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The Business of Schooling

November 22, 2010

Before I begin, I should acknowledge that the photographs on the header and on my profile (link on the bottom right) were taken by my wife Valerie.  I just want to give credit where credit is due…

And on that note, you may be aware that Joel Klein has resigned from his job as New York City schools chancellor.  He held the post for eight years and is leaving to take a job with…the News Corporation.  His replacement?  Cathleen Black, the chairwoman of…Hearst Magazines.  If public education is supposed to be democracy’s best defense against ignorance, I sincerely question the wisdom of hiring individuals from mass media companies to run school systems. One only need examine the stunningly poor job that media in general (and News Corporation in particular) do in providing the public with valuable, accurate information.

As troubling as this is, it raises another more visceral question:  should people with no experience in education be running school systems–especially the biggest one in the country?  New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done a very good job as mayor, but I don’t accept his argument that the schools should be run by people with experience in business.  I do think that people without experience in education can be very helpful in the decision-making process–and I have a great deal of suspicion regarding educational “experts” from academia (anyone who has ever been to teacher’s college knows whereof I speak).  However, attempting to impose a business model upon a school does not work.  They are two vastly different endeavors.

For example, let’s imagine I have a furniture making business. I buy wood from suppliers, and my squad of craftsman work hard at transforming the wood into bookcases, beds, dressers, etc.  If we are successful, the results are immediately apparent, and customers pay to have our product.  If we cease to do a good job–our work becomes sloppy, or we are rude to our potential customers,  we are held accountable. As it should be.

Let’s suppose one day I receive a shipment of wood that is damaged.  After close examination, I come to the conclusion that the wood cannot be fashioned into quality furniture.  I call my supplier, and tell him the wood he sent me isn’t good enough,  and that if he wants me to pay him, he needs to replace the wood.  If he wants to stay in business, he will do as I ask.  If he doesn’t, I take my business elsewhere–I hold him accountable.

Now, imagine if the state legislature passes a law that says I have to take the damaged wood.  Moreover, I am expected to make furniture out of it that is of the same quality as the undamaged wood.  If I fail to produce a result of the same quality with both types of wood, the state has every right to shut down my business.  Could you imagine the outcry over such a law?

This is  the difference.  In my furniture shop, I can send back the damaged material.  At a public school, if a child shows up damaged, or becomes damaged at any point during his/her education, I am expected to teach this student and they are expected to produce the same result as an undamaged (or less damaged) child.  Even if that damage is the result of poverty, malnutrition, or something as simple as not being read to at home.  I don’t get to send the child back and ask for a “more teachable” one.  If I run a private or charter school, I do. But not in a public school.

I am not saying that I should be able to  “send the child back.”  I’m simply making the point that I cannot.   No business model or corporate approach to public schooling  is going to change that. Nor am I saying that a student should be in any way compared to raw materials.  The idea is absurd on its face–all the more reason why the business model isn’t applicable.

Consequently, it is much less clear how to measure “results” in a public school setting.  We could use standardized tests, which is the current political fad.   Assuming the test is valid–a question we should always ask, but rarely do–what will it tell us?  Journalist Allan Nairn has demonstrated that the SAT is not a valid predictor of college success.  High school grades–the reason the SAT was created because grades were supposedly inflated and unreliable–are a far more accurate predictor.  This is not to say the SAT is without value–it is excellent at predicting whether students will be white and middle to upper middle class, as that is the group that consistently scores the highest.

A few years, ago, Connecticut Attorney General (and current Senator-elect) Richard Blumenthal sued the federal government over the No Child Left Behind Act, claiming it was an unfunded mandate. If the state was expected to test more frequently, it  should be reimbursed by the federal government for the cost of the additional tests.  The former Secretary of Education, the appropriately named Margaret Spellings, informed Blumenthal that the problem could be solved if the state made their tests easier–part of the high cost was due to the “excessive rigor” of the test.

The message was clear: the quality of the test is not important, just the results.  The skills being tested are not what matter–only the numbers we can publish.  How is this in any way educationally valid?

It turns out that new Rupert Murdoch BFF Mr. Klein also caught a little heat for dumbing down his tests to show that “progress” was being made.  This is the sort of  “business minded”  thinking that also brought us derivatives and credit-deferred swaps.  The type of thinking that caused the huge financial meltdown which, as it turns out, contributed significantly to the poverty and unemployment that tends to plague our lowest performing school districts.

Oh, well.  I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.  By the way–who was held accountable for those actions?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ariel Pannenborg permalink
    November 23, 2010 7:23 pm

    Very interesting. Do you see any hope? Any solutions that you can see on the horizon? Does the Documentary (Waiting for Superman) help in your opinion?

  2. November 30, 2010 3:26 pm

    I do see hope–otherwise, there wouldn’t be any point in me continuing to do my job, and writing about it with the hope it will get better. I think a number of solutions do exist–a significant investment in early childhood education, preschool, and day care, but those are not politically viable at the moment. There are also a number of great teachers in the public schools doing amazing work (but rarely do films get made about them). These individuals give me hope. What I think would really help (and is more politically viable) is a model to improve schools that already exists, but no one talks about: magnet schools. Research has shown repeatedly that magnet schools improve student achievement, positively impact teacher morale, and do an effective job in preparing students for college and a career. An expansion of magnets would be relatively inexpensive, and likely improve public education by leaps and bounds. This model is not being examined because it still keeps education in the hands of the public schools and ergo the teacher unions. That’s why the current model is a) force expensive testing on the public schools b) close down or abandon public schools with low test scores c) use public money to ship students off to private and charter schools. This turns money spend by the public into privatized, for profit companies. Lots of people make money at the taxpayers expense, teacher benefits are reduced, and there is not one scrap of evidence that charter and private schools will improve student achivement. This is the reason I think “Waiting for Superman” will not help, but runs a real risk of making things worse. It’s an argument that the problem can be solved by charter schools, so it complements the current model quite nicely.

    This is why the discussion has to be changed– the status quo cannot be defended, so we need to look at reform models that work, and emphasize their importance and relatively low cost. If this cannot happen, then I am worried, becuase the really effective teachers may be driven from the profession.

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