Monday, August 10, 2009

Vander Ark Misunderstand the Market for Assessments

I met Tom Vander Ark* once. He seems like a nice guy. He's clearly no idiot, and wants good things for education. But I have the feeling that I will write a fair number of posts on this blog describing why he doesn't know what he is talking about.

* Mr. Vander Ark, in case you do not know, used to run Bill Gates's educational philanthropy. When you have that kind of money to give way, people in this country care what you have to say. I mean, Mr. Gates was invited to address the National Governors Association on the topic of high school reform when he has never studied, worked at or attended a public high school. Vander Ark is responsible for the money wasted on creating a whole bunch of small schools. Now, he says, "Small is not a panacea" and admits they need to "shift gears" from small schools to another reform idea. Oops.

So, now Mr. Vander Ark is projecting how national standards will create a new marketplace for educational assessment. So, Mr. Vander Ark, can you meet me on camera three to discuss this a little bit?


One potential benefit of national standards could be the development of a new marketplace for assessment systems.

Ummm...Tom, do you think that there's not already a market for assessments? What do you think ETS, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Harcourt and the rest do? Did you think that they just publish books? In fact, most educational publishers are also assessment publishers. There is already quite a market, a very profitable one, from what I hear.

Rather than the oppressive, expensive, end of year bubble sheet drill that states currently impose on schools, states (or consortia) could accept proposals for alternative assessment systems aligned to common standards. Many of the proposed alternatives would incorporate online and adaptive assessments and performance demonstrations. This would encourage a generation of adaptive content and proficiency-based school formats.
Tom, the very reason why "bubble sheet" tests are used is because they are relatively inexpensive. They are cheap to score, and easy to report. Every other design is at least as expensive to score and report, while being more expensive to design and to give. Of course, there are very technical matters of reliability, which make performance demonstrations quite problematic -- much to my own chagrin.

Furthermore, how would national standards accomplish any of this, if California or Texas state standards did not? Do you think that either state lacks sufficient schools or districts to create a market for better assessment, if size was the determining factor? I mean, I understand why Wyoming or Alaska might not be worth their while, but California? We have had state standards for a long time, even if we have not had national standards. In all that time, we've not seen this revolution in assessment that you seem to be predicting.


I'm not sure that I disagree with Mr. Vander Ark's goals for future improved educational assessment. But what disturbs me is how he does not appear to have any idea how we got to where we are, or how current efforts might or might not impact a particular issue.

Not all good ideas are feasible. Quite disturbingly, there are many good ideas that we simply cannot achieve. To take an example from another area, President Obama cannot propose a "single payer" healthcare model because we cannot get there from here. Start from scratch, and it might be a good idea, but given our history and the status quo, it simply is not achievable.

And so, if one wants to make serious proposals -- or even suggestions -- one must think beyond "Wouldn't this be a good idea."

This is a much bigger problem than Mr. Vander Ark, however. I believe that he is woefully short of experience and education in this field, as his bio on his firm's web site attests. He's a businessman who might be able to run an organization, but what does he really know about classrooms or education? He spent some time running a 22,000 student school district -- which is far far far far far more than many of the loudest voices in these debates -- but that is high level management stuff. Of course, many of my problems with Mr. Vander Ark stem from disagreeing with his actual proposals and suggestions, regardless of the degree of his experience or education. However, if he -- and others -- actually had relevant experience and/or education, they might might be triple check my own thinking. But they so rarely do.


Education is a serious enterprise. Truly great ideas, innovations, reforms or even suggestions require real thoughtfulness -- which in turn often requires real preparation. The idea that smart, hard working or successful people from other fields or sectors can come into education and fix things without putting in the long and deep thinking time required to even understand what is going on is not only insulting, it is destructive to the futures of those we are all trying to help.

And it is the antithesis of what I mean by More Thoughtful.

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