter schools has skyrocketed. In addition, decisions about schools, curriculum, hiring, and hours have been returned to parents and educators. A long-time veteran of Louisiana school reform suggests that “top-down efforts to reform a district don’t work; only by starting over school by school…[can] real improvement occur.”

Local and state jurisdiction over schooling is preferred in the United States; a federal role is always controversial. Indeed, many conservatives typically deny the federal government any role in education and urge the dismantling of the Department of Education.

National solutions to the conundrum of the achievement gap have varied through the years. President Barack Obama’s approach is encapsulated in “Race to the Top”. Obama has embraced new systems of evaluation: State applications for funding are scored on criteria such as satisfying performance-based standards for teachers and principals, showing progress in raising achievement and closing gaps, prioritizing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) education, promoting charter schools, and computerization. The philosophy behind President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) policy was also standards-based educational reform. States had to develop assessments in basic skills—especially in reading and maths—under the assumption that having measurable goals would improve outcomes by exposing achievement gaps. Student achievement has to be measured and reported annually.  Obama’s Department of Education has offered states flexibility in meeting NCLB stipulations and waived requirements too.

“A Chance for Every Child”, the school reform vision of likely Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, pushes a voucher-heavy approach. He suggests that the parents of poor and special-education students would be able to choose a public, charter, or private school in their state, using a specified amount of public funds to cover (some of) the cost. The unclear aspect is whether such school choice would be within school district boundaries or would extend beyond. If it were the latter, this would be a truly seismic change. It would break the cycle whereby children in poorer urban schools are unable to attend better suburban schools. Romney would also return accountability to the states: He suggests that states would no longer have to meet the greatly disliked federal achievement requirements of Bush’s NCLB law.

Many American school children are now joyfully belting out Alice Cooper’s timeless ode to summer holidays. Yet the l-o-n-g summer vacation actually penalizes those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those from poorer families are less likely to have the resources to spend on stimulating, enriching activities or extension programs. For many, the ten-week-long break is instead a period of stagnation and regression, and, for some in inner cities, perhaps even danger.