Friday, May 04, 2007

A thought...

The company I interviewed with yesterday is working on promoting and licensing this out to various businesses. Looking briefly at what it's all about, I thought that public school administration and staff would benefit from exploring this idea. Then I had a thought and I wanted to see what the Internets would think about my thought...

What if public education were run like a business?

I asked Maura what she thought about my thought. Let me know what you think.

5 comments:

Maura said...

I think treating public education like business is a bad idea. I certainly thing treating teachers a valued professionals is important, but comodifying it is dangerous. In fact, I think NCLB has kind of done that with it's constant, standarized evaluation and assessment of the productivity of both its employees (teachers) and consumers (kids).

And, in fact, part of NCLB allows for businesses to take over failing schools and from what I read that strips away everything but the bottom line - do the kids know who we fought in WWII? Good. Do they understand why that war was fought, see if from other perspectives, or care to make sure that something like that doesn't happen again? Uh...

I think that education is a institution totally unique to all others we are familiar with, yet we are constantly trying to improve it by forcing it into some existing mold.

BEH said...

I agree, to a point. Education presents its own set of challenges; it is a universe unto itself. You can see the fallacy of the business model by actually applying the business model to the question. Say you had a furniture factory; what if the "factory" were required to work with every single piece of lumber that came through the door, regardless of the type or quality? And what if the factory were required to take that lumber, whether it was straight-grained, clear oak boards or random sizes of knotty pine sticks, and turn it into chairs of equal beauty, strength. and quality? And what if the factory had to keep working with the same varied types and qualities of lumber, year after year, with no ability to look for other sources of material, but was still expected to improve the quality of its chairs year after year? And, just to really roll with this for a second, what if the pieces of lumber were constantly arguing with the carpenters and each other, and jumping off of the workbenches and running around, and complaining about being assembled into chairs, and making smart remarks about the carpenters under their breath (or to the carpenter's faces, for that matter)? And what if the lumber's parents were constantly calling and e-mailing the carpenter and questioning (both directly and indirectly) whether the carpenter is really a good carpenter, and announcing that it is obviously solely the carpenter's fault that their little piece of lumber is not becoming a beautiful, strong, well-made chair, because CLEARLY the carpenter is/is not challenging the lumber enough/too much, and the lumber NEVER runs around or makes smart remarks at home, and is this the carpenter's first time working with this kind of lumber, because all of this lumber's other carpenters have been WONDERFUL, and no, the parents have never built anything out of lumber, but that doesn't matter because they know THEIR piece of lumber and if the carpenter had any kind of skill at all he would see that their piece of sh--of LUMBER would be an EXCELLENT chair if the carpenter knew what he was doing, although clearly the lumber really shouldn't be a chair at all, the lumber obviously should be a dining room table because it's such a better piece of lumber than all the others in the factory . . . .

Clearly this wouldn't work, because, aside from a few specimens that all of us who have taught school can think of, children are quite different from pieces of lumber. Add to this wildly over-extrapolated metaphor the fact that a) the pieces of lumber are simultaneously being transformed, by different carpenters, into a chair, a dining room table, a bookshelf, a desk, and one of those little golf-tee games you find at Cracker Barrel, and b) the students are both the consumers of the product and the product itself, and the business model falls over like a tree in an empty forest. (Sorry, had to get one more in there.)

But here's the point where Maura and I part ways (unless she has already read halfway down the previous paragraph and decided, "Enough's enough--I'm outta here, Tree-Boy"). Because even though the business model as a whole doesn't fit very well, there are parts of it that, with a little adaptation, could do wonders for our educational system. I'm thinking, for example, of the novel idea of paying good teachers more than bad teachers, with the goal of enticing the good ones to stay and the bad ones to get out. And yes, I know that the questions of what constitutes a "good" or a "bad" teacher and who decides which is which are up for very lively debate, but I'd rather have that debate than sit around and watch the status remain quo. Because the current situation means that people like Val, who (whom? See, I need a good grammar teacher like her) the system desperately needs, are getting out, and any number of burnouts (name 5 at your school, I know you can do it in 10 seconds or less) are marking time until retirement and dragging their students down with them.

That, my friend, is bad business.

Jeremy said...

You didn't ask me, but here it is anyway.

The problem I have with Maura's reasoning is that school is *already* commodified. Walk into a school and tell me you don't see a bland building with a lot of rooms that all look pretty similar. The education system micromanages the way teachers instruct, the things students learn, and the way administrators run the place to guarantee predictability, regimentation, and sameness. The ugly truth is that schools were designed in the 19th century to provide education with the same "commodification" that had occurred in other areas of life, all asked for by industry. To say school is not a commodity just because there's not a *market* in it is false.

The distinguishing feature of a market is competition. But you can't have competition within the government, because rewards are not based on merit (schools have been trying for decades to tie money to performance, it's never worked because the metrics just get fudged).

A point to think about: if we're talking about applying market principles to schooling, we are necessarily talking about changing the way education is done drastically. We have to be open to such a radically different vision of what education means and how it would be accomplished that comparing it to the present system is meaningless. So arguing that education is a unique endeavor with special challenges is besides the point - we're positing a complete refashioning, for good or for ill, of what it *means* to educate students in this thought experiment.

For my part, I believe in a complete separation of state and education, because we can't know the most effective way to educate without entrepreneurship and innovation in education - the kinds of innovations and developments that have occurred in other industries over the last 100 years. Notice I'm not talking about "privatizing" schools, which really amounts to handing out gov't contracts to favored parties. We don't need a "education industrial complex". I'm talking about imagining education as something done in a variety of ways, ways we might find fascinating and ways we might not even agree with. The key is trusting parents (or maybe students) instead of the government to decide what the best way is. Many don't like that idea, but usually because of ideological baggage.

It's gotta be worth a try - we've gone as far as we can in gov't schools.

jeremy said...

I'd just like to say that, even though I'm in favor of a truly free market in education, and I look forward to educational entrepreneurship and innovation, I find the analogy of schools with factories utterly repulsive.

No doubt they were designed to be factories, but no parent would freely choose that kind of commodification of spirit for their child. I'd rather be in favor of a type of mutual aid, where communities with shared values work together to provide children with mentors who oversee students self-direct their own learning. I think that would be the most successful approach for most families most of the time, but again, there's not way of KNOWING that without a market.

Sorry if I hogged your comment space here. This is something I feel passionately about after reading "The Underground History of American Education". If you want to know how we got here, read that book - you'll see that schools aren't in some dismal state through error or mismanagement, but rather that they were designed to be exactly like they are by industrial magnates who saw these children as "human resources" to be commodified, rationalized, and provided to industry in a consumable form.

ALF said...

isn't the point of no child left behind to run schools like a business? You cut funding to schools that are bad...just like businesses that are bad would lose money and be forced to close.