Grading the Report 

The school audit isn't a failure, but it isn't an A either

The school audit isn't a failure, but it isn't an A either

The report from the recent performance audit of Metro public schools may look impressive. More than a thousand pages of attractively formatted sans serif type (for the digitally inclined, a nearly 4.7 megabyte PDF file) are packed with hundreds of charts and more than 200 recommendations addressing what seems like every last nook and cranny of the school system.

But like a lot of things that impress at first blush, on closer inspection the report compiled by the consulting firm MGT of America betrays some significant flaws. At the risk of puncturing Mayor Bill Purcell's $500,000 balloon, there is substantially less here than meets the eye—most notably on the subject of classroom instruction and educational achievement.

The problem with the schools audit is not that MGT produced a seriously defective report (far from it, although there is slipshod work with some of the numbers), nor that the city didn't get its money's worth—the 230 recommendations contained within may well justify the audit's half-million-dollar price tag. The problem is that the media, the school board, and other local leaders inappropriately are treating the audit as a comprehensive diagnosis of and fiscal prescription for what ails public education in Nashville. This seriously misreads—and overestimates—the scope and utility of MGT's work.

Local press accounts of the audit's release announced with fanfare that Metro schools are not plagued by the dearth of money that many of us have long perceived—and still do. The Tennessean's lead story the morning after MGT unveiled the report declared that the audit had put to rest the "nagging notion" that "schools are woefully underfunded." The story went on to credit the audit with showing that "the system is adequately funded and doesn't need really big bucks to improve."

The mayor and various school officials latched on to the conclusion that a modest $26 million spread over the next five years will fund the audit's recommendations, and in doing so, make things right in Metro schools.

The problem—a big problem—is that the consultant's report is primarily a management audit, not a thorough analysis of the educational process. The prodigious work undertaken by MGT speaks in great depth to running a complex, comprehensive urban school system, but gives only minimal attention to how and why classroom instruction—education—is or should be delivered to foster high levels of achievement.

To be sure, the MGT report is suffused with management-oriented analyses and proposals that seem genuinely important and potentially valuable. In areas as diverse as facilities use, transportation, asset management, food service, security, communications, finance, purchasing, and personnel, the audit was intricate, analyses were elaborate, and recommendations were calibrated with regard to both fiscal impact and implementation strategy.

Media reports have drawn particular attention to the audit's call for major upgrades in information technology. MGT's analysis here is careful and cogent, and the proposed technology initiatives—which comprise a significant portion of the total cost of the audit's recommendations—seem reasonable and necessary.

But while several recommendations do seek reforms of systems and processes that are likely to enhance the climate for achievement—for example, incentive pay for teachers at troubled schools, and expanded advanced-placement course offerings in high schools—the report pretty much takes a pass on the hard questions of exactly how to transform failing or underperforming schools.

The best way to understand this omission is to look deep in the heart of the audit, at recommendation 6-13 on the 349th page of the report. It comes in the section on "educational service delivery," and addresses the all-too-well-known fact that standardized test scores in Metro schools, despite some bright spots, are dismal in the aggregate. Here's the recommendation verbatim: "Identify effective intervention strategies in low-performing schools and improve students' performance on the state standardized tests, SAT, and ACT tests."

The implementation strategy that follows is a thin set of bromides calling on administrators to search for validated programs, confer with each other to make sure interventions are appropriately matched with specific school settings, and arrange suitable program evaluations. The cost? Quoting again from the report: "The cost for this can not [sic] be quantified until the intervention strategies have been identified and selected by the school system."

Now, one would assume that Nashvillians concerned about public education largely are focused on how to turn around low-performing schools and improve achievement as measured by test scores. Before we canonize the new performance audit as a definitive assessment of what Metro schools need, it's worth keeping in mind that on this most crucial issue, the MGT report neither proposes any concrete remedies nor factors their costs into its overall financial analysis. Indeed, a more appropriate headline following the report's release would go something like this: "Audit reveals system is adequately funded for present level of achievement, with costs of improvement unknown."

This is not necessarily a knock on the consulting firm itself, which presumably wasn't asked to assess specific curricular structures or educational interventions. That's obvious from its analysis of Metro's "core curriculum" approach to instruction. The MGT report compiles mostly anecdotal perspectives on the curriculum, offering no systematic attention to its detractors or assessment of its drawbacks. In the end, MGT's recommendations around core curriculum address its bureaucratic aspects—how curriculum guides are updated and delivered—but not its substance.

MGT did drop the ball in the area of before- and after-care programs. Billing its compiled information on these programs as a view of the "availability" of before- and after-care, MGT offers nothing more than a simple tally of which schools have programs and which do not. MGT paid no attention to issues of capacity, demand, waiting lists, or program quality (which many public school parents experience as low, high, long, and uneven, respectively).

The report acknowledges "low, sporadic availability" of extended care, but recommends only a revision of the school system's facilities-use policy to include language that is more supportive of after-school programs. Arranging safe, affordable, high-quality extended care is commonly a hassle and frequently a nightmare for public school parents in Nashville, and the audit promises little that will make a significant difference in this crucial area.

All of this adds up to a school performance audit that is analytically impressive in many respects and should spur needed administrative reforms. But the MGT report is not and should not be perceived as a comprehensive blueprint for improving public education—it's a partial one at best. Much of the media and public reaction to the audit has overstated its reach, and underestimated the cost of addressing the school system's most intractable problems. In so doing, the audit's civic cheerleaders are placing the prospects for meaningful improvement in local public education at serious risk.

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