College Football, the Postal Service and Bush-era Education

By Dr. Eugene Maier

College football, the postal service and education in the Bush era may seem like an odd trio, but they do have one thing in common: the creation of elaborate, technologically sophisticated mechanisms intended to overcome the foibles and inefficiencies of individual human judgment and effort. With a common result: tyrannical systems that aren't very successful, except in diminishing the human touch.

The Bowl Championship Series (BSC) poll is supposed to be a precise way of deciding who's the best in college football. Before the BCS, various polls of coaches, sportswriters and other pundits would offer their choices for who's number one, often with some disagreement. So the BCS standings were contrived to make a definitive and objective selection based on a variety of measurable factors. At the end of the season a game between the two teams at the top of the standings would determine the champion. A formula was developed to give teams a numerical ranking based on various polls and computer rankings, the strength of schedule—a number contrived from "the cumulative won/loss records of the team's opponents and the cumulative records of the teams' opponents' opponents"—losses, and something called quality win points.

If you follow football, you know that many think the BSC number-crunching doesn't work. The nation's best two teams didn't play for this year's championship (in the interests of full disclosure, I am an Oregon Duck fan). Most likely the formula will get tweaked again, but given the vagaries of athletic contests, it's unlikely any formula will be derived that gives better results than the judgment of "experts," no matter how arcanely these judgments are made. But as long as it's the BCS standings that count, whatever their shortcomings, that's what teams will compete against. Forget about the other team—let's not be satisfied with simply a win. Let's do what gets us the most points in the BCS standings, even if that means running up the score against some hapless opponent.

While football fans were debating the BCS ratings, residents of Columbia County, a rural Oregon county of some 40,000 residents, were wondering what was going on. The checks were in the mail but they weren't getting delivered, at least not to the intended recipient. That's why the county was sending out delinquent tax notices. It turns out the folk in Columbia County are accustomed to addressing mail intended for county offices simply to Columbia County Courthouse, without a street address, and the local post office had no problem delivering it down the street. As a matter of fact, the County Courthouse had no street address. And that appears to be the problem because now, you see, the mail doesn't get sorted locally—it gets sent to Portland to get sorted before it's sent back to be delivered down the street. Apparently the automatic sorter, fooled by the lack of a street address, routed a bunch of the mail intended for the courthouse to Colombia, our South American neighbor.

The problem is being addressed. The U.S. Postal Service office in Washington D.C. has been notified so it can take care of the software glitch that is whisking domestic mail around the world. And Columbia County has assigned the courthouse a street address for future mailings. Its residents will learn to address their mail so the mail-sorter in the metropolis can read it, and in so doing, a bit of the charm of small town living will disappear. It's hard to imagine what's gained—economically and otherwise—by sending the local mail away to be sorted. If human touch and interaction have any value, it's certainly a loss.

Continuing the trend toward large mechanistic systems, touted to be foolproof, is the recently unveiled Bush education act. In the interest of accountability, covered with a veneer of rhetoric about not leaving any child behind, the plan orders the annual testing of students to see if they're up to snuff on the standard school subjects, and if they're not, watch out! The administration doesn't want to intrude on states' rights, so the testing will be left to each state to develop and administer. But the feds might as well do it. The result will be the same.

Vast effort will go into developing, first, standards setting forth what everyone should learn and, second, standardized tests that cover this material in valid, comprehensive, and impartial ways. Once they are administered and graded, we will have foolproof, objective knowledge of what every student in America has been taught and, thus, who has done a good job of teaching and who hasn't. At least that's the theory.

But in practice, just as one plays the game to earn points in the BCS standings and addresses mail to satisfy automatic mail sorters, teachers will figure out how to get their students to perform well on the tests. Passing tests will be mistaken for getting an education. And the judgment of the individual teacher—and hence their professionalism—will be constrained.

The classroom teacher is in the best position to assess student progress and determine appropriate instructional programs. Those of us who have been in involved in teacher education, know that teachers, given appropriate educational opportunities and reasonable resources and support, do that quite—even admirably-well. Rather than putting huge sums into attempting to develop a fail-safe educational systems by devising elaborate testing mechanisms designed to hold teachers accountable, let's for a change be accountable to teachers. Let's see to it that they get the education, compensation, resources and respect to provide a meaningful education in a setting where human interaction and individual identity are valued.

(A postscript: Just as I finished writing this, the Oregon Department of Education released its 2002 School Report Card. The Report Card, mandated by the 1999 state legislature, is another example of a massive effort signifying next to nothing. The state department—having gathered data on attendance, dropout rates, and state tests and plugging it into a formula developed by their number crunchers that requires 23 pages of a technical manual to explain—have reported to the state that 1098 of the 1112 schools graded are "satisfactory" or higher, in fact, 55 percent are "strong" or "exceptional"; none are "unacceptable." The State Superintendent would like folk to think the high rankings are the result of his leadership., while critics say the report is propaganda. A deputy superintendent, reacting to criticism of the glowing results, says "it may be time to ratchet up a notch." So the formula will be manipulated until it gives results that better fit the public's perception of how things are, and more of the state's ever scarcer education dollars will get frittered away.)