Education Reform: Too Big to Succeed

I'm a devoted follower of Diane Ravitch's blog. She is a tireless aggregator and a commentator on the various aspects of the misguided attempt, through law, to "reform" American education. She posts 7-10 times a day every day, good news and bad, what is happening on the ground as a result of national politicians and state legislators dictating policy and funding for public educational institutions from pre-k through higher ed. It seems to me that the reformers, who are successful businessmen first, want to apply their principles for success in the free market to education. Here are their guiding principles as I understand them and why I believe they are failing:

Disruption Is Good
It is no surprise that Bill Gates, who made his fortune through "disruptive" technological change, supports disruption on established institutions. His outsize influence comes from all the funding he has poured into backing programs that have proven to be destructive. This includes slash and burn closings of public schools that have been deemed failures to be replace by charter upstarts. So how's that working for us? In the all-charter Recovery School District of New Orleans the new schools have now been shown to be largely ineffective. The chickens are also coming home to roost in Chicago. Just read these posts enumerating one failed program after another.

Bear in mind that disruption for children is damaging. Children thrive in secure environments and closing schools willy, nilly and opening new replacements creates a lot of collateral damage for students.

Business people believe that disruption opens up opportunities for entrepreneurs and everyone gains from innovation and new enterprises--fodder for the business equivalent of natural selection. I am an example of this. Seven years ago, when I learned that the Common Core Standards require that students read an increased amount of nonfiction, I saw an opening for the genre I've been working in for many years. Children's nonfiction literature has long been considered a stepchild by the children's book industry. So I six years ago I started an organization of award-winning children's nonfiction authors to promote our genre in the classroom, thinking that people would pay more attention to a group of us rather than to any one singular successful author. Our mission is to introduce the educational community to a largely overlooked and underutilized resource of excellent material. Indeed, we are starting to gain traction. However, since I am not a business person, I have failed to figure out how to make money from this enterprise so we have recently reorganized to become a nonprofit. Meanwhile, I watched with (a tinge of envious) dismay as some established education companies took advantage of the disruption to make out like bandits.

Accountability Is Essential

If you read the CCSS, they describe the behavior of an educated person who can read, write, speak, listen and compute. It is important to note that there is no curriculum, i.e. no content, attached to the standards. The focus is on skills, not learning anything in particular in disciplines. Indeed, in the focus on learning skills, it seems disciplines like science and social studies have taken a back seat. In the creation of the standards, state governors decided to collaborate instead of compete with each other to eliminate the variability in the preparedness of workers from state to state. Hence the insistence on the really bad idea of a standardized test to so that everyone has to measure up to the same (higher) bar.

This has proven to be a bonanza for the testing companies, like Pearson. Since school and teacher grades are attached to student performance on tests, all kinds of unforeseen and extremely damaging side effects have come into play. If you're curious, there's a lot to read on Diane's blog.

Interestingly, school ratings from these tests are totally predictable from the socio-economic demographics of the school district. It's not that accountability isn't important. It's that the high-stakes standardized test is nothing more than a huge monkey wrench, counterproductive to improving educational outcomes. I wrote a post about the effect of excessive testing on the next generation of teachers in Florida who don't know what education without testing looks like. There are many other ways to measure the effectiveness of a teacher or of a school.

Cutting Costs Leads to Profits

Behind the effort to privatize public education through vouchers and charter schools is the assumption that free-market businesses, which thrive on competition, get the job done more efficiently. Efficiency means greater productivity therefore, greater profits. It also means cutting costs. Since a costly item in school budgets is teacher salaries, why not eliminate staff and substitute online resources? There are lots of posts on this very bad idea. In fact, using school budgets as a piggy bank for state budgets seems to be further eroding high-quality education. I find the whole idea of the private sector investing in schools to make money distasteful, especially when you see how little funding actually ends up in the classroom and how it invites corruption on many levels. There is also the disturbing notion that each child is a product profit center but not all children are equal; some are more profitable than others (read poor children), thus ripe for exploitation.

Scaling Up; More Is the New More

More money is made when a product is scaled up. To the education business community this means the more copies of a product you can sell, the more you make. (This runs counter to the online culture where copies cost nothing, the supply is unlimited and the price is zero.) This can be applied to the production of text books and tests, which is why, in the attempt to be all things to all students, these materials are banal and uninspiring. It does not apply to the classroom experience, which is the one thing that can't be scaled up. The quality of this experience for each individual child depends on a number of variables: family life, parental support, breakfast, the culture of the classroom, other children, the relationship with the teacher, class size, etc. The classroom is the ultimate retail experience, one small boutique in an immense cottage industry mandated to serve all children. That is its strength but only if there is a professional teacher in the room with funding for instructional resources.

The bottom line is that high-quality education cannot be scaled up in the business sense. It is only as good as the quality of the professionals who deliver it classroom by classroom. Running education on a business model is destroying the heart of its intended purpose for society as well as for the individual. It will, in effect, become the demise of our democratic values.