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The Irony of Running Schools Like a Business

Over the past couple of decades, how many times have we heard politicians, corporate leaders, and other education “experts” declare that we should be running schools more like a business?

That’s the concept Larry Cuban addresses in a recent post in which he asks What Do Corporate Earnings Reports and School Test Scores Have in Common?.

His basic observation is that, under pressure to improve their score card, both companies and schools frequently change their practices to favor the short term bottom line instead of building for long term strength and growth.

Sometimes, as we’ve seen all too often in recent events, through unethical and illegal methods.

However, even worse is the fact that both earnings reports and test scores offer a very incomplete, and usually misleading, picture.

Just as earnings statements are too narrow a measure of corporate performance, test scores barely cover what students are expected to learn in schools. Civic engagement, knowledge of the humanities, building moral character, working in teams, critical thinking, and independent decision making — historic aims of public schools — are missing from standardized tests.

Moreover, if earnings reports mislead investors as to the actual worth of the firm, standardized test scores mislead parents about the actual performance of their children.

And so we have, as Cuban points out, the irony of “business leaders pushing onto schools narrow and misleading measures of student performance while harboring their own narrow and deceptive measures”.

Unfortunately, those business leaders just don’t get the irony.

Why Are We Buying This Stuff?

In parts one and two of a multipart post, Larry Cuban looks at why school districts buy new technologies when there is little or no evidence they do anything to improve student learning, especially when most are having major budget problems.

From part one, he notes that consumer spending on electronics in the US is up despite the continuing recession.

At the same time schools are purchasing more technology products while also laying off teachers, increasing class size, and cutting program.

Economists can probably tell you why families are devoting scarce resources to new and better technology devices but why are schools doing the same thing?

The reasons public officials most often give for these purchases, past and present, is that the electronic devices will transform classroom practices, student learning, and prepare students for jobs in a competitive global economy. So, school boards need to back up these reasons with solid evidence for spending public dollars on new (and replacement) technologies that promise significant changes in teaching, learning, and administrative practice.

Where is that “solid evidence”?

The evidence for these electronic devices doing what is expected both in the U.S. and abroad is–as I read the research—at best, spotty–at worst, weak. Few careful and impartial observers of U.S., Europe, and Asia where governments have committed themselves to infusing technology into schools can say with confidence that the use of new technologies has led to increases in student academic achievement (as measured on either U.S. or international tests), altered substantially how teachers teach, or prepared students for to compete in an ever-changing labor market.

In part two, Cuban offers two reasons for this blind devotion to tech “solutions” that solve nothing: political and psychological.

This political explanation helps to make sense of why policymakers effortlessly skip over the lack of evidence to support major high tech expenditures. They figure that media photos of students happily clicking away on laptops—visible symbols—will trump the few research studies or critics who question purchases.

Turning from a political to a psychological explanation, districts buy technology because they suffer from “inattentional blindness”: They are too focused on a specific problem and lose sight of the big picture.

Or they suffer from some kind of blindness caused by salespeople promising tech-based “solutions” to whatever problem their schools might be facing without seeing if it fits in that big picture.

Of course, if the stuff looks good when photographed next to the superintendent, mayor, governor, and/or congressional candidate, so much the better.

Cuban, as always, makes some excellent points about our educational obsession with gimmicks.  Take the time to read both posts.

Getting The Whole Process Backwards

One of the key tenants of education reform in this country is that students need good teachers.

Even NCLB, as screwed up as it is, mandates that there be a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom, although the law’s definition of that term leaves a lot to be desired.

Ignoring the legal definition from NCLB, what exactly are the qualities of a “good” teacher? How long does it take someone to reach that point?

And is having good teachers really that important to our current educational system? I’m not so sure it is.

In a recent post, Larry Cuban recently addressed that issue of how long it takes to become a “good” teacher and started with the premise (most recently popularized by Malcolm Gladwell) that 10,000 hours of practice is required to master a particular skill or profession.

Cuban sets the bar lower by assuming it takes half that time to merely get “good” at teaching, which is still around five academic years based on the schedule used by most American schools.

Unfortunately, a large number of new teachers don’t stick around that long.

Participants in Teach for America (TFA), one of the higher profile “alternative” certification programs, are only committed to two years of teaching and, as Cuban notes, more than 2/3 of them leave the classroom after that time.

Which is only part of the problem since many studies over the years have shown that overall something like 30 – 40% of beginning teachers leave before by the end of their fifth year.

I would imagine a corporation with that kind of “burn and churn” would be closely reviewing their HR practices since high turnover rates hurt the bottom line. School districts don’t have time or resources for introspection along those lines.

Anyway, keeping teachers long enough to get good at their profession is one issue but what about the process by which they are trained to do the job in the first place?

A large topic of the educational reform debate involves whether traditional university-based teacher training programs or short time frame alternatives like TFA are better paths to the classroom.

Maybe the answer is neither since a recently released study indicates that there’s “not enough evidence to suggest that teachers who take alternative pathways into the classroom are any worse –or any better –than those who finish traditional college-based preparation programs”.

Nationwide, an estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of new teachers enter the classroom through nontraditional, or alternative, routes, such as Teach For America or the New York City Teaching Fellows program. That number has grown exponentially over the last 20 years, and over time, many of those programs have become closely linked to postsecondary education programs.

Studies commissioned by the committee and others show, in fact, that differences among various alternative-certification programs are often as great as those between alternative programs and the traditional ones.

If we assume, as the report notes, “a growing body of evidence suggests that teachers are the single most important school-based influence on children’s learning” then the issue of how to recruit, train, and keep good teachers should be at the core of any education reform program.

But it’s not.

Here in the US we spend far more time, money, and effort on standardized testing (plus all the penalties that result when kids don’t get high enough scores), narrowing and scripting the curriculum, and basically preserving the educational status quo, than we do on improving the quality of teaching.

We certainly don’t provide nearly enough training and support for teachers once they are in the classroom.

It’s as if our current educational system is a company that puts almost all it’s efforts into inspecting products and very little into the process of designing and building a quality product in the first place.*

*I hate business analogies applied to education but this one fits!

It’s All An Illusion

One key assumption behind No Child Left Behind – and pretty much every major education reform effort of the past half century – is that a strong education system is essential to American economic growth.

However, as Larry Cuban points out, although multiple reports and even more politicians have repeated the mantra, even economists don’t have evidence to support it.

And current attempts to connect school reform and economic growth are nothing new. Remember our past love affair with Japanese schools?

Recall that in the 1980s, U.S. policymakers including corporate leaders looked to Japan with its remarkable annual growth and pointed to its schools as driving the economy. Educators, economists, and sociologists traveled to Japan to study its schools and contrast them—in highly positive terms—with U.S. schools. But the contrasts fell flat in the 1990s when Japan’s economy nose-dived for that decade until just recently. Few policymakers today use Japan as a model for U.S. schools.

So, if it’s not going to make us a lot of money, is there a good reason to pay for a strong public education system?

After all, there are many reasons to have strong schools in a society beyond, but including, economic ones. Although they hardly get mentioned by policymakers save in throwaway lines at graduation ceremonies, expanded literacy in service of developing an engaged citizenry who, in fulfilling their civic obligations, build better communities and live moral lives are, and have been, historic reasons for investing tax dollars in American schools. But not now with the three-decade concentration in educational policymaking on equating higher graduation rates and college attendance with economic growth.

Although you wouldn’t know it from visiting most of our schools, there IS more to a good education than getting a high school diploma and going to college.

Past Performance Might Predict Future Returns

Larry Cuban looks at one of the current hot topics in education reform, merit pay for teachers (what he calls “pay for performance”), and reminds everyone that there’s nothing new here.

In touting pay-for-performance plans, federal and state decision-makers fail to point out (or ignore) past efforts to link teacher performance to money that have been a series of disasters plainly seen by those who know their history. In fact, an honest reformer’s advice to would-be buyers of these schemes would be: The lousy record of pay-for-performance plans does, indeed, predict the future. [his emphasis]

Consider England in the late-19th century, the history of merit pay plans since the 1920s, and U.S. performance contracting in the 1960s. Using cash to spur teachers to get students to learn more, faster, and better, these plans stumbled repeatedly in narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, and sowing distrust among teachers and administrators. Ultimately, policymakers abandoned the plans. Few researchers and knowledgeable policymakers would dispute these previous failed efforts.

Back in the early 90’s our overly-large school district tried a merit pay scheme.

And while I personally benefited from the program (full disclosure: I enjoyed having the extra cash! :-), overall it was a major waste, time as well as money, and did nothing to improve learning.

Paying individual teachers for the performance (aka higher standardized test scores) of students currently sitting in their classrooms is wrong in so many ways.

It ignores the educators who worked with the kids in past years as well as the other staff members in the school who are contributing to their learning now.

Much worse than that, it reinforces the traditional concept of the teacher as an independent contractor, working in isolation, solely and completely responsible for the learning of the children assigned to them.

Cuban is right that the current salary system used in most school systems, one where everyone gets the same based on the arbitrary factors of longevity and continuing education credits, is wrong.

However, any new system needs to get beyond the view of teaching as an individual process and focus on the collaborative effort that goes into any child’s education.

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