The Return of the Bogus “Excellence” Complaint

August 20, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Fordham’s Fun Fact Friday feature, now in its sixth week, is a weekly one-minute video production that takes some fact about the education system and presents it using an interesting or unusual visual. The creators have been pretty consistently clever in coming up with ways to make obscure facts visually intuitive.

Unfortunately, the facts chosen to be presented are not always so cleverly chosen. When Fordham picks an important fact to visualize, such as the gap between spending and achievement growth or international comparisons of student-teacher ratios, the results are, well, superawesome. But when it chooses, say, a comparison of the US education budget with the GDP of some smaller countries, the visual presentation is still clever, but the result is kind of pointless. Is anyone really impressed by the point that a huge country like the US spends more on education than the GDP of, say, Indonesia? What does that prove? Some kind of argument or point was needed.

Last week they missed again. They decided to resurrect Fordham’s complaint from last year (dissected here and here) claiming that accountability systems make our schools more “equal” but less “excellent” because they create incentives for schools to increase the amount of attention they pay to low achievers, reducing the amount of attention they pay to high achievers. Never mind the fact that – according to Fordham in the very same report – the low achievers are benefiting from this diversion and the high achievers don’t seem to be losing any ground.

That would seem to me to be pretty clear evidence that schools were devoting too much attention to high achievers – perhaps because their parents are more likely to be influential – and that the incentives created by accountability were educationally healthy because they forced schools to focus their attention where they could create more improvement.

It’s obviously possible that in the long run accountability could push this too far and become counterproductive by focusing too much attention on low achievers at the expense of high achievers. That’s an argument for improving the design of accountability systems to preclude that result. But so far, on Fordham’s own evidence, we don’t seem to be having that problem.

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