Sunday, August 12, 2012

Retail Lessons and How They Apply to School Reform

Years ago, I got a job working for a national department store chain that has its headquarters in the South. For the largest part of my time there, I worked in customer service. While this position paid less than a position on the sales floor, I enjoyed it. Our evaluations were based on how well we did the multiple jobs assigned to us. We wrapped gifts for customers, helped customers resolve complaints and problems, assisted customers with questions about credit accounts, and other tasks. In addition, we often helped answer questions for sales associates, made change for the registers when needed, answered the phone and directed calls to other areas of the store, and paged area sales managers when employees needed help. None of these responsibilities were held up as higher or greater than the others, so we worked hard as a team to make sure everything was done well. My co-workers and I didn't fight over who would do what jobs or try to take the more desirable ones, because we were trained to believe all were important.

After a few years in customer service, management decided I would be an asset to the company selling in the mens department. I was not thrilled, but I went ahead with the move anyway. They buttered me up with praise and told me I would get a raise to go. So, there began my short-lived time as a sales associate. As part of being a sales associate we had a sales-per-hour goal. If we exceeded the goal, we would get a raise (along with a higher sales-per-hour goal), but if we failed to meet our goal, we would have our hourly wage reduced, and those who continued to fail to meet the goal would be let go. There were other duties associated with being an associate, like helping customers with returns, keeping the area neat and clean, re-pricing when we received mark-downs, going to customer service to get change for the registers, and the list goes on. But....the only real thing that mattered when it came to how "successful" we were as salespeople was the number and amount of sales. While I did have many conscientious co-workers who did all of their duties in addition to selling, you can imagine that there were many who found ways around it, or even worse, would steal the sales from my and other associates' customers while we were seeing to those other things. Now, for a company that competitively wants sales as its ultimate reason for existing, maybe this isn't a bad model.

But, how does this relate to school reform. Currently, we are in a situations where schools are judged simply on test scores. More accurately, schools are judged on one test administered at a single time during the year. (This would be like my retail employer not taking all sales into account, but randomly judging all employees on sales happening over one week.) Further narrowing this, is that in many grades, the only scores that matter are those for reading and math on this narrowly administered test. Based on results from these tests, schools are judged on their effectiveness, teachers can lose their jobs, students can be held back, and schools can be closed. Is it any wonder that schools are being turned into test prep mills? Is it any wonder that many teachers refuse to do any job that do not believe will help raise individual students' test scores? Are we really surprised if this causes the narrowing of the curriculum so that arts, discussions of great literature, critical thinking, and debate are lost so that students can practice for these tests?

Applying market principles to education will produce the outcomes of the market. Nothing more, nothing less. If we want our schools to function like the sales floor of my former department store, we will continue to tell teachers, students, and administrators that nothing else matters except a test score. And while you will have teachers and administrators who continue to do all the extras, many will only ask the simple questions, "How will this affect test scores?" And when the scores go up, the schools and teachers will be vindicated, even if their students cannot think critically, do not know science or social studies, and have no real understanding of values of the community or society.

But, if we want a broader, more comprehensive approach- one that asks teachers to take a broader approach- then we need to make sure we value those things. If we want schools to include things that cannot be assessed on a standardized test, we need to make sure those things are valued, appreciated, and rewarded. When our teachers are treated to be "sales people" chasing the value-added metric du jour, we tell them that the other things do not matter. Paying lip service to educating the whole child, while creating evaluation systems that make one factor 51% of the score trains our teachers, and yes, even the students to only chase that one thing- or to game the system to get scores regardless of their authenticity. Is this really what we want from our public schools? If not, maybe we should think about why we are letting people do this to them.

Just a thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment