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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Education Is None of Our Business

Business-model education reform is not just wrong about education. It’s wrong about business.

The idea is that, like a business, we should measure outcomes in schools (using test scores) and hold workers (teachers) responsible for meeting stated goals. There are lots and lots of reasons why public schools are inherently different than businesses and therefore shouldn’t be run the same way. To name a few: all data is not equal, and test scores are qualitatively different than profit and loss figures; no business tries to serve every single person in a community, while public schools are required to; the ability of workers to influence outcome is quite different when you’re talking about teaching children vs manufacturing widgets; etc.

But beyond all that is the plain fact that businesses aren’t run the way business-model education reformers say they are.

The education reforms of the past decade have schools giving lots of standardized tests to students in order to obtain data on which to base decisions, including extreme measures like closing schools, and now, firing teachers as well. Every kid throughout the state takes the same tests. Every kid is held to the same standard. Some presumably non-arbitrary score is deemed proficient for everyone. Business-model education reform claims to treat test data like businesses treat sales and profits.

But is that how businesses are run? When Starbucks opens a store in Times Square, another in a suburban town, and a third at the Jersey Shore, do they set the same sales goals for the three stores? Do they expect the same level of profit? Do they even charge the same price for a latte? No, because that would be absurd. Times Square is booming every day, all day, and people are willing to pay top dollar in New York; a suburban town might be slow and steady, with lower prices; a Shore town is seasonal, with slow business in winter and booming sales in summer. In other words, the customers have different habits, lifestyles, disposable income, and needs, and the business plan accommodates those differences.

So why do we expect schools to be any more uniform? Because, I hear you say, education is not coffee. We must not accept that poor kids, children of color, or urban kids routinely fail where affluent white kids in the suburbs succeed.


People don’t have to have coffee, but children have to have education. Education is a fundamentally different endeavor than business.

The business model that is being pushed on schools today is stupid and wrong-headed. It holds all kids to the same testing standard, despite the incontrovertible evidence that test results vary based on a variety of factors, some of them to be found inside school, but far more, outside school. So should we change to a more accurate business model like Starbucks, which accepts worse results in historically low-performing areas? Obviously not. No business model accounts for the reality of education--the striving for the best possible results for every kid, every time, despite very different circumstances and very complex human factors.

The fundamental problem is the business paradigm itself.  It is a model that will not do for education, because it assumes a whole range of things about education that are simply untrue or unacceptable: that kids’ circumstances outside of school do not influence them in school; that test scores are accurate reflections of achievement; that competition always produces the desired outcome; that opening and closing schools is as easy or advisable as opening and closing stores; that uniformity is not only possible, but good; that money is the best motivation for workers; and on and on.

Of course we must aspire to a world where all children succeed (not to mention a world where childhood poverty is eradicated). But we will never get there by reducing children to data points. Testing everyone using uniform standards is not even a smart business model, let alone an educational model. It doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t even enlighten us as to the nature of the problem. It doesn’t show teachers how to teach better, or students how to reason, comprehend or create. And it certainly doesn’t address underlying issues of poverty that contribute so much to negative educational outcomes.

The plain fact is, no business model, no matter how distorted, works for education because education is a complex human system involving a web of interrelationships, not a thing that’s created and traded on a supply chain. Some aspects of education may indeed be measurable in limited ways, but to assume that you have a clear picture of the whole endeavor based on those measures is foolhardy in the extreme. Beyond that, education is something we as a society have deemed a right, not a commodity. Rights are non-negotiable, never to be bought and sold on the open market.

So why is this business-model data-driven reform so popular? Because there’s one thing in this whole picture that IS a measurable commodity subject to the laws of business and economics: the tests themselves. They are products bought and sold in the marketplace, and it’s a very lucrative business. It’s in the interest of the testing companies to convince the rest of us that the metrics we gain from their tests are meaningful. They’ve done a frighteningly good job.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece of writing, thank you from the bottom of my teacher's heart. I will share this on Facebook.
I would add one more point to you final paragraph. The big test producing companies, (ie, Pearson) also produce and sell textbooks for thousands of dollars. And each time they update the test, they update the books, and then come in to convince the school system that it "must" have the new materials in order to prepare for the new test. It is an endless loop of profit for them, and we are forced to consume their products.

Mary Martorella said...

I used to be a teacher of Special Education. I was expected to get my kids up to the same standards as the rest of the school to meet "AYP" - Adequate Yearly Progress. These were high school students who needed their DIPLOMA to graduate; a diploma held hostage by test scores. Working with another teacher, we got our kids from the "Failing" level to the "Needs Improvement" level, only to be shot down by the Assistant Superintendent who wanted us to get them to the "Proficient" level. I miss teaching students but do not miss the stress of teaching to a test and throwing creativity out the window.