Engineering to the rescue of threatened art (from the New Yorker)
NYT on America's Great Working-Class Colleges

Jim Schutze from Dallas Observer on School Accountability

Logo-dallasobserverToday, I came across a thought-provoking, well-written blog post by Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer entitled "Mediocrity Lobby Angry Because Grades for Schools Expose Their Incompetence", published last week. In it, Schutze argues that students who are given mediocre education in school are more likely to end up in prison, and therefore we should all be concerned with improving public education.

In particular, he gives the following stats: "Two-thirds of prison inmates in this country lack high school diplomas. All black men between the ages of 20 and 24 have a greater chance of being locked up than of having a job. Meanwhile, research has found that a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates can produce a 9 percent decrease in crime rates."

He argues that some measure of accountability is needed to make sure taxpayers' money is "tightly and strategically focused on achievement", describes the "trial version of a new letter-grade system for schools based on a whole matrix of measurements" that the Texas Education Agency is rolling out, touches upon powerful themes such as the unforgiveness of the world toward people who can't read or do math, as well as the machinery of envy where poor people are bombarded with a "relentless barrage of wealth and glamour", takes issue with the reaction of a specific school district to the Texas Education Agency's efforts to introduce this grade-based evaluation system, which said school district apparently branded as an attempt to destroy public education, and finishes with reflections on the attitude of Texan superintendents, who he says have an average base salary of $350,000 a year, when confronted with results that suggest a large number of their students are headed for failure.

Schutze's writing is very powerful so you really have to go and read his post rather than whatever summary I can try to make of it (if you don't have time to read the whole post, the last four paragraphs are particularly sharp). I'd love to know what you think. 


I agree that Schutze's writing is strong, although I think he might be guilty of a bit of correlation/causation conflation. Someone looking to defend the "mediocrats" might point out that high incarceration rates and weak educational outcomes are both associated with (caused by?) environmental circumstances (poverty, lack of job opportunities, lack of role models, ...). In particular, in locations that rely heavily on property taxes for school funding, poverty may directly lead to underfunding of education.

That's not to say I disagree with him. I put some credence in the Druckerism that what gets measured gets improved ... not to mention that, as a tax payer, I'd like to get the biggest bang for my buck. A major sticking point is that measuring schools turns out to be a lot harder than one might think. The idea of measuring "value added" has some appeal, but it remains tricky. As one writer pointed out, if kids come to school hungry, they don't learn as well. A school might provide free lunches, but it can't do anything about breakfast and dinner.

The (plug: highly ranked) ed school at Michigan State U. has a blog,, where school "grades" are a frequent topic. We can't just throw up our hands and say "too hard, can't do it" (a response we hopefully would not accept from the students), but getting it right is going to take a great deal of care and effort (and likely more than a few iterations).

Thanks for the comment! It's very true that poverty and underfunding of education are closely connected in the American model of relying on property taxes to fund schools. I also like your point about the lack of role models a lot.

When I studied in the French system, we laughed at the American passion for multi-choice quizzes in trying to measure everything. In France we were tested nationally twice: at the end of middle school and at the end of high school. And that was it. Also, our tests involved complex questions, which had to be graded by real people instead of machines. Those graders had to get paid. To have a good measurement system, you have to be willing to pay for it.

My case was a bit unusual since I was in a Lycee Francais abroad, so I spent my whole elementary and secondary education there, but all French high schools are measured by their results at the baccalaureat at the end of high school. Students at the end of middle schools give their preference for the high school they want to attend but they are assigned to a specific local high school. The stakes are particularly high in Paris, where high schools can be of very high quality in one place and of poor quality close-by.

Back in the days, I think the best students in Paris asked to learn Russian as first foreign language to be put in the good high schools that offered such classes. (I learned Russian because I was interested in it; again, I didn't have the same problem of risking to be put in a bad high school, since there was only one to choose from, but I remember having friends in Paris who had studied Russian for that reason.) I wonder how money for schools is allocated between each arrondissement in Paris. I'll have to research it!

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