Why we should treat schools like movie theaters

Posted by John Brown on February 10th, 2010

Here is a slightly altered version of a letter I just sent to my state senator, state congressman, and local school board members. The Utah House is discussing HJR3: Joint Resolution on Teacher Performance Pay, which sounds wonderful but fails to address the heart of the issue. Furthermore, it appears to open the gates to counterproductive programs like the Midway Elementary pilot described here.

The short version is that I would find it very difficult to contract with any type of service provider if they either couldn’t or wouldn’t clearly communicate what they would deliver. Can you imagine contracting with a lawn care company, builder, tax accountant, lawyer, or doctor who charged you but wouldn’t tell you what they were going to do or had done for the money? Yet this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in with our public education. People call for testing and accountability, but how can we have any accountability when there’s nothing clear to account for?

I know many teachers and administrators and have full confidence in their intentions and smarts. However, it appears we’re dealing with a fundamental flaw in our education service. A service that could not survive with such a flaw in the private sector and only exists in the public sector because the state has a monopoly on education. I’m not arguing for school choice. However, I am asking that this flaw be fixed.

I hope the arguments I’ve made below will resonate with your experience and prove useful to you as you discuss this topic.

Psst, I’ve Got a Bridge

Is there anyone reading this article who regularly goes to the movie theatre, pays for a ticket, sits down, and then DOESN’T expect to see the movie? And if the theater fails to play the movie, is there anyone out there who wouldn’t demand the money back?

Anyone, anyone?

If you answered yes to both of those questions, please contact me using the link on the left—I’ve got a bridge I think you’ll be interested in.

The fact is that when we contract with someone to provide a good or service, the provider is obligated to provide that good or service to us. If they regularly fail to provide what they promised, then common sense dictates we find another provider (as well as use all legal means to recover our payment or enforce delivery). Nowhere is this basic principle more applicable than it is with the service of public education.

My wife and I both firmly believe schools and teachers must be held accountable. But it must be done in a way that recognizes the fundamental nature of the public education service.

We have seen both sides of this matter. A number of years ago when we lived in Ohio, my wife and I ran into issues with teachers who weren’t delivering quality education. After many attempts to work with the schools, we realized there was no way to ensure they would deliver. So we took our girls out of school and homeschooled them for a few years until we could get them into a school that could deliver. On the other hand, my wife is now teaching the 7th and 8th grade language arts program at Rich Middle School in Laketown and knows that despite her best efforts some kids still struggle. So we have strong feelings for arguments on both sides of this issue. As for myself, I have twenty years teaching experience in the private sector and have learned, sometimes the hard way, about what happens when you fail to recognize the nature of education and account properly for results.

Slackers and Shared Responsibility

While thinking about the movie theater example above we must keep in mind that any contract for a service requires both parties to meet certain conditions. For example, when I purchase a movie ticket, all parties understand that Stadium 8 Movies is responsible to show a film at the time and location specified. However, all parties also understand that I’m required to show up, and, if I’ve got the vision of Mr. Magoo, wear my glasses. We BOTH have responsibility.

This shared responsibility applies to all contracted services. Alas, many people seem to forget that when talking about public education. On the one side, you have people clamoring for school accountability, testing, and rolling heads if objectives aren’t met. And this is reasonable—not only have we paid good money for the service, but it’s for our most precious possessions! On the other side, you have teachers pointing out that they can’t force people to learn. An obvious, but seemingly often forgotten fact.

It’s true that some schools and teachers have used shared responsibility as an excuse and cover for inferior instruction. On the other hand, even the best teachers will deliver lackluster results in some situations because you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. It’s also true that some parents have used shared responsibility as a cover for their own unwillingness to accept responsibility for their children’s behavior. On the other hand, if a program is ineffective, it doesn’t matter how diligently students follow its steps—they still fail.

Both sides are right. Teachers have significant responsibility, but they don’t have full responsibility for student outcomes because a huge part of scholastic success depends on the child, his or her parents, and the home situation. The solution is to hold both parties responsible for the part they’re accountable for.

The Conditional Guarantee

So how do we do this?

We do it the same way we do it with piano teachers and personal trainers. The same way we do it with vacuums and washing machines. In all of these and hundreds of other situations, the provider is making a CONDITIONAL promise: “If you follow the steps I outline, you will get the promised result. If you don’t follow the steps, the guarantee is null and void.”

In education, teachers and schools should be held accountable for providing effective programs for getting from point A to point B. These programs should ensure that every student who completes the required steps will learn X, Y, and Z.

So if Billy completes the program, but doesn’t know his stuff, or if the teacher didn’t provide the promised service, then the teacher and school should be held accountable. However, when Billy fails to complete the work, then the responsibility for the failure falls squarely on the shoulders of Billy and his parents.

These same principles apply to students who work hard but are challenged in various ways—English as a second language, dyslexia, etc. Teachers should be held accountable for helping these students. But if such students only complete part of the program, parents and the State cannot hold the schools and teachers accountable for delivering the promised results of the full program.

Schools promise effective learning programs. The only time we should expect them to guarantee results is when their program is followed.

This means the way you hold teachers and schools accountable is NOT with a general performance test because some students might not have completed the required steps, i.e. they might not have shown up to the movie theatre. No, what you do is test based on completion. If students who have completed the steps don’t know their stuff, then the method is flawed, the service a sham, and we call in the cavalry–Get Gephardt on Channel 2 News! If the school or teacher doesn’t make the changes necessary to be able to deliver an effective program, they must be replaced with providers who can.

How HJR3 Opens the Door to Waste and Underachievement

Recently, our Utah legislative House Education Committee unanimously approved a resolution that would recommend that “the goal of any future efforts to develop performance pay or differentiated pay plans for public school teachers should be to ensure that there is a quality teacher in every classroom.” Such pay plans should also “promote student achievement and support quality instruction.”

All worthy goals. However, “Utah Legislature: Testing teachers — Educators could soon receive pay based on student test scores,” a February 8, 2010 article in the Deseret News article, reveals that having such goals without recognizing the conditional nature of teaching, can quickly lead parents and educators astray. For example, the article reports that Midway Elementary School is currently piloting a performance pay program that would determine a teacher’s pay in the following way: 40% based on how well students performed on annual tests, 40% on whether the teacher took teacher training courses during the year, and 20% based on parent satisfaction surveys. According to the article, “After the two-year pilot, state education officials aim to eventually create a statewide proposal.”

Such an incentive pay program demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the conditional promise at the heart of the education service. Furthermore, it proposes measurements that will not only fail to reward results, but may end up undermining achievement.

First, as discussed above, tests for conditional services only have meaning when the student has completed the required steps. You cannot hold teachers accountable for results when students fail to follow the program. If you do, you will give teachers and schools incentives to find ways to ensure student test performance that have little to do with mastery of a subject. Furthermore, you will obfuscate the critical responsibility parents and students have. As students and parents begin to shift their responsibility onto the schools, achievement will decline. Finally, holding teachers accountable for more than delivering an effective service is likely to penalize teachers who are doing an incredible job, but are working with children who face many challenges that prevent them from moving through the program as quickly as others. Rewards based on one-size-fits-all annual tests will not improve results.

Second, teacher training may or may not translate into effective methods. Rewards should be given to those teachers who develop effective systems, regardless of how many classes they do or don’t take. Don’t reward teachers for taking classes, reward them for results. Strike two!

Finally, while customer satisfaction surveys can help a provider assess how well it is delivering its promised service, such surveys have severe limitations for public education. For example, to be a valid measurement, the survey has to gather responses from the people who received the service. The problem with parent surveys is that the parents aren’t the ones in the classroom—how do they know what kind of service the teacher has provided? Oh, that’s right, the kids will report it accurately. Yeah, do you remember that bridge I have?

Furthermore, the survey needs to focus on the elements promised in the service. However, parents usually don’t know what’s been promised (often from no fault of their own). Not knowing what’s expected, they will base their satisfaction on things that may or may not matter, things that may or may not be part of the bargain. There’s no provision to base the survey on the promises made by the schools. Strike three!

The Midway pilot should be rejected for something that actually focuses on the conditional nature of the public education service. I don’t know how resolutions guide education policy, but I’m against any that allow such a wasteful use of our scarce dollars.

A Better Way

There’s no doubt we need better accountability in schools. But it doesn’t start with tests and surveys.

It starts with defining the intended results in a more practical and simple way. How can you hold someone accountable when you don’t even know what it is they’re supposed to provide?!

The vast majority of parents have NO idea what they’ve contracted the school to do, only a vague “educate my children.” Press them, you’ll see. Even the ones that go to parent teacher conferences. They don’t know because we don’t make it easy for them to know.

My wife and I have both tried to understand the State objectives for our daughters. I have a master’s degree, she has a bachelor’s, and we both have a hard time understanding the documents. In fact, we had a devil of a time finding them in the first place.

But even more telling is the fact that most teachers don’t quite know what they’re supposed to teach. If you don’t believe me, ask any teacher to explain the key things tested on the Utah annual core tests or on the state list of objectives. Of course, some may not be able to answer because there are no objectives for their subject. We spend quite a bit of money on services where the schools make no promises at all (history, PE, current events, drama, music, etc.). No wonder many parents are frustrated!

These objectives need to be practical, which means they’ll be influenced by the input of professionals who actually work in the subject domain. For example, the State objectives for language arts should be informed by a wide variety of people who actually write at the highest levels, including professional authors, technical writers, journalists, and editors. State objectives for art or music, would be informed by graphic artists and professional musicians with an eye towards what’s relevant for the students and their goals.

Everything starts with reasonable and simple objectives.

Second, make it very easy for parents and students to see what they’re responsible for and what the teachers promise to deliver. One key component of this would be a very easy to understand checklist that would allow students and parents to quickly see the steps or milestones in the program for a certain topic. Another tool would be a short document that explains exactly what services the teacher promises to provide, e.g. learning environment, student access, prepared lessons, etc.

Next, spend time and money developing programs that are proven to actually deliver on the results when followed. But don’t mandate a one-size-fits-all approach. Let each school use whatever works. This way the schools have the flexibility to test new ideas and continuously improve their service.

Finally, create tests that measure the promised results and nothing else.

It’s true that some outcomes might resist quantitative measurement. But that doesn’t mean objectives can’t be set and measured qualitatively. Furthermore, some people worry about teachers teaching to a test because they fear teachers will forget to teach the real stuff. But teaching to a test only becomes a problem when tests are divorced from the desired outcomes.

For example, let’s say I want to learn how to shoot a gun with accuracy at fifty yards. How would you test to see if I’d learned that? Easy. You have me shoot a gun at fifty yards and check how many shots made it inside the prescribed area. And how would you teach that? You’d have me shooting a gun at fifty yards. In this situation there is no difference between the test, the teaching, and the promised learning. Yes, shooting with accuracy is a motor skill, but the principle applies to cognitive skills as well. When outcomes and tests are aligned, teaching to the test = teaching the right stuff.

What the state needs first is a resolution to get the fundamentals right. Once we have those down we can create resolutions that reward quality service because we’ll be able to measure that service appropriately. Until then, incentive reward systems are likely to do more harm than good.


To sum up, only a numskull would claim Stadium 8 Movies owed me a refund if I decided to dink around at the park instead of showing up at the contracted time and place and watching the movie they played. On the other hand, only swindlers would take money for a service and feel they shouldn’t be held accountable for providing what they promised to their customer.

For such a contract to work, both parties must understand what the other will do. When we provide clear expectations and appropriate tests, we can begin to leverage all the human capital we have in all the schools around the state. One elementary school in Price might develop techniques that prove, through rigorous testing and their own field study, to speed the learning of a certain subject. If they do, reward them. Other schools throughout the state can then try to replicate results, verifying or improving on the methods. If they improve their processes, even by copying someone else, reward them. This can happen over and over with hundreds of classrooms and teachers. In such a way, schools can continually improve their ability to deliver.

But none of that is possible when we don’t recognize the fundamental nature of public education. And especially when we develop incentive systems like those included in the Midway pilot that reward the wrong behaviors.

Schools provide a service that comes with a conditional promise. We need to find effective ways to hold schools and individual teachers accountable for developing and delivering effective programs. And we need to help parents and students clearly see the steps they must take to lay claim to the promises made by those programs. This is what we should be focusing on.

Posted in On Teaching

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One Response to “Why we should treat schools like movie theaters”

  1. bdayton Says:

    I’ll have my wife read this and see what her opinion is on it. She’s a behavioral analyst working on her Masters degree who deals with children with severe disabilities, but has worked with varying levels of educational “stuff.” I want to see what she thinks. I’ll get back to ya.