Monday, March 15, 2010

Education is not a business

A reader sent me this link a while back. Some students were forced to write letters of apology to their teachers for scoring below 85 marks in a maths exam. The principal justified the teacher's action and told Lianhe Wanbao that the purpose of the letters was to make the students reflect, and encourage them to improve their performance.

In a way, this post is long overdue - my thoughts on this topic date all the way back a decade or so when I was working at a local polytechnic, then a university. Most universities are run like businesses or at least pseudo-businesses. At the polytechnic, the Principal gave himself the title of CEO and he unabashedly said that running a polytechnic was akin to running a business.

I have fewer problems with this concept at the higher education level as these institutions have to be at least partially self-funding. However, it perturbs me to learn that more and more primary and secondary schools are also turning towards this direction.

These days, teachers are ranked against each other measured by KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). If their students don't perform up to par, then they drop in ranking. I assume this affects their appraisal and promotion prospects. Principals are also under pressure to keep up in school rankings (and not just in academics), hence they push their teachers to achieve better results.

Here's what happens when schools are run like businesses. Teachers become workers assessed and ranked according to quantifiable output. The principal is like the CEO, answerable to a higher authority based on numbers. Students become products, they are valued only according to the quantifiable output they can contribute, everything else is peripheral or redundant. Everything is reduced to numbers.

Therein lies the problem. When you run a business, the focus has to be on results. And preferably quantifiable results. Don't get me wrong, I think it's well and good to try and assess the effectiveness of a school. Afterall, we don't want ineffective schools and teachers.

But instead of seeing how we can better assess the effectiveness of schools, we run the schools to make them easier to assess. Do you see the difference? One tries to find the means to an end, the other changes the end to suit the means.

Education administrators love this because it's so neat, structured and orderly. But the problem is education is about moulding of individuals. And neither individuals nor learning is neat, structured or orderly. The process of education is not and should be like that of manufacturing, taking place in a factory.

If we take this route, there is no "business" value in helping a student overcome his learning disability or giving special attention to a child from a difficult family background because the outcome is not quantifiable. We're leaving it to the assumed social conscience of the teacher and the school to step forward in such instances. But realistically, ensuring A students continue to get top grades will likely get priority because it directly impacts on the teacher's KPIs.

There are so many problems with this model and it has frustrated me to no end that the authorities cannot seem to see it. I attribute this to the world's obsession with numbers. A degree in Finance or Economics is considered wow, so valuable. There's just something so finite and secure about numbers, we think they can't lie. But anyone who believes in the unquestioned objectivity of numbers is, well, to put it bluntly, an idiot. Numbers can be so easily manipulated or massaged to suit your own interests. Remember the financial crisis?

Financial people seem obsessed with reducing everything to numbers. I remember at the university, the Finance department implemented a financial IT system which made everyone crazy because it was so rigid it wouldn't allow for variations in anything. Basically, it suited nobody except the Finance guys because it enabled them to compute everything in neat, quantifiable categories. Instead of adjusting the system to cater to variations, they insisted that all departments adjust their output to fit within the given categories.

Using the same analogy, we need to adjust the means to suit the end, not the other way around. Education is not a business. It causes schools to ask kids who don't perform to transfer out; schools to focus on adding to their medal tally instead of character building; students to gauge their own self-worth by the marks on their exams; teachers to ask underperforming students to write apology notes.

Let's bring the focus of education back to its original goal - educating.


Lilian said...

Fantastic post! I can feel your frustration in every sentence.

I remember in my old company, we had to implement Balanced Scorecard. Now, this always happens, some top honcho goes for an executive MBA, picks the latest management theory and then returns and decides to implement it. Balanced Scorecard is great in theory, you measure what's important and set your KPIs according. Unfortunately, what happens is people take the easy way out and propose KPIs that are easy to measure, and don't measure what's important. "Not everything that matters is measurable and not everything that is measurable matters."

What gets measured (number of medals, gold awards, distinctions) gets done!

So what happens to the other intangible things that don't get measured? Children's empathy for the less able; passion for learning; excitement in going to school everyday; real (not forced) teamwork; humility; inspired teaching that is remembered for a lifetime; kind words from teachers; kindness to fellow students; even some tangible measures such as number of burnt-out teachers (indicated by number of teachers quitting the service each year); amount of sleep a child gets each night. Let's find a way to measure these instead so that they get done!

Reward our teachers for teaching/educating, then maybe more teachers who are truly passionate about this vocation will join the service.

monlim said...

Lilian: EXACTLY! In the university too, it was so obvious, everyone was putting in KPIs that they knew they could easily achieve so their performance appraisals wouldn't be adversely affected but it was such a farce cos those KPIs were not measuring areas critical to the job.

The trouble is so many of these critical areas are simply not measurable in quantitative terms. So they become considered unimportant and are sidelined when in truth, all the intangible things you mentioned are key to the value of education.

bACk in GERMANY said...

Totally agree!

What's the measure:
teaching a child with learning disabilities to succeed or teaching a child with above average intelligence to ace exams?

It doesn't take us long to figure out where the true educators are found.

Lilian, bless you for coming up with a better set of KPIs.

eunice said...

Eh? You are kidding right? About the children writing apology notes to teacher? Gawd!

To totally agree with you that schools are run like businesses. That's why the poor children suffer. SIgh....

Anonymous said...

I see that MOE is really doing something to improve the system e.g. getting people to be allied educators to assist the teachers' already heavy workload of teaching, admin and counseling...Really hope this is a good change..

~ my

monlim said...

Cindy: I always wished there were more teachers like you here, who understand the real call behind the teaching profession.

Eunice: You wouldn't believe some of the ludicrous stories I've heard... clearly some teachers need to consider a career change!

MY: Yes, I think there are small steps being made, hopefully they will all make a difference. I still think the biggest change needs to be in the mentality towards education as a whole, but that will take a while.

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