Thursday, February 20, 2003

Imagine a school full of immigrant kids, with Spanish being the first language for half. Imagine the school clean and bright. Imagine dedicated staff working long hours for the kids, with a principal who works twelve-hour days and does whatever needs doing, fixing bookcases himself when they're broke. Imagine something like this:

Ms. Carter has first graders with parents in prison, students who sleep four to a bed, children who don't know what she means when she mentions a trip to the zoo.... On national and state tests that measure a student's yearly academic progress, this poor school scores above average. Last year, 77 percent of students made at least a year's growth in reading and 75 percent made a year's growth in math, compared with a state average of 73 percent on each.

"That tells me we're doing our job," [Principal] Paxinos said. "In a year, most students are getting a year's worth of education."

What would you call that school? George W. Bush would call it a failure:

The federal law says a school must be judged solely on how much the student body improves on math and English competency tests. The fact that 100 transient students may have been at Gonzales Elementary just a few months when they take the tests is not a mitigating factor. It's the school's fault if they score low. Nor does it matter that hundreds have serious deficiencies in English. If teachers can't get new arrivals fluent by test time, blame the school.

Unfortunately, last year the fifth grade did not make adequate progress on the state competency exams. And that's all it takes under this great new federal law. So Mr. Paxinos and his teachers, who should be up for sainthood, instead had their school labeled "underperforming," and by next fall, in all likelihood, it will be labeled "failing" under the new federal law.

So, in addition to the minor chores involved in actually running the school, Mr. Paxinos is now trapped jumping through the law's hoops, which so far has involved compiling a 120-page report, and submitting it to a state bureaucracy which didn't have anyone on staff to read it. All in the name of improving things for his students, of course.

Another principal might take the path of least resistance, as other districts faced with mandatory testing requirements have, raising test scores by taking the kids with poor performance, who most need attention, and kicking them out of school altogether. But Mr. Paxinos seems, for some perverse reason, to just not want to help the bureaucracy out.

So we see that just measuring things can actually make them worse. There's an interesting book which describes this sort of thing, citing everything from African village improvement projects to sterile, sickly "managed" forests in Germany, called Seeing like a State, by James Scott, and subtitled "How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed." The schemes in question were, overwhelmingly, from those on the left attempting to apply a fairly vulgar and crude scientism to the management of processes which they didn't begin to understand. I guess the right in this country has advanced to the point of making the same mistake.

(via Nathan Newman)


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