David Labaree: The Triumph of Efficiency over Effectiveness
David Labaree is an emeritus Stanford professor specializing in history and sociology of US education. In a longer post focusing on the effects of the pandemic tied into developments in education and health care, he makes some important points about public education and its use of local autonomy.
This local autonomy, which makes education annoyingly inefficient in the eye of policymakers, is essential in the effort to make education effective. Teaching is not a delivery system for academic content but a fiendishly complex form of professional practice that seeks to induce students to learn in the absence of any efficient mechanism for insuring that they will do so. Students only learn when and what they choose to learn. The classroom art is in luring them into making the choice the teacher is aiming for. And this means that teachers need to have the flexibility to adapt their teaching approaches to the peculiarities of the group of students they find before them and also to the differences in individual students in the class. The variables that shape this process are legion: school subject, age, sex, class, ethnicity, community, home life, health, hunger, time of day, day of year, weather, and state of mind — to name just a few. The accountability movement disrupts this teaching and learning process by forcing teachers and students to focus entirely on learning particular subject matter at a particular level measured by the high-stakes test. It deliberately ties the teacher’s hands, compelling the same pedagogy for every classroom — and that pedagogy is teaching to the test.
Teaching to the test is an efficiency mechanism masquerading as effectiveness. One problem is that it runs smack into Goodhart’s Law: Once a measure becomes a target, it is no longer a valid measure. Initially a student’s test score may capture something about the amount of specific subject matter that student has accumulated. But once teachers, schools, school systems, and whole countries make raising test scores the object of schooling, the scores become ends in themselves. Everyone learns quickly how to game the system in order to raise scores with a minimum of real learning.
Another problem with the accountability approach is that it radically narrows the aims of education. Instead seeing education as an effort to gain a broad array of skills and forms of knowledge, to explore interests, experience personal growth, become a good citizen and a productive worker, it focuses learning on a tiny subset of school subjects that bear only a marginal relationship to these broader goals.
And perhaps most depressing of all, accountability systems are the most efficient tool ever devised to destroy a student’s interest in learning. It makes school the world deadliest job — where the best strategy is to phone it in, in order to keep school from grinding you down into a grain of sand in the desert of test prep. In education, as in many other things, efficiency is the death of effectiveness.