[Edited by the author]
No employee of the public school systems in the U.S. can escape the hovering shadow of the "No Child Left Behind" legislation, the updated "Race to the Top" competition and the limited educational reform funds of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, while struggling with increasingly huge multi-million dollar school budget deficits in the "recovering" economy of the new millennium and simultaneously facing more crushing poverty and intense social issues in our communities than at any other time since the Great Depression. Meanwhile we hear the constant cries of "why can't schools be run more like businesses?" Well, Secretary of Education Duncan, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools for seven years, and your cohorts, here are some reasons why.
The first conundrum is the perennial question of whether our students are "workers" or "customers"?? If we use the worker model, is their "pay" their grades at the end of the quarter or semester? Would any of us be satisfied with only two or four paychecks a year, and salaries that we can't spend on any tangible goods at all? Or are we more heartless and consider students a part of the factors of production in an economic sense? If so, what are they "producing" for the GDP? If they are customers, what are they "buying" from us? Since students really can't leave and enter the market place at will because state laws keep them in schools till a certain age, whether they succeed or not, they obviously aren't "customers" in a true business sense. So we don't have clear answer here by any means.
In addressing the business model paradigm directly again, let's use the economic terms like supply and demand in the market place, for example. If students are the "supply" side of the equation, we have some simple discrepancies from the business model- we can't control the quality of our "raw materials" in the public schools. I, as a public school educator, don't have the pure and perfect ingredients to bake the same identical golden- brown, three dozen perfectly formed and delicious blueberry "muffins", for example every year in every class that I teach. The "great democratizer" of our society must educate one and all, no matter what the deficiencies or shortcomings of those "raw materials" we enroll, the students. If a student can't write their own name properly or speak five words of English, we as educators must equalize the gap between disparate students quickly or face fines and severe penalties, such as mass teacher firings or neighborhood school closings. If your family moves say five times in the first three years of your public education, teachers are still expected to have you perform at the same level and in math and reading as your fellow students in a more stable home setting. Is any other business asked to do so much with so few consistent resources and muddled "mission statements"? Can an educational format that nurtures and supports individual creativity and innovation in the new century be created in a factory-line, mechanized style environment, like the famous factory model of Henry Ford, with high stakes testing for all? Was that a successful human development model in the past?
Perhaps, the similarities lie at the upper echelons of the decision-making tiers of our robust, executive-styled production systems. May I borrow from the TQM (Total Quality Management) system? If the school district's high school graduation rates begin to flag at the rate of one million drop outs a year, according to the March 17, 2010 Time article on education, we can blame the principals and district administrators, because, after all, they have SO MUCH to do with reading, writing and math instruction in the classroom. Just like blaming the CEO of BP for the oil spill in the Gulf- we could agree that while he is ultimately responsible, is it also fair to ask if he was directly tied to the lack of a "worst case scenario" emergency response to the disaster or the warning system that wasn't even turned on at the well at the time? Or does the public demand that someone take the blame at the upper levels based on past historic practices, so for example, if my vehicle's brakes or accelerator were to malfunction, I should demand the firing of the CEO? If the "job" of producing a well-rounded, efficient responsible worker and citizen isn't completed to the current "specs" in thirteen years, someone has to be fired or the entire system needs to be revamped from the simplistic agrarian model of the 18th century. I would ask, after the "disaster" of student non-graduation, how does this option of firing a principal or school superintendent "fix" the student who now can't read, balance a checkbook, or even get a decent job?
Meanwhile, we also expect the public educator to instill proper values, like honesty, empathy, and a work ethic as part of the "character education" movement, and to teach current events, like the collapse of Wall Street, Merrill Lynch, and the dishonesty of "K Street", while combating childhood obesity, crusading for a "greener", sustainable environment, answering all parent complaints and inquiries, and coaching two or three after school activities a week after school, as if they had no children of their own to raise. Now, none of these ideas are lacking in merit or support from teachers- we constantly strive to do all of these programs, adding new initiatives and programs every school year, without removing any from years past, whether successful or not. And when do these robotic teachers correct the assigned ten page or more research papers and plan next week's lessons? Every weekend, of course, because they are salaried at taxpayer expense, with fairly constant freezes for pay raises over the last decade or more, just like our Congressmen and Congresswomen (kidding). Add the demand by the local educational system to learn continuously evolving technology programs and applications, emergency response programs for evacuation, epidemics and potential school shootings and the CEUs (continuing educational units) to keep their professional licensures over the "summers off" and you have the recipe for the current teacher drop-out rate of 50% in the first three years. (Of course, a starting pay that doesn't even match that of the recently high school-diplomaed U.P.S. driver that delivers my packages probably doesn't help teacher retention rates either.)
Simply put, education is not a "product" in the economic sense and students are not our "customers". They are not free to enter and leave the market place and aren't paying for a "service." I need my students to retain vast amounts of knowledge in many diverse disciplines and master numerous skills. I need to worry if they have eaten breakfast or had a warm place to sleep last night- not the way a business would care for its workers or customers for that matter, right? Customers in the real market place are not tested, tracked, remediated, and even failed and they don't have to please the businesses they patronize. A customer's attendance and behavior isn't tracked and they don't have on-site counselors or school social workers. And while charter schools began as a way to have "competition" in the market place, allowing the local parents a "choice" for their students, none locally in my metropolitan area has successfully met the challenges of the current educational setting for a continuous two decades and the majority have failed because they can't compete or profit financially, given the value of the school voucher of the state per pupil ratios and the fact that their directors want higher salaries. Realistically, public schools can't make a profit- they can't even break even. A straight-forward cost/benefit analysis from the capitalist business model would say that you should "pull the plug" on these non-profit generating schools, unless you adhere to the current social philosophy of the cold hard fact that cost per pupil per year is much less expensive than cost per prisoner in the alternative penal rehabilitation system.
To play the "devil's advocate", perhaps we should look at advantages of the actual business model, like the R&D that would be dedicated TO education. Think of the millions of dollars a year a single company, like Apple, spends on R&D annually. What if we did explore the potentials of alternative holistic, integrated educational methods that prepare students directly for work, the military, pro-active citizenship, or even successful child-rearing? When is the last time you heard of a NEW teaching and learning program that would revolutionize the way our students learn and perform? We still teach reading, writing, math, history, science, arts, physical education, health, and thinking skills, it is just that now we teach at a technological level unknown in the 17th century. Spending in general, is an interesting topic for education internationally. The United Nation's Human Development Programme reported data for 2000-2002, Cuba, for example, spends 18.7% of its GDP on education, compared to the U.S.'s 5.7%. Even Mongolia spends 9% of its GDP on education (source
Consider also that the revenue base for our "company" is not stable. Most school districts have been facing multi-million dollar deficits, numerous forced closings of neighborhood schools, overcrowded classrooms and few classroom resources while the current business employer demands a computer literate set of students, who are independent problem-solvers and trouble-shooters, in a global, increasingly interdependent outsourced work economy. We haven't really seen or heard this sense of imminent societal and cultural doom in so many circles in my lifetime since the beginning of MAD in the Cold War era. We must ask: are the students today less capable? Are the graduation requirements more strenuous? Have actual failing or less efficient educational conditions changed? Is mandated testing the answer? Are the current federal, state, and local mandates "fixing" the problems that the infamous 1983 "Nation at Risk" report identified? Does spending more concentrated money on certain subjects areas make better students or schools? How have any of these public school students, like Michelle (nee Robinson) Obama, managed to gain admission to an Ivy League school at all?
Let's "follow the money" from the Recovery Act Funding for one state, Minnesota.
The State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF), a one-time appropriation of $ 53.6 billion
under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, as of July 26, 2010 had
awarded $816,489,174 in funds to Minnesota for the following:
$ 94 million for Title I funds (those failing inner-city schools)
$205 million in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) funds
$ 6 million in Education Technology grants
$7.7 million in Vocational Rehabilitation funds
$2.2 million on Independent Living services funds
$691,988 in McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance funds
$232 million in Pell Grants (for college students)
$3.9 million in Work-Study Funds (also for college students).
Simple subtraction of the total $551.4 million allocated leaves $265 million left without specific earmarking at this point in time. If this money were theoretically and democratically divided equally across the 519 school districts in Minnesota, each district would receive about $510,000. Compare that to the fact that the Minneapolis Public School District alone faces a projected $19 million deficit for the 2010-11 school year.
Even the former educational reform advocate Diane Ravitch who enthusiastically supported NCLB has published her recantation this year, subtitled How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. Her forty years of research, writing, lecturing and advising led her to the conclusion that federal intervention isn't the panacea that bureaucrats had hoped for. While a set of national standards in all curricular areas pre-K-12 may be a starting point, do they match the post-secondary world that our students will enter in a relevant way? Is it more important to know the day, month, and year that the Japanese attacked at Pearl Harbor or the reasons why they felt compelled to act and whether there are similar conditions in areas of the world today leading to potential attacks on the U.S., her citizens abroad, or her allies?
How about the marketing aspect of the school "business?" The only marketing that we've been asked to do is that of selling senior class rings by a local monopoly, T-shirts for a multiplicity of causes, soda drinks to the captive athletes missing supper for after school practices and local businesses advertising on the canvas banners at the football stadium, gymnasium walls, and programs. When is the last time you saw positive advertising for your local high school instead of the anti-raise my taxes promo during the current legislative or Congressional campaign? After all, the public charges, education "wastes" the tax dollars that they are given in good faith and need to "show some accountability." (The same kind of accountability of a Bernie Madoff is not the answer here.) Instead, all secondary students are now charged hundreds of dollars each for "activity fees" for the sports and after school activities we once enjoyed as students ourselves for "free." Every field trip has a fee, even if to the local museum for enhanced learning activities, and bringing a growing list of hygiene and writing supplies to elementary school in the fall is a necessity, not a luxury. If not, many teachers dip into their own pockets to the tune of more than the allowed annual federal itemized deduction, to provide some of those items for their students and classrooms, without "advertising" that fact during numerous parent-teacher conferences.
Arne Duncan, our current Secretary of Education, calls the "Race to the Top" a "quiet revolution" (July 28, 2010). "This quiet revolution is driven by motivated parents who want better educational options for their children. It's being driven by educators and administrators who are challenging the defeatism and inertia that has trapped generations of children in second-rate schools." I believe by these statements that Duncan himself admits that he is a product of the second-rate system that "trapped" him as he was educated in Chicago, as he helped his Mom tutor disadvantaged students after school for a year, before he went to Harvard and now "traps" his own two children in the public school system in Arlington, Virginia. Where's the "revolution"? The "No Child Left behind" model still tests a student's rote and memory skills on the "standards tests" that aren't standard from state to state and have teacher-centered instruction to drill those students we care not to "leave behind." Is this true reform or even learning?
Duncan also says in the same press release: "We think the students that will benefit the most from higher standards are disadvantaged students." We THINK????!!!!! After all these years of demanding solid, quantifiable data from schools and school districts, the government's top education official thinks the disadvantaged might benefit? Where is his substantive proof? Why are so many Title I schools failing AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) criteria? Does the same "business" model allow for another glaring contradiction? "One-sized-fits-all remedies from the federal government don't work. In fact, one-sized-fits-all remedies tend to stifle creativity at the local level," states Secretary of Education Duncan. Wait? Where does local level creativity come in? Aren't we "standardizing" students by testing them in "Common Core State Standards" at fourth, eighth and twelfth grade levels nationally? Isn't the government indirectly telling school districts to teach to the tests in order to be successful as an institution and to be able to continue to receive federal monies? Isn't this the dreaded "one-sized fits all" solution after all? How does this serve our precious students, our struggling communities, or our nation's future? These are some of the reasons why the American Association of School Administrators, the National Education Association, the National Conference of Black Legislators and Teachers for Social Justice from Chicago are opposed to NCLB. Meanwhile President Obama vigorously supports the "reforms" telling the National Governors Association Meeting on February 22, 2010: "We want to figure out what works, and we want to make sure that we are giving you the support and resources that you need to implement what works." (Again, the open acknowledgement that the administration is still figuring out what to do with the "business" of education). Are you worried now? At least asking some crucial questions about how billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent?
In order to run the new schooling bureaucracy of government "reform," we have the Institute of Education Sciences, whose stated purpose is to: "study educational reforms driven by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" (www.ies.ed.gov). Here is a parallel to standard business project management. The "Common Core State Standards" are assessed at the fourth, eighth and twelfth grade levels. Reports are issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (nces.ed.gov/nations report) with a "framework developed" by the National Assessment Governing Board. The Board is composed of 26 members, including the governor of Georgia, a pharmacist, a commercial real estate developer, and a consultant in museum development. Isn't this like asking emergency room patients to determine the correct life-saving protocols for the doctor at the local hospital? Sure, we've been to the ER for services ourselves and waited for hours but that doesn't qualify us with the expertise to set practice or medical policy and I can't think of any ailing patient who would want us to do so. Why are these blatant political practices tolerated in education? By their own published statistical admission, the national standards testing "experiment" isn't working. For the Midwestern states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, scores from 1996-2005 have declined or remained the same for science, math, reading and writing for fourth and eighth graders. Declined? How many years of decline will the public support? Weren't all of these reforms aimed at raising test scores?
Assisting these auspicious groups is the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development (www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/opepd/reports.html), charged with the collection of NCLB accountability data. Their statements read: "in 2006-07, 20% of the Title I schools (10,781 schools) were identified for improvement, and 53% of these schools were located in 1% of the nation's Title I districts (177 districts). Among schools that did not meet AYP in 2005-06, 55% missed targets for either the school as a whole or for multiple student subgroups. …In 2006-07, required interventions occurred in most, but not all, Title I schools in improvement or corrective action. However, most Title I schools in restructuring status did not experience any of the specific interventions named in the law." WHY NOT??? No explanation is given. Were the students moved? The schools closed? Is it because the student sub-groups are so small that statistical improvement means one more of the twenty in the student sub-group demographic at the individual school passed the reading test than last year?
How many "bosses" does this top-heavy organization need? Would any corporation have a local boss, community boss, state boss, national boss who also has a delegation of bosses. My friends who work in the business field tell me that this is a "top-heavy" business model that would never survive, be efficient or profitable in a capitalist market. So why does government and business support this type of structure for education? How do these multiple bosses effectively and efficiently coordinate all of the mandates and recommendations for every subject level and teacher? How do they sort which of the many variables is the one that requires attention?
Another pressing issue is that of: "most states will not meet NCLB's goal of 100% proficiency in 2013-14 unless student achievement increases at a faster rate." If I may be so bold as to ask: is ANY business expected a 100% success rate in any of their product or service lines? Which business in the U.S. has a 100% safety rating for any year? Or a 100% perfection level for a manufactured good off the assembly line for even a quarter of the fiscal year? Or a 100% attendance rate for that matter? And which mid-sized company in the U.S. has its CEO work for $280,000 annually without any stock bonuses or perks? Is the business metaphor only used when it is convenient and not when problematic? The main problem, of course, is that you are never comparing the same student's performance across his or her educational career for these assessments, you are comparing different students every year, defying the common sense scientific experimental approach with a control group and the same test subjects longitudinally to measure accurately for success or failure over time. We actually compare last year's orange crop to this year's apple crop and no one in the testing enterprise says the emperor has no clothes on out loud.
As of the end of July, 2010, only one Midwestern state has qualified for "Race to the Top" funds- ironically, it is Illinois. That doesn't mean that Illinois will receive the money, as they still have to present their plan and compete against the other qualifying states and the District of Columbia for the money to be distributed. But will it be too little too late? And what about the successful school districts who chose not to pursue the funds that hog-tie them to mounds of federal paperwork and testing that is substandard to their current local testing models? They are portrayed as "enemies of the state" in their failure to grasp the brilliance of the new educational reforms and the no child left untested federal model.
The reality is that schools aren't businesses for all of these reasons and then some, and those of us "in the trenches" know that. How much more evidence is needed for the public and the government to accept the reality of a failed reform? We attempt miracles every day in our classrooms, inspiring, cajoling, motivating, entertaining, mentoring, modeling, tutoring, caring for, and yes, even teaching our students. I propose that it's not about adding more Math and Science, but adding Morals and Cooperative Socialization on all sides of the education equation. Why can't we pragmatically "reform" these legislative failures to achieve the real educational objectives of the 21stcentury, instead of building another "bridge to nowhere"?