Eating Bees Does Not Fix Schools

In The Bee Eater, Richard Whitmire worships Michelle Rhee’s time as chancellor of DC public schools. After all, she was relentless in getting rid of all of the bad teachers. And she was tough. I mean, she did eat a bee in front of her students.

Too bad eating bees does nothing to improve the school system. If only it were that easy!

Rhee’s reign led to huge increases in public school teacher and principal turnover. Of course, this would be a positive change if we could accurately detect who the bad public school employees actually were. However, leaders like Rhee only have access to crude measures such as standardized test score levels.

The Problem with Test Scores

Even if we could perfectly measure teacher value-added, as captured by test score growth, it is not clear that standardized test scores are all that valuable. A growing body of rigorous scientific evidence indicates that test scores do not necessarily translate into enhanced long-term outcomes such as graduation, college enrollment, and income levels.

Incentives based on standardized test scores only inflate the basic economic problem of opportunity costs. What if a teacher that developed proper citizenship skills did not focus much on standardized math and reading exams? Firing that teacher could have disastrous effects on a child that is from a household where character skills are not established. And threatening teachers based on test scores shifts their focus away from skills that actually influence long-term outcomes. After all, well-regarded researchers, like Kirabo Jackson at Northwestern University, find that teachers who improve their students’ character skills have much larger positive impacts on the likelihood of graduation than teachers that are good at increasing test scores.

Rhee made this problem even worse by implementing a system of performance pay — based on test scores, of course. The intention was to bring market incentives into the school system. I get that.

But incentives based on standardized test scores, rather than true consumer choice, only inflate the basic economic problem of opportunity costs. If teachers focus more on test scores, they must focus less on character development.

And what types of teachers did Rhee fire? A majority of fired teachers were African American. This is a problem considering the robust research indicating that being assigned to a teacher from the same race improves students’ academic perceptions and attitudes, especially for black children. And most students affected by Rhee’s pressures were indeed African American. In this sense, the very children Rhee intended to help were probably hurt the most.

The Main Problem

But shouldn’t teacher accountability systems work? Shouldn’t a system of incentives work? Why didn’t market principles work?

Rhee’s reforms missed the one ingredient that is necessary for an educational market to function properly: choice. Because Rhee’s reform strategy was not market-oriented at all.

Taking some business ideas – such as incentives and accountability – and trying to force them into schools does not produce an educational market. Businesses need the information necessary for these ideas to work. In the private sector, this indispensable information is provided by dispersed customer-driven demand, not uniform metrics constructed by “experts.”

Obviously, Rhee’s reforms missed the one ingredient that is necessary for an educational market to function properly: choice.

But we shouldn’t blame her. Perhaps she was just too busy eating bees to read up on some economics.