Mike the Mad Biologist

Education ‘reformers’ constantly talk about how schools need to be run more like businesses. Now, like Comrade PhysioProf, I do think good management is important. But what does good management have to do with business? So asks David Carr (italics mine):

On Wall Street and on Silicon Valley office campuses, in hedge fund boardrooms and at year-end Christmas parties, it seems you can’t have a conversation without someone talking about the movie that finally lays bare America’s public education crisis.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” is one thing that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg agree on, Rupert Murdoch talks about to anyone who will listen, David Koch of Koch Industries promotes, and Paul Tudor Jones and many of his hedge fund brethren work to support.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” follows five children and their parents as they run a gantlet to gain access to high-performing charter schools because the alternative — the public system — is a complete disaster. The film has caught the imagination of the business community because it represents a reckoning for public education and its chronic failures, making the very businesslike case that large school systems and the unions that go with them must be replaced by a customized, semi-privatized education in the form of charter schools.

Which is odd when you think about it. If you are looking for an American institution that failed the public, made resources disappear without returning value and lacked accountability for its manifest sins, the Education Department would be in line well behind Wall Street.

By now, the notion that business is a place built on accountability and performance should be as outdated as the one-room schoolhouse. Ask yourself, what would happen if American public schools were offered hundreds of billions in bailout money? One outcome is not in the cards: its leaders would not end up back at the trough so quickly, sucking up tens of millions in bonuses as Wall Street has.

When this charter fetish really picked up steam about a decade ago, I would ask people (whom I didn’t like) who started blathering on about running things like a business if, by business, they meant Enron. For some reason they didn’t care for that question.

Again, better management is useful (hell, keeping track of who isn’t coming to school would be a good thing). But since many of our most successful businesses these days involve direct rent extraction, the establishment of de facto monopolies, or crony capitalism (and some hit the trifecta!), I’m not sure what that has to do with educating children.

Finding yet another way to raid the public till, yes. Education, not so much.

Comments

  1. #1 Aaron
    December 21, 2010

    Schools are saddled with requirements that businesses would never tolerate. Ie: special ed. They are very expensive and usually contribute to overall lowering of performance outcomes. They just can’t perform up to standard. They’re special; they have handicaps and need more help (more expenses).

    In a business model, you’d find a way to either not accept special ed students or put them somewhere else, which is what used to happen to disabled people until relatively recently.

    I don’t want to go back to that.

  2. #2 GrayGaffer
    December 21, 2010

    I think for a comparable enterprise that is run as a business but shows us what education woud be ike run as one, look no further than the Health Insurance business.

  3. #3 Tamakazura
    December 21, 2010

    You know, I think the famous efficiency and competence of business are highly overrated.
    Not really the greed, but more the incompetence, red-tape, heavy-infighting, brown-nosing and political maneuvering….kind of like what certain people complain about when they are carping on the government.
    Every time something like the Deepwater Horizon Accident happens, it kind of stabs this inherent fallibility home…people are too happy to attribute it to “evil oil” than to think that companies might be prey to the same flaws they attribute to government.

  4. #4 scathew
    December 21, 2010

    The problem is – when all you have is a hammer, you tend to look at everything as a nail.

    These people think they’ve found the end all paradigm (privatization) and they have literally thrown all of the other tools out of their toolboxes.

    Public schools have their problems, but I have no illusions that privatization will magically solve them.

  5. #5 scathew
    December 21, 2010

    BTW – I really don’t get this “business would do it better” thing. 99% of us work for one company or another and anyone who has sees just how f-ed up they are.

    That’s not to say government isn’t f-ed up, but why the assumption that these other businesses would be magically more effective than the ones we worked for, well I don’t know where it comes from (er, well maybe people like Bill Gates who have a vested interest in a corporatist view of America)…

  6. #6 Lyle
    December 21, 2010

    The run like a business meme means that teachers could be fired by administrators whenever they wished just like in private business (employment at will). In addition the same style of perfomance review and salary increases would be in place. Consider that a lot of the brown nosing etc, is around getting that good review to get the raise. That is the way it is done for white collar work in the private sector, and they way the meme wants to handle teachers.

  7. #7 Dunc
    December 22, 2010

    You know, I think the famous efficiency and competence of business are highly overrated.

    I’ve worked in both public and private sectors, and I’ve worked for companies large and small. In my experience, large private sector organisations are by far the least efficient. Sure, there are inefficiencies in the public sector, but they’re mostly low-level and not that expensive. It’s only in the private sector than I’ve seen people bring in contractors on 4-figure day rates (plus expenses, naturally) to do work that their own in-house staff could have done quicker, if only their manager had been willing to admit that they didn’t have anything to do (as so risk losing part of his empire, even temporarily). Yes, you read that right – a senior manager kept an entire team of well-paid, highly-skilled professionals sitting reading novels at their desks for weeks and brought in absurdly expensive contractors to do their jobs instead, so that he wouldn’t have to risk getting “his” staff re-assigned.

    Go on – see if you can guess the sector… Yup, it was at a bank.

  8. #8 drivebyposter
    December 22, 2010

    I think schools ought to be run differently than they currently are.

    I think the emphasis should be on getting teachers to teach in an effective way.

    Lectures are useless.
    I can’t think of many professions where I want someone working primarily off of memory, the way schools currently are expecting students to do. Memorizing stuff can be handy, but it is also not generally reliable enough for the effort required to memorize.

  9. #9 Samantha Vimes
    December 23, 2010

    drivebyposter, do you know any teachers? Have you been in a schoolroom lately?
    For years, decades really, the emphasis has moved away from lectures to group projects, activities, and so on to avoid having kids tune out and to try to appeal to all different ways of learning. Although, I agree, memorizing really isn’t the best way to get students to learn many things. After all, you can spend hours repeating formulas to yourself only to mix them up because that’s all you did. Or you can use the formulas to solve enough problems that it comes to you easily and naturally. Not to mention, in all non-test settings, one can look things up, so why not have notes to simplify, so you can focus your energies on understanding and methodology instead of rote.