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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 12/ 8/2010

A primer on (and problems with) market-based reform

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Anne Geiger, who served on the Orange County School Board in Orlando, Fl., from 2004-2008. A native of Virginia, she lives in Arlington and blogs at www.publicpolicyblogger.com, where this appeared. The words and sentences in bold were in the original post, not added by me. It is long but worth the time.

By Anne Geiger
Productivity, performance, efficiency, data, accountability, industry, market, marketplace, churn, competition, supply and demand, innovation, human capital, delivery system, customers, consumers, operators, managers, franchise, marketing, branding, leverage, risk, market share, profit....

Business vocabulary? Of course. But, the words also comprise the vocabulary of market-based education reform....

...As promoted by the "stars" of the movement, namely Bill Gates, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (now on her way to advise Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott)....Plus other influential players whom most Americans wouldn't know but can easily draw a crowd among the faithful, such as Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children's Zone; Joel Klein, soon-to-be former chancellor of New York City public schools; Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute; Andy Smarick, peripatetic former Bush administration official; Wendy Kopp of Teach for America; Richard Barth of KIPP charter schools (married to Wendy Kopp); Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot charter schools; Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute; Whitney Tilson, fund manager and director at Democrats for Education Reform and co-chair at KIPP NYC.......

There are more, but altogether they've become a powerful force (some say, social club) of market-based reformers, connected to deep pockets, media enterprises, think tanks and seats of political power. They don't work or speak in lockstep with one another and range in personality and tactics, but they generally share a market-based vocabulary and similar agenda for the improvement of public schools:

Their goal: Increasing the productivity of our public education system.

Their vocabulary, methods and strategies:

~Increase accountability and performance through standards (common core standards) and data (standardized test scores).
~Increase efficiency (teacher performance pay, elimination of tenure and compensation for advanced degrees, alternative certification, Teach for America, virtual schooling and on-line classes...) to increase productivity.
~Managers and operators to franchise choices (charter schools, school management companies, school turnaround companies) and school leaders to implement their agenda (Broad Superintendents Academy, Teach for America, New Teacher Project, George Bush's Alliance to Reform Education Leadership, Jeb Bush's National Summit on Education Reform...).
~Redefine human capital (teacher performance pay, alternate certification, Teach for America, mass firings...) to redefine the delivery of instruction and raise the stakes on performance (test scores).
~Develop business plans, including branding and marketing.
~Strategically locate franchises to grow markets.
~Strategically align with market-oriented partners in the for-profit and non-profit sectors to blanket media markets, business networks and political power bases with their vocabulary and agenda so that everyone is pressured to be on the same page and say that critics are backward, "protecting the status quo" and don't care about kids.
~Create needs (test preparation materials and computer programs, tests, scoring, data storage, etc.) to increase market share.
~Establish an education industry built around these markets.
~Leverage public money to implant the agenda and industry into the public education system to limit risk and increase profit and market share.
~Wrap it all up in a neat package with a pretty bow and tag that reads, "Putting kids first."

They tell Americans and the world that our public education system is failing. That to improve graduation rates and prepare our children for the 21st century, their goals must be reached and their methods and strategies must be implemented.

You have to hand it to them. Business savvy indeed. They know that Americans have a soft spot for free enterprise and will reliably perk up to a business vernacular. With their money, clout and media access, they're transforming the national dialogue and the terms by which we define and measure the success of our public schools, teachers and children.

But is it really in the best interests of our children? They say it is. Perhaps, but only in part. I do agree that, as a baseline, standards and standardized tests help teachers and administrators provide more consistent instruction, target weaknesses, identify individual learning needs and measure progress.

It is true that some children in some schools run by some of these reformers have benefited. And there is a partnering role for private industry in public education. But, on the whole and in the long run, I believe that big parts of their agenda are not in the best interests of our children.

As a former school board member, I do agree that it's important to employ good business practices in public school systems. So, I am very comfortable with the word "efficiency." It's important to use public dollars efficiently in construction and operational budgets. In the latter, efficiency in non-classroom areas ensures that maximum dollars are invested in the classroom.

Likewise, performance-based budgeting can be a helpful framework to define what programs, materials, etc. are most useful. However, there are limitations to using the business model.

While school districts should be operationally efficient and school-based administrators should use good management principles, public schools don't equate to businesses, as many outside the system and most of these reformers are apt to say. Businesses choose their markets and customers, and big business sends its customer service and production overseas. In our market economy, they function as competitors, seldom or never as collaborators. Generally speaking, they are driven by survival and profit.

Public schools are driven by something quite different.

They accept all children who cross their thresholds and are driven by meeting those children's educational needs. It's a fluid, overlapping process--day to day, month to month, year to year. Principals, teachers and support staffs (and families) work together to build communities of learning to educate all of the children in their care.

Since no child is the same (anyone who's a parent instinctively knows that), teaching him or her cannot fit into simple formulas or be measured in simple ways. There is much shifting, strategizing and innovating to meet all the diverse needs of students. To do it well requires more collaboration than competition. That's not to say there's no competition in and between classrooms or in and between schools. Healthy levels of competition provide the spark for everyone to work harder and better.

But this market-reform agenda takes that natural human motivator to another level entirely. And I don't think it's going to be healthy in the long run for our public education system or our children.

I also think these reformers are fooling themselves, the business community, families and our children to say their agenda is going to take us back to top international rankings. Their agenda is built primarily around standardized testing. They want to shift to thinly credentialed teachers and encourage high-stakes competition between schools, principals, teachers and students.

And it's spawning a growing private industry of charter schools, management companies and testing, teacher training, curriculum, textbook, software and virtual learning companies. It seems more destined to create an "education industry" that will turn our children more into market products prepared to take tests than educated human beings fully prepared for the 21st century workplace and our democratic society.

Hearing the word "productivity" over and over again from Secretary Duncan and his allies, I keep seeing images of factory, assembly line, mass production, interchangeable parts. Hearing so much emphasis on test scores from them and almost all of our elected leaders, I see too much uniformity, drills and rote learning. Neatly raised hands of children dressed neatly in uniforms sitting neatly in straight rows. I see a "market" of schools built on that uniformity that differ mainly in their packaging, thus fooling "customers" and "consumers" into thinking certain "choices" are better than they actually are. I see a burgeoning number of private companies, financed and "leveraged" with taxpayer money, earning hefty profits and paying their executives large salaries as this "education industry" grows.

I respect these reformers' dedication, but am troubled that they ignore or mischaracterize those who raise concerns about their agenda's unintended (or intended) consequences, narrow priorities and thinly-tested methods.

I resent that they say critics are protecting the status quo or just defending teachers' unions. If you ask anyone who knows me and my work in Orlando, they will tell you that I was not always popular with our teachers' union because of some of the efficiencies and academic reforms I approved. And, while I do support the place that unions and collective bargaining have in the workplace, my criticism is based mostly on what I believe is in the best interests of our children.

I know many teachers and school-based administrators through my experience as a school board member and parent. The vast majority are supreme professionals who consistently demonstrate great skill, knowledge and dedication to our children. Many are rightly concerned about this agenda.

As I wrote a few days ago, and on many other occasions, preparing our children for the 21st century is not teaching them to just take standardized tests. Standards should be the ceiling, not the floor. It bears repeating that.....

A public school should be...

...a community of learning that houses well-educated teachers who work creatively and collaboratively to educate students to be literate and able to communicate well, think intuitively, creatively, critically, flexibly and collaboratively, have a working knowledge of literature, history, math, science, physics, geography, civics and the arts, and ready to be engaged, informed citizens.

Technology has its important role to play in this dynamic kind of learning, but so do books, rich curriculum, hands-on materials and tools, real-life experiences and tangible skill-building.....for college, career and life.

There is some common ground between these reformers and their detractors, or at least I hope so, because we are at a critical crossroads. Their agenda is getting more and more embedded in our public education system and our national psyche. It's being driven by a mostly elite sector of our society who ignore peer-reviewed research and thoughtful essays that question the validity or usefulness of some of their reforms.

It's top-down and dismissive of the democratic foundations of public education. It's disparaging to the teaching profession and disturbingly cynical toward our traditional public schools where 85% of schoolchildren are enrolled.

And it's attempting to squeeze our children, our beautifully diverse children, into small, uniform boxes. Either their agenda must be rejected at a grassroots level or these reformers must reverse the following four negatives (plus other negatives such as the dismissing the effects of poverty on children and their agenda's role in resegregating our urban schools).

1- Measure success and progress of teachers and schools.....with standardized test scores only as a baseline......PLUS their use of teacher collaboration, mentoring, subject-area advancement, etc.....and science labs, physics labs, literature discussions, debating and demonstrations, math applications, civics exercises, original research and authorship, community service, tangible hands-on skills, fine and performing arts, instruction in geography, history, anthropology, ecology, etc.....that provide that range of knowledge and skills a child needs to be fully educated, motivated for lifelong learning and inspired to make a difference. This can only happen if funding and policy priorities shift away from standardized test scores as the singular measure of success and progress. To be consistent, these reformers should be looking COMPREHENSIVELY at public education just as most of them look at other public policy issues such as immigration and health care.

2. Respect the perspectives, experience, knowledge and wisdom of educators who know the everyday realities of teaching our beautifully diverse children. Incorporate their lens in building policies that make practical sense, authentically elevate the role of the classroom teacher and facilitate whole child learning.

3- Respect the voices and roles of families, neighborhoods and communities in making decisions on behalf of their children. Maintain the expectation that they value all children, and not just some, but respect the fact that we live in a democratic society and our public education system is built upon it.

4- Corporate reformers are smart and successful, but they need to be more humble and listen to their critics. They need to understand that their wealth, social prominence and political power do not automatically mean that they know better or make them education experts. They are tone deaf to the fact that their agenda has become, or appears to be, self-serving. Just as they ask for accountability for public schools, they should turn the mirror on themselves. It would go a long way if they acknowledged and addressed, with substance and respect, research and critiques that raise red flags and serious concerns about some of their reforms.

Our public education system is immense, complex and dynamic. The definition of reform is to strengthen what works and fix what doesn't. Approaches to both are not simple nor easy. These reformers claim that everything is broken. Not only are they wrong, but their narrow agenda and simplistic reforms may be destined to do the opposite of what they claim. These suggestions reflect my evolving perspective.

Many educators, administrators, school board members, parents and students have their own thoughts and ideas. It's time we're all included in the dialogue and the process. It's time these reformers stop saying their critics don't care about kids. We all want great schools and wonderful teachers for our children. We all want to move our public education system forward.

But critics of this reform agenda want to accomplish those goals with educators, not against them; with families, not against them....AND with wholeness, not shallowness; with authenticity, not gimmickry. It's essential now to rebuild trust, find common ground and accomplish those goals together. Frankly, it's the only way.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 8, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  andy smarick, arne duncan, checker finn, chester finn, democrats for education reform, dfer, fordham institute, geoffrey canada, green dot charter schools, harlem children's zone, jeb bush, joel klein, kipp, kipp schools, market-based reform, michael bloomberg, michelle rhee, richard barth, rick hess, rick scott, school reform, steve barr, wendy kopp, whitney tilson  
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Comments

Valerie you nailed at least a large portion of our needs...definition and communications. We cannot get to the other needs until we meet these two items first.

Looking at the phrases used by the stars, where is the word "learning?" If all they can describe is "teaching" then they might as well have a talking head in the classroom.

I see very little of the word "collaborate" in their language. If they didn't know subject matter for a book they would not hesitate to collaborate with an expert to get published. It seems as though they cannot get past the "how" to collaborate. They only know the word and a rough idea of what it means.

I read little to nothing about collaboration between elementary and secondary schools with universities and colleges. Here we have supposedly educated people standing around the room staring at the gorilla in the middle of the room.

I'm reminded of two blind men on different ends of an elephant. Each touches, smells, and hears the elephant. Both have totally different perspectives of the animal they touched and if asked they would describe two totally different animals when in fact it was a single elephant.

There is another phenomenon that worries me some. The idea that stars, business experts, and politicians will improve our education system. Would you buy a home hand built by Bill Gates? Could our President paint the ceiling of a chapel to match any one of those in Rome? Would you ask Jeb Bush for medical advice? Then why are parents abdicating control based on their statements/activity/money? They have their fame and fortune, but it ends there. I do want them involved, but I don't like the idea parents are just claiming these folks as the next "Superman" they seem to be waiting on.

Posted by: educ8er | December 8, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

"Cheaper by the Dozen"......anyone remember that book? It was based on the true story of EFFICIENCY expert - of the early 20th century - F. Gilbraith, originally a bricklayer. Father of 6 boys and 6 girls, he is one of the minds, along with the business community at large, responsible for spreading the efficiency model for society:
Egg-carton schools (ever wonder why classrooms are designed all in rows on either side of one corridor?) and the tiny gallery kitchens that meant a woman could have everything within her cooking reach - never mind sacrificing the family-gathering comfort of the old farm kitchen - to name but two innovations from that period of the industrialization/efficiency movement.

Please wake up people: efficiency and the business model are not new events in this country, and we shouldn't have to be recycling very old lessons of factory models to make the most of 'little products' otherwise known as children.

History, anyone? Well, if the agenda continues to discourage schools from retaining older teachers (the bearers of institutional memory) with a preference for young teachers who have 5 weeks of training, I guess we will have to keep learning the hard way by ignoring lessons of the past.

And, by the way, I am not against the smart, efficient use of resources, another argument altogether.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 8, 2010 8:03 AM | Report abuse

In case anyone notices it, a phrase in this piece is supposed to be (obviously)..."standards should be the floor, not the ceiling." It's been corrected on my blog.

Anne Geiger
http://www.publicpolicyblogger.com/

Posted by: AWCG | December 8, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

Knew what you meant Anne.

Posted by: educ8er | December 8, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

While all the perpetrators have been tagged out, again, in this convenient guide, what have the others---ya know, the Ed PhDs, professors, ed. historians, former Ed Dept. officials, teachers and teachers unions, and career administrators--done to bring needed change to public schools? At least the "industrialists" are attempting to right the wrongs created, or ignored, by the traditionalists, who resist almost every change from the sorry status quo.

Posted by: axolotl | December 8, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Sarah,

Your claim about "Ed PhDs, professors, ed. historians, former Ed Dept. officials, teachers and teachers unions, and career administrators" is just wrong. Here's one of many reform ideas that obviously contradicts your position: professional learning communities. If the stuff that I read regularly is to be believed, it did not come from people outside the education community.

I know that amphibians have the ability to regrow lost limbs, but I don't think they can regrow a brain that has atrophied. Good luck with that.

Posted by: DHume1 | December 8, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Dave,
I inadvertently struck a nerve and upset you, and I apologize. Of the miscreants cited, I surmise you must have an Ed. PhD. That is an honorable, hard earned credential, and I hope you deliver all of your intellectual promise and management prowess to the community. Make us proud, DHume1.

I have never heard of "professional learning community" as a term of art, but its thrust has been common in the training and ed. fields for years. You can lay claim to it for the ed. community, though. But it is about as impressive as NASA still ballyhooing that Tang and Velcro are proud products of the [intergalactically wasteful] space program.

Posted by: axolotl | December 8, 2010 7:53 PM | Report abuse

My Mucus-Skinned Neighbor,

Nope, no nerve has been stuck or plucked or singed. However, if it makes you feel better, then you can imagine that it happened. I never took you for a sadist, but even I can be wrong sometimes.

And surmise all you want. I know you utterly love conjuring images of me with various job titles attached to my resume--I hope it stops there. I suppose it helps you formulate your arguments because it is an argumentation trope that you employ quite frequently. Try branching out; you're starting to sound like cliched copies of your last posts.

Well--and it pains me to admit this--I agree with you somewhat about professional learning communities. However, I think a little stasis is needed here: My point wasn't about what is good or bad or just there, but what has been done. And the fact that it has been done does refute your position.

By the way, I wonder where those industrialists got those crazy schemes they are pushing down our throats from. It would be really bad for your argument if they came from "Ed PhDs, professors, ed. historians, former Ed Dept. officials, teachers and teachers unions, and career administrators." Really bad.

Posted by: DHume1 | December 8, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

DHume1,
It's struck, not stuck.
You must have been a high school debater (like me), but not a very good one, based on double-secret logic analysis.
And you've practiced with one too many vocab cards. SATs are over. This is life, Dave. And the crisis in public education is dire. You gotta try harder to help resolve it.

Posted by: axolotl | December 8, 2010 9:54 PM | Report abuse

Dear Neotenic, Cold-Blooded Organism,

Sorry about the mistake with struck and stuck. But it happens when I type sometimes. I'm a fast one-handed typer.

Never been in any form of debate club in college or high school, so I guess I've never been a good one, bad one or "one" of any kind. Don't give up, though. Perhaps one day you'll succeed with your mental mindgame musings.


Posted by: DHume1 | December 8, 2010 11:32 PM | Report abuse

I hate to interrupt, but "the crisis in public education is dire"? There is no crisis in education, but insisting that there is one makes it much easier to implement really dumb policies just because they're new. There have been cries of a crisis in education ever since the early 1900s, each one producing policy changes that have inevitably failed by the time the next "crisis" arises.

The middle and upper class kids who have always done just fine in public schools are still doing just fine, and the kids who have real difficulties (economic, learning, social, behavioral) are still struggling. The real problem is that decent jobs that a high school graduate could support a family on have dried up or become low-wage dead ends. But we can't address that issue if all we focus on is who's responsible for the "crisis" this time around.

Posted by: bhorn1 | December 9, 2010 12:49 AM | Report abuse

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