Professional culture and teaching to the test

Dan Ariely has a provocative but mostly wrong-headed article in today's Washington Post roundtable on the Atlanta testing scandal. He claims that it's inevitable that teachers will respond to high-stakes tests by cheating just as corporate executives act in ethically challenged ways to please their bosses and investors.?But business people all behave differently, some ethically and some not. What drives the difference?

Take Johnson & Johnson during the 1980s Tylenol scare as an example. For decades, J&J has operated based on a credo that permeates the organization. These values have real relevance in the company, and personnel are promoted and developed based on their adherence to the credo. Business school students read cases on Johnson & Johnson's success at developing this corporate culture. When tragedy struck with the Tylenol murders, J&J acted responsibly, even though they weren't responsible for the deaths. Given the culture there at the time, it's hard to imagine them doing otherwise. Yet J&J also measures its profitability and expects employees to contribute to that bottom line.

Ariely glides over this in his "history lesson," suggesting that measuring and evaluating using a specific criterion necessarily causes people to focus only on what's being measured. That's nonsense, and the proof is in the innovative products and services American corporations have developed on the way to creating trillions of dollars of wealth. There are undoubtedly bad actors in the business world, but there are also a lot of leadership teams that successfully balance measuring short-term goals and achieving their critical long-term missions.

The truth is, high-stakes accountability of any kind is new to education. The fact that DC now routinely fires its worst performers is unprecedented. Strong leadership is required (from unions as well as management) to create professional cultures in districts to ensure that test scores are used responsibly. Cheaters and those who do drill and kill exclusively have to be shamed and fired, not protected with rhetoric about the evils of measurement. Managers have to be given the freedom to reward work that improves student achievement.

The lesson is not that we should "stop worrying so much about tests" any more than a business can "stop worrying" about its bottom line. Professionals are capable of working toward the short-term and the long-term at the same time.

? Chris Tessone

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