Brief thought exercise: why do we keep applying business and market principles to the idea of education?

This will be a pretty short post, because if I wrote everything I wanted to write about it, I’d be here for hours and probably get off into a series of meandering sub-points that wouldn’t ultimately benefit anyone. Lest you think I have no qualifications to discuss this topic, though, a quick aside: I was a Teach for America corps member and I have worked in different education capacities since doing that. It is something I care a lot about. Do I have children of my own? No, not yet. When and if that happens, I presume it will shift a lot of my thinking on the issue.

When I did Teach for America, No Child Left Behind was the thing. If you don’t know what that is, basically it was a way to directly tie standards back to learning, and funnel everything through testing. People railed against it. Eventually, this all led to Common Core, which people are now railing against. Education is a weird space: it involves our children and our future generations, so we all feel we have a right to get up in arms about it. But for some reason we also feel that it’s fine to make everything a straight-up political issue (unions, liberals, conservatives, etc.) rather than simply focusing on how we can do the best for our children. The narrative is super skewed and, frankly, fucked up.

A big thing in the last decade or so has been “school choice” — namely charter schools et al — which seem to provide some ability for parents to take their kid out of the school they’d be assigned to based on home address and put them in a better school, possibly focused on a specific topic (i.e. math). Think of something like KIPP. This seems like a good idea, but in reality, it’s not always. Consider this:

And lo and behold, demand for seats in high-performing charter schools has skyrocketed: in 2012, there were more than 35,000 students on charter schools’ waitlists (though some were duplicates). There were only 77,000 students in the city that year.

As Chaltain illustrates throughout his book, this is how you’d expect a choice-driven market to work. This is what markets do. But when the good being transferred and traded is something that should be a baseline public good for all students, the market solution starts to run into trouble. We can’t address the imbalance of supply and demand by allowing others to pay more to squeeze others out of charter seats. That would simply reestablish the hegemony of privilege that made zip code such a strong predictor of school quality. So we use lotteries.

This is where all these models seemingly start to fall apart. When I was in the thick of teaching every day, and people were talking about NCLB all around me, it felt like NCLB was a misguided attempt to take a principle of how Fortune 500 companies run — namely, evaluation leading to “rank and yank” — and apply it to schools. You can’t really do that; forget about the whole notion of “one size fits all” being a bad method considering how different communities are and how different individual students are. Rather, stop trying to apply business principles and economic concepts to education. A choice-driven market doesn’t work when the good in question needs to be a basic public good for everyone in society; rather than focusing on all these potential solutions centered around business/economic forces, why don’t we instead focus on how to make each school the best it can be? So why don’t we start with how we pay teachers and how we treat teachers in America? Why don’t we look at some things Finland does — ignore the socialist angle — and try to copy the practices that might work here? Why don’t we put a moratorium on making education a deeply political issue, clouded in rhetoric, for the next 2-3 election cycles? Why don’t we set up deeper, more robust training pipelines for both teachers and potential school leaders?

I realize it’s a tough topic because America is an extremely now now now place, and education is an issue whose ultimate outcomes aren’t seen for 15-20 years, but we need to shift the dialogue we have around the idea in the United States — and we need to stop applying ideas to it that won’t work.

Ted Bauer

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