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Corporate education reform? No, just measurements.

September 4, 2014 by Mark Dynarski

The term “corporate education reform” appears regularly these days, including in this recent New York Times op-ed by David Kirp.

A parent reading about corporate education reform might wonder if corporations have somehow gotten control of America’s schools. When did that happen? Other terms in so-called corporate education reform might sound ominous to them too, like proficiency, value-added, standards and evaluation.

A parent can’t be blamed for missing the takeover. It never happened. Corporate education reform is nothing more than measurement. Governments at various levels are asking schools to measure results and use the results to develop new approaches or strategies, if results show new ones are needed.

Economics plays a role. Measurement is much cheaper than it used to be.

One computer tablet has more storage and processing power than entire mainframe computers from the Sixties. Tests can be scored easily and results can be stored inexpensively.

At such low cost, naturally data are more plentiful. And data increasingly are being used to inform educators and policymakers about school and teacher effectiveness.

If there is a link between so-called corporate education reform and private-sector businesses, it’s that businesses rely on data to assess how their products are selling, how their staffs are performing, and whether innovations are worth pursuing. If you are thinking that using data in these ways seems humdrum and unexciting, hardly the stuff of controversy, you aren’t alone.

Arguably, it’s as important to measure results in government as in the private sector, perhaps more so. Without measuring results, how do taxpayers know their dollars are spent well?

Measuring results provides taxpayers with independent and objective information about how government organizations are performing. Individuals may weigh performance differently — some might care more about, say, how well students are reading, others might care more about how well they do in math, and others care nothing about either but want crime rates in their neighborhood to be reduced. All benefit from measurement, however, to know whether something is happening or has happened.

Suppose a company manager asks how sales are faring and is told by staff that they feel good about sales. Yes, wonderful, the manager might say, but I need numbers. And when the numbers arrive, they cause the manager not to feel good.

Something like this happened with No Child Left Behind. It required states and districts to report results, and, from the reports, it became evident that large groups of students were not doing well. Students that were black, Hispanic, in special education, or learning English especially were lagging.

The law also created a system of sanctions for schools that failed to improve results. By the end of the decade, these groups had closed part of the gap. From the perspective of a taxpayer, this seems like the right direction of travel. Measurement led to understanding which led to improvement.

The label of “corporate reform” seems to be sufficiently elastic that its users can include charter schools and the use of computer technology in schools and classrooms in it. These are red-herring issues, however.

Charter schools increase competition among schools by creating a choice for parents of school-aged children. Critics charge that charters undermine public education, which is puzzling because charter schools are public schools. And since the first charter school opened in 1993 (yes, that long ago), charter schools now have grown to enroll about 5 percent of America’s schoolchildren. Evolution, maybe, but revolution, no.

Computer technology in classrooms mostly is purchased from private businesses, which make profit—aha! But so do businesses that sell desks and cabinets to schools, and bus kids to and from school, and repair heating units in schools.

Do any government entities not purchase supplies from private businesses? No doubt, taxpayers prefer that schools purchase materials using bidding processes that yield best value for the money, and not design and produce their own classroom materials.

We could go back to a world in which we simply trust that teachers and schools are doing a good job. Whose objectives are we serving by doing that? Teachers and schools might be happy without testing and its implied judgments of their effectiveness. And, I admit, it sounds appealing. I would like to be paid without having to tell anyone about my performance.

Realistically, measurement is not going away. Taxpayers have not risen up to demand that their dollars be spent willy-nilly on just about anything schools and teachers want to do. Indeed the future may portend even more of it. So we need to think about effective measurement.

To be sure, it’s possible to test too much. The value of the information gained may be less than the costs of time lost and test expense. Finding the right balance is important.

But nothing is gained by demanding that the tide of measurement recede and take measures of results with it. That tide is not going to recede. The future includes measurement.

Mark Dynarski is a Bush Institute education consultant and president of Pemberton Research in New Jersey.



Mark Dynarski
Mark Dynarski

Mark Dynarski is founder and president of Pemberton Research, which focuses on understanding and utilizing research evidence in decision making.  Previously, he was vice president and director of the Center for Improving Research Evidence at Mathematica Policy Research. He also previously served as director of the What Works Clearinghouse at the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, and as director and principal investigator of numerous education programs with a focus on at-risk children and youth. Currently he is a senior fellow (nonresident) at the Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institute.

Dynarski is an advisor to government agencies, philanthropies, and nonprofit organizations. He is well known for his expertise in econometrics and evaluation methodology, including the design, implementation, and analysis of evaluations of education programs using random assignment and quasi-experimental designs

Dynarski has published widely in peer-reviewed journals, including Educational Researcher, Educational Leadership, and Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk. He is also on the editorial boards of Effective Education and The Elementary School Journal.

Dynarski earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from the Johns Hopkins University and holds a B.A. in economics from the State University of New York at Geneseo. He also was a tenured professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, where he taught theory, statistics, and econometrics.

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