Outcomes instead of outputs: Using a New Public Service approach to humanize “No Child Left Behind”, by Andrew Koricich

Creative Commons image by Flickr user afagen

Creative Commons image by Flickr user afagen

The field of public administration, much like education, is comprised of varying worldviews, paradigms, and perspectives.  These ideological differences can dramatically influence the structure of public policy and accountability systems.  New Public Management and New Public Service are two important paradigms that have evolved over the last few decades and undergird current policymaking and public administration activities.  The former generally seeks to privatize government functions and establishes strict accountability measures, while the latter focuses on citizens as customers of government and seeks to humanize public policy (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2007).  Both paradigms have operated in parallel with each other for years, which has often given rise to dramatic policy debates and political conflicts.  The conflict between these two perspectives can be seen quite clearly in the realm of public education policy.

In 2001, President George W. Bush and a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders passed the No Child Left Behind Act (“NCLB”) that sought to improve public education through greater accountability.  Among other things, NCLB requires every state to conduct annual assessment tests in reading and mathematics, tracks progress and imposes penalties on consistently underperforming schools, and requires public schools to create and distribute report cards that compare their performance to that of other schools (Gormley & Balla, 2008).  The Act is based heavily on high-stakes testing that ties incentives and punishments to the results of student testing.  The hope is that using such testing will improve teacher and school accountability and result in an improved education.  Currently, these quantitative accountability measures are in place in every state, although the Obama administration has granted waivers of some NCLB requirements to a number of states.  However, even waivers have been met with consternation by researchers and political groups.

While there is much support for the notion of improving schools, NCLB has been the subject of persistent criticism because of its strict adherence to test results and the fact that it punishes failing schools rather than providing substantive assistance (Gormley & Balla, 2008).  Proponents of the program believe that holding schools accountable to enforceable regulations and laws is the best way to achieve long-term reform (Dubnick & Justice, 2006).  This clearly reflects the New Public Management policymaking paradigm, and as such, focuses exclusively on measurable outputs and business-like philosophies to affect change in public schools.  The best example of this is that, while the federal regulations make specific benchmarks, they leave the implementation strategies at the discretion of third-parties (namely, school districts and state agencies) (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2007).

At its very core, the New Public Management paradigm strives to conduct governmental operations in a manner similar to for-profit corporations.  Administrators are heralded for their entrepreneurial nature and constantly strive for efficiency and efficacy, often through the use of third-party partnerships (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2007).  Under this school of thought, citizens are viewed as customers, and their votes the object of competition for elected officials.  It is believed that service delivery is done more efficiently if treated as a competitive enterprise in which administrators partner with for-profit and nonprofit third-party organizations to improve results.

As a measure of assessment and accountability, NCLB is an example of the New Public Management paradigm.  New Public Management approaches accountability as “the accumulation of self-interests” that will “result in outcomes desired by broad groups of citizens (or customers)” (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2007, p. 29), meaning that the success of NCLB can be measured in terms of collective interests.  The problem arises because government under New Public Management does not necessarily respond to what the electorate wants.  Rather, the persons in positions of power determine what the public interest is (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2007).  With regards to actual metrics, NCLB relies on objective measurement criteria such as standardized test scores that are then used to track student and school performance over time.  Unfortunately, standardized tests may not accurately or completely measure what is actually taking place in schools or what the public is most concerned about (i.e., the public interest).

Under New Public Management, the public interest is conceived as an aggregation of individual interests rather than resting on the shared values of the citizenry (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2007).  As such, NCLB takes a very narrow view of what the goal of education reform should be.  The legislation defines the public interest in terms of higher reading and mathematical performance with common goals set for all schools and reducing the achievement gap between White and minority students.  This can be incongruous with what the citizenry at-large may consider a “good” education.  Because of the strict quantitative assessment methods, teachers may feel pressured to “teach to the test” and structure their curriculum exclusively around state-mandated content rather than purposeful learning outcomes.  Absent from this narrow view of education reform are issues such as creativity, problem solving, and broader cognitive development, which are believed by some to be critical to public education (Gormley & Balla, 2008).  The use of annual standardized tests also means that NCLB uses outputs as the basis of ensuring accountability.  In this case, outputs would be test scores and adequate yearly progress (AYP) data.  The use of outputs can be useful, especially when compared to the focus that was once put on programmatic inputs (e.g. per-student funding levels), but they are by no means a perfect measure.

As an alternative, future renewals of NCLB/ESEA should echo the collective-action mentality of New Public Service.  New Public Service takes a more humanistic view of public administration.  It focuses on serving citizens rather than customers.  People should be valued in addition to productivity and efficiency.  It also acknowledges a truth that has dogged education reformers and politicians alike: “accountability isn’t simple” (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2007, p. 42).  New Public Service looks to be more responsive to the wishes of citizens, and rejects the idea that citizens are simply customers of government.  Under New Public Management, citizens are viewed as customers “that do not share common purposes but rather seek to optimize their own individual benefit” (p. 60).  Conversely, New Public Service views citizens as “bearers of rights and duties within the context of a wider community” (p. 60), a distinction that completely changes the way in which assessment is conducted.

Denhardt and Denhardt (2007) assert that accountability under New Public Service is “multifaceted” (p. 29), which can be implemented in future renewals of the Act.  Performance on standardized tests can still be an important measure of how well students are able to acquire and recall information.  However, this leaves out critical measurements of other cognitive skills and actual teacher performance.  To address the first issue, a revamped NCLB would actually consist of a suite of assessment tools that would measure student development in areas such as critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity, in addition to subject matter.  This helps address the crucial skills of being able to answer questions with imperfect information or in non-traditional ways, as opposed to simply recalling facts.  Adding these assessments would also serve to undergird the importance of all subjects, not just reading and mathematics.  Students will have an opportunity to display academic ability across a variety of contexts, and assessments can use material from science, art, and history courses to judge the development of broader analytical skills.

This different approach to assessment focuses on outcomes instead of outputs.  Under New Public Management, assessment looks at outputs such as graduation rates and test scores.  Measurement schemes modeled after New Public Service would look more at outcomes such as gains in skill levels (as opposed to absolute scores), holistic academic progress, critical thinking ability, and creativity.  Currently, NCLB applies stringent measurement standards.  For example, students whose native language is one other than English are still required to take the same grade-level reading test as native speakers (Gormley & Balla, 2008).  A reconceptualization of the law would seek to develop testing that also measures relative gains so that a school can be given credit for substantially improving an immigrant’s language skills rather than being penalized when compared to an average.  An outcomes-based accountability model would look at societal benefits as well, such as increased participation and success in postsecondary education, decreased unemployment, lower welfare participation, and improved public health, which could be measured over the long-term and in local communities.  What is important to highlight under this new model of educational assessment is that a school’s overall quality will be determined as an aggregation of various criteria.

By including numerous assessment criteria that rate the educational process from multiple perspectives, the process itself becomes more democratic under New Public Service.  Instead of school performance being measured using tests developed by state agencies who may lack expertise or curricula being shaped by textbook publishers (DeBray, 2006), local school officials can influence results by hiring teachers who utilize innovative pedagogical techniques and by participating in the discussions about learning assessment processes and teacher evaluation practices.  The focus on multiple competencies also allows local school boards to prioritize programs and allocate resources as their specific situation dictates.  Additionally, a forum is available for citizens to speak directly to the service providers (school officials) about the way in which students are being taught, teachers are evaluated, and resources are allocated.  Citizens are given the opportunity to discuss and debate the merits of local schools, teachers, and curricula.  Consequently, the public interest is better represented within the accountability process (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2007).  With the current version of NCLB/ESEA, there is no mechanism for citizens to participate in the assessment process.

At its core, the New Public Service paradigm takes a more holistic approach to educational assessment that looks to provide opportunities for citizen involvement in school evaluation.  By lessening the emphasis put solely on testing, teachers have greater latitude to use creative teaching techniques and to include subject matter that can supplement core material.  By delegating more authority over curriculum and pedagogy to local school districts, citizens are situated much more closely to the decision-making entities and are thus provided greater access to participate in the process.  It is only with broad public support at all levels that education reform can truly gain traction and begin to realize significant improvements.

References

DeBray, E. H. (2006). Politics, ideology, & education: Federal policy during the Clinton and Bush administrations. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Denhardt, J. V., & Denhardt, R., B. (2007). The new public service: Serving, not steering (Expanded ed.). Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

Dubnick, M. J., & Justice, J. B. (2006). Accountability and the evil of administrative ethics. Administration and Society, 38(2), 236-267.

Gormley, J., William T., & Balla, S. J. (2008). Bureaucracy and democracy: Accountability and performance. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

 

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