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