Friday, June 15, 2007

Unintended consequences

When I teach Coast Guard personnel about organizational measurement, I always tell the story of "chicken efficiency" and the possibility of unintended consequences.

What is chicken efficiency? Years ago, a national fast-food chicken restaurant was losing money due to waste. You know how when you go into a fast-food restaurant, there's food in the bin under heat lamps. That food is there so that the restaurant provides fast food. If the food is already cooked, it can be given to customers quickly.

Food in the bin can't stay there forever. Most restaurants, particularly national chains, have rules on how long food can stay under the heat lamps. The chicken restaurant might have a 30-minute limit for fried chicken under the lamps. After 30-minutes, the food is supposed to be thrown away, rather than sold.

Make too much food, and the food ends up getting tossed. And that's waste.

So, the chain-in-question implemented a "chicken efficiency" measure; store managers were rated on, and given bonuses on, their chicken efficiency. The message: reduce the amount of chicken tossed out.

That's easy: Cook to order.

If I cook to order, then I will have 100% chicken efficiency.

So, now we have the following situation. Josephine Customer walks in for a bucket of extra-crispy chicken and a couple of sides. She places her order, pays her money, and the cashier yells back, "Drop a crispy bucket, please." And twenty-five minutes later Ms. Customer walks out of the restaurant with her bucket o'chicken. And, yes, she's not happy.

Josephine is so not happy that she tells everyone about her negative experience and doesn't return, taking her quest for a chicken fix elsewhere.

Unintended consequence: customer satisfaction sinks; repeat business goes in the toilet; sales plummet; profits deflate.

What's this have to do with my search for a job? Not sure, but it does have something to do with education and teaching.

From Debra Viadero at Education Week we learn Teachers Say NCLB Has Changed Classroom Practice. While some of the news is good, with teachers
making positive changes in the classroom by focusing on their states’ academic standards or searching for better teaching methods,
other news is not so good:
sizable percentages of educators are also spending more time teaching test-taking strategies, focusing more narrowly on the topics covered on state tests, and tailoring teaching to the “bubble kids”—the students who fall just below the proficiency cutoffs on state tests.
I'm sure this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unintended consequences with the federal No Child Left Behind initiative.

Thankfully, the schools I'm interested in, including the Little School on the Prairie, don't follow NCLB. This is more in line with my beliefs and practice:
Our classes focus on helping students develop the knowledge, values, and skills that they will need to be successful in all areas of life... We help students learn strategies for test taking in a low-stakes environment throughout their years at Little School on the Prairie. While we do not place much emphasis on the tests for ninth and tenth graders, it is important for students to become familiar with the format of standardized tests since they do not encounter such bubble tests in their Little School on the Prairie classes. Ninth and tenth graders take a grade-appropriate test designed by ACT to help them see areas in which they may want to focus their efforts as they begin to think about college admission tests. Throughout this process we stress to students that while these tests are important for the college admissions process and that they should therefore work on the necessary strategies and level of comfort that will help them perform to the best of their ability, these tests do not measure their intelligence or worth. Instead, the ACT and/or SAT will provide only one element of their college application and will be supplemented by their essays, activities, teacher recommendations, and transcript.
I guess the factory-style public schools can't take this tack; too bad. And too bad that NCLB is like a chicken efficiency measure: well intended, but with too many unintended consequences.

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