Monday, September 26, 2011

Lawyering For America

I have been reading with some horror accounts of the Los Angeles Times's decision to publish value-added scores for individual teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (my one-time employer), and in particular the story of the suicide of one of the teachers named in the paper with the implication that he was a bad teacher. It's easy to feel, under these circumstances, that the editors of the Times have blood on their hands.

Accountability is a concept that has spread from the business world into education across the English-speaking world for the last two decades, and has become allied to another characteristic of the English-speaking peoples, the tradition of a free press, to produce a marked emphasis on reporting school results. Recently, this has shifted, due to some suspect reasoning that I have questioned in a separate post, from reporting on accountable public schools to reporting on accountable public school educators (especially teachers and principals).

Some make the lazy argument that there is no other profession in which practitioners are not held accountable for their results; but in other professions such accountable results discussions mostly take place in private offices between employees and their immediate supervisors, not in the public press. Such reporting is bad public policy and a disservice to the public. Among other effects, one can well anticipate that it will drive some young people who might be considering teaching as a career into other occupations, and so drive up the cost of education to the public by reducing the supply of teachers. By contrast, I believe that Scotland has an admirable system of educational accountability, which highlights the public posting of inspection reports along with the results on upper secondary examinations that have real consequences for the students, instead of our system foolishly designed with no real incentives to prevent students from making funny face designs on their multiple choice Scantron forms, which used to happen at Locke High School when I first started teaching there (who would do that on an SAT that they had paid for?).

But I have a proposal for those who take extreme positions regarding reporting the results of accountable professionals: let's impose what's being forced on teachers on some other professionals. Failing hospitals don't just produce substandard scores, they kill people, as was believed to be the case in the community surrounding the King-Drew Medical Center in Watts when I was working nearby at Locke High. Perhaps it's not enough that this hospital was shuttered, and only allowed to reopen under different management some years later (a hospital turnaround); why don't we go after its doctors by name, and publicly name in a large-circulation newspaper doctors whose patient mortality rate exceeds the norm anticipated? We can come up with associated terms corresponding to value-added metrics for these bad doctors; perhaps the mortality-added measure of Doctor Murderer? Wouldn't that have a salutary effect upon the medical community? 

Or how about lawyers? They can kill too, instead of just producing disappointing results on nearly meaningless tests; culpable negligence on the part of a defence lawyer, for example, can lead to innocent human beings being put to death in countries practicing capital punishment. So they too might have their mortality-added measures calculated; or perhaps other metrics for allowing criminals to escape conviction (this would let us calculate, and publicly report, a prosecutor's crime-added metric), or for false incarceration, or contribution to general injustice.

Of course, if we publicly humiliated other professionals in this way, we would probably hurt education, since we can anticipate that the supply of young people willing to subject themselves to this form of shaming would be diminshed, and a decrease in supply would drive up the cost of a doctor's or lawyer's labours in a free market economy; and a major reason why American schools are so thinly staffed, in terms of student-teacher ratios, is because American teachers are relatively expensive compared to their peers overseas, but still feel underpaid since their salaries are so low compared to the sky-high costs of American professionals in other careers like law and medicine.

But I can think of another solution for that, as well: let's introduce new, alternative certification programmes for law and medicine, programmes that would increase the supply of the practitioners, and thus drive down the wages, of these professions by taking recent college grads, giving them six weeks of supervised summer training in hospitals and law firms, and then unleashing these ambitious young people on the public.

One name comes immediately to mind: anyone want to sign up for Lawyering For America?

The doctors' equivalent forces me to think a bit longer . . . what do you think of Meds For America?

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