Wrong Assumptions Corporate Reformers Make about Public Education

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It’s become fashionable for people like me—those who participated in public education (thirty-three years teaching English to junior and senior high students as well as significant union activism) and followers of what the outside world thinks about it—to bash what we regularly refer to as “corporate reform.”  And to be perfectly clear right from the start, we are totally right to be bashing what’s behind that label since it has impeded educational progress.  Too often, however, some let that label do all the talking without making sure that everyone understands exactly what’s specifically wrong with these programs.  We (like most humans) want things to be as easy as possible and tend to assume those to whom we are trying to communicate know exactly what we mean, or—much worse and probably even more common with bloggers—we arrogantly assume that because you know how awesome and righteous we are that you will simply take our opinions as your own without much consideration.  And that has led to the walled off world we tend to see on-line, where people only read things with which they know they will agree.  Sadly, this leads to the kind of “source contaminated” bias many of us have against anything coming from, say Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow (Yes, that dichotomy seems way unfair to Rachel from my perspective, which shows you what kind of stuff I generally read).  The main place where you find “debate” occurs in the comments section or on Twitter feeds, and we all know how those often degenerate into name-calling, mindless attacks, and stereotyping.   This, however, isn’t a plea for more nuanced and courteous communication, useful though that might be.  Instead, I want to be sure that it’s clear why there is so much mistrust and resistance to this movement by pointing out the problems with the various different programs/laws/innovations that the “corporate reformers” (which tends to be the code for “billionaire philanthropists”) are trying to institute in/legislate for/force on our public schools.

This will be a series, necessarily, since there are so many who believe they have the answers to public education issues, but if you click on only one link that I’m going to be citing here (because you’re foolishly ignoring my warning against just assuming anyone is completely trustworthy when it comes to subjective issues), please check out this one, “High schools don’t need a redesign,” written by Jack Schneider.  In it he reviews the incorrect assumptions that have led Lauren Powell Jobs (Steve’s widow) to fund an educational reform movement/project to redesign American high schools from scratch.  In doing so, he insightfully sums up the mistakes most reformers make when charging ahead with their programs.  Understand his key points and you will see why making schools better has to be approached school-by-school, with an emphasis on making sure teachers are allowed to take the lead on how innovations, ideas, technology, and philosophies are incorporated into their classrooms.

I’ll review the errors of Jobs according to Schneider later, but his general points apply to many who believe to know best how to “fix” public education.  First he demolishes the given from which most reformers begin: That schools are totally static entities which haven’t changed in the last 100 years.  Not all reformers are as blunt in that statement as Jobs’s group.  The underlying belief, though, is that whatever the reformers in charge went through in their school experiences mirrors exactly what today’s kids are going through too.  Schneider points out this assumption (that since classes are still being led by teachers in school buildings means education hasn’t changed) is comparable to insisting that because businesses operate with a corporate hierarchy and are housed in office buildings those facts prove that they too haven’t changed since 1916.  This assumption simply isn’t true as technology, psychology, methodology, and physical plants are all dramatically different as compared to previous iterations of both businesses and schools.  Teachers and business people who worked forty years ago (about the time I started) would hardly recognize much of what is standard procedure today.

To elaborate on that point further by stating the obvious, the personnel are also very different now than they were before.  Even if you presume that colleges haven’t been revising, adding, and subtracting different teacher training methods over the years (which they have); teachers don’t teach for more than three decades typically—many less than that—so you have different people in the classroom which alters how schools function.  Schools are reflections of the cultures in which they exist, so changes in the way community members think will show up in the schools since—big surprise—community members work there.  Even basic curriculum items change since what was important yesterday has little significance today:  Spelling and penmanship were mainstays of the English curriculum when I was growing up, but they faded during the time when I was teaching (1979-2012), and now have become largely irrelevant and abandoned (especially hand-writing) thanks to word processing on computers.  It’s hard even for me to believe that as recently as 2000, I was requiring my students (who were still writing timed essays with pens) to use cursive since I believed cursive allowed students to write faster; you don’t have to lift your writing implement as often as you do when you print.  And don’t get me started on my 1981 attempt at a nationwide business franchise:  CranManuscript, a drop-in handwriting tutoring center, where students with poor penmanship could receive one-on-one assistance.  Maybe you’ll soon see me pitching that gem on Shark Tank!

Horrible, antiquated, fake business schemes aside, schools are only as good as teachers make them, and with turnover anywhere from 5-15% annually in most districts, the line-ups are constantly changing; as new people replace the old, schools change.  Any reform movement based on the idea of modifying a static environment demonstrates its ignorance of how personnel-dominated workplaces operate.

This leads to the second of Schneider’s issues with school reform—that much of it is predicated on a foundation of starting from scratch.  This error ignores that our public education system has been in place for centuries; the first American high school opened in Boston in 1635.  Any institution that old has evolved over time, slowly adapting as historical trends and new insights filter their way in.  To throw out all that has been accomplished in the name of “starting over” makes about as much sense as tossing aside all we know about producing automobiles so we can construct a brand new and different mode of transportation:  Sure, the gas engine might need to be phased out as our supply of fossil fuel dwindles and the negative impacts of burning all that carbon degrade our environment, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore all the knowledge we’ve gained over the years on safety, aerodynamics, or cup holders.  Maybe even that dirty engine might be useful during our transition away from gas in the form of hybrids that make use of gas and cleaner battery power.

Schools similarly have developed many laudable and beneficial traits over the years, and anyone intent on improving public education must sort through the things that work from those that don’t.  Even the most dysfunctional district will have many positive attributes; to insist on tearing it all down to the ground in order to create a new order will not only be wasteful, but is destined to fail.  Certainly there are some things that might do better with a complete reboot—can you say “Republican Party Leaders”?  Schools, however, are continuously operating which makes it almost impossible to start totally from nothing.  To institute radically different methods or structures at the same time you are trying to teach and discipline students—as well as evaluating performances, communicating with parents, and keeping detailed records—just won’t work.  Any change needs to be broken down into small steps, worked in gradually over time.  Everybody wants change to be immediate, but that’s simply not how schools or people work.

Then too, massive, wholesale change is predicated on all schools having the same issues, needing identical solutions to identical problems.  Even the most hard-core corporate reformer should be able to see the folly in that approach.  Certainly, anyone who’s spent more than a day or two in more than one school would understand how idiotic that would be.  From the students to the communities to the economics to the parents to the resources to the teachers to the facilities, every single school in the country is unique and requires a different mix of ideas and programs to address the issues it faces.  This fundamental reality is the key reason that any reforms that try to apply single solutions for all schools have absolutely no hope of anything but abysmal failure.  Yes, that’s the reason this blog is called, “Snowflake Schools,” since just like the frozen crystals of water that fall from the sky, so too is every school in the world one-of-kind.

So as we take a tour of the wrong turns so many wealthy people are taking as they try to “solve” public education, we would do well to remember and apply Schneider’s points.  Any leader or expert who claims to be injecting change into the “static” entity of public education doesn’t understand how much schools have evolved over the decades.  And anyone who wants to tear the current systems down to start over with something brand new has no clue how different each school is from every other school.  Solid school improvement plans will always seek to understand the strengths (as well as the weaknesses) of what is currently in place in order to make modifications designed specifically for that school.  Such plans will prioritize what needs to be done as countered by that which is already working.  You can see why these successful industry barons struggle so much with public education:  They are blinded by the wealth their single-minded approaches have brought to them and assume that what works for Wal-Mart, Apple, or Microsoft will be easily transferred to Hinsdale South, Hinsdale Central, or Proviso West.  Yet deep down, even they understand how foolish that is since none of them is unaware of the reality that those three companies evolved into successful enterprises in extremely different ways, using different resources, methods, and personnel to get there.  Every school requires an equally unique, individual approach.

Next time we’ll begin our more specific analysis of the many influential corporate reformers.  For more on what should go into running one of those snowflake schools, check out my e-book, oddly enough entitled, Snowflake Schools.  Excerpts can be found here.

Postscript:  Just a quick follow-up on an essay I wrote back in October about a foolish expenditure of money taking place in Florida where teachers were being given bonuses based on top 20% scores they received as high school students on their ACT or SAT standardized tests.  If you recall, nobody except the Florida state legislature thought this was a good way to reward teachers since nobody has shown that ACT or SAT scores are correlated to good teaching skills.  Florida went ahead with the program anyway, and some 5,200 teachers will get $8,200 extra pay this year.  Despite heavy criticism of this as a reasonable way to reward teachers and the fact that some excellent teachers don’t qualify because they have no way to access their old test scores, the Florida legislature is planning to continue the program with even more funding than was allocated for this year.  You can read more about this “wonderful” idea at this site.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Public Education’s Corporate Reformers: Bill Gates |

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