Thursday, August 11, 2016

The fallacies of Corporate Education Reform

Corporate Education Reformers may have a lot of business expertise, but that knowledge and skill does not translate to public education. They don’t seem to realize that almost nothing they have learned from the private sector is applicable in the public sector.
  • Competition doesn’t work the way they think it does.
  • They don’t seem to understand that schools have finite capacity.
  • They don’t seem to understand what it takes to start a school.
  • They don’t know what drives academic achievement.
  • They don’t seem to understand the needs of students.
  • Their focus on productivity is misplaced.
  • They don’t recognize teachers as professionals.
  • They don’t seem to understand that all teachers need the union to protect their jobs.
  • They don’t seem to understand which school costs are fixed and which are variable
Their first and fundamental mistake is that they have trouble understanding is that the profit motive, which is the force that drives everything in the private sector, is absent from the public sector. All of the rules, practices, models, and incentives that they know and espouse are predicated on the presence of the profit motive, and are therefore invalid because the profit motive just isn’t there.

“Competition makes things better. Schools will improve when they have to compete.”
The absence of the profit motive negates the benefits they expect from competition. Charter schools, vouchers, and school choice are all supposed to improve schools through competition. And yet they don’t. They don’t because school choice doesn’t create competition among schools for students; it creates competition among students for schools. So long as school attendance is compulsory, every student must find a seat at a school somewhere. And so long the capacity of the school system is about equal to the number of students, every school will get students. You can see how this will work in a theoretical model, or you can consider the real life experience here in Seattle during the period of controlled choice school assignments. The most popular elementary was John Stanford International School. To get into this school, students had to live within three blocks of the building. Families would rent – or even buy – homes close to the school to assure their child’s enrollment there. The least popular school was MLK Elementary (the old one that was closed, not the school with that name now). One year zero kindergarten families chose this school. Zero. And yet, in the fall, the school opened with a normal sized kindergarten class made up entirely of kids who did not get into their school of first choice. Even the charter school advocacy movie, Waiting For Superman, is about families competing for schools, not schools competing for families. The schools have absolutely no incentive to compete. None. They will be full or nearly full regardless of their popularity.

Back in those days only two or three of Seattle’s ten high schools were regarded as “good”. Since the school choice plan was replaced by the neighborhood plan, many more, if not all, of Seattle’s ten comprehensive high schools are regarded as “good”. Our experience shows that it was the end of competition that made the schools improve.

Charter schools have been around for a long time. Which school district has become an education paradise thanks to their competition? Please name it.

“In a choice environment the better schools will grow and the worse schools will shrink and fail.”
When Garfield was the most popular high school in Seattle its enrollment was capped at 1,600. No matter how popular it was, the school’s capacity was finite. Schools cannot grow easily. More to the point, why should they? How would it benefit the district, Garfield, the principals, the teachers, the students, or the community for Garfield to grow any bigger? It would not. Schools are not businesses motivated by profit to grow and grow. So the idea that the popular schools will grow is not just false, it is ignorant. Schools have no profit motive and therefore no incentive to increase market share. And, since there are only so many seats and every student has to take one, the unpopular schools don’t shrink and fail, either.

“With vouchers, all families – even those of modest means - can send their children to the best private schools.”
Vouchers are an idea so bad that no one who thinks about them for as much as a minute could possibly support them. Anyone who supports them obviously has not given them even a minute of thought. Let me walk you through it.

What happens the first year of vouchers? All of the families that have kids in private schools get a check from the government. It’s a huge transfer of cash to families who have chosen private school.

What happens the second year of vouchers? It’s essentially a repeat of the first year except for families with kids in grades K, 1, 6, and 9. Another giant bonus for people with kids in private school. In subsequent years there will be fewer incumbent students in the private schools and this will be less of an issue.

Let’s say that the voucher proponents are right and a bunch of families of modest means apply for private school. What then? The private schools need to respond. Their first response may well be to increase their tuition by the amount of the voucher. If that happens then the giant wealth transfer will not be to the private school families but to the private schools themselves. Their second response is likely to become much more selective about which students they will accept. If there are more applicants than seats, the schools can be choosier. Remember private schools are under no obligation to accept every child on an equal basis. They can restrict enrollment to the students with the highest test scores and the most generous families.

Here’s what is NOT going to happen. We are NOT going to see a bunch of new private schools opening to provide lots of great options for families. The barriers to entry are pretty significant. A school cannot inhabit just any building on just any property. It needs a pretty specific type of architecture and it needs play space. Even the smallest elementary schools cover half a city block. There are not a lot of properties like that lying fallow and the ones that are available are not cheap. Where will these new schools get the capital to start? And it’s not just money for the physical plant. A school needs desks, chairs, tables, textbooks, library books, computers, office equipment, chalkboards, printers, copiers, lunchroom equipment, custodial equipment, musical instruments, a nurse’s office, and more. Will they provide transportation? The startup costs are a lot more than just the building. And let’s not forget that whoever provides that capital will want a return on their money. A big return because they are laying out millions to bankroll a school with no students or teachers.

Ah, yes, the staff. Where will they come from? Will the new school hire teachers away from the public system? If they do, they will have to make a pretty sweet offer. They will have to provide as good or better pay, benefits, and security. Or will the new private school hire the teachers who couldn’t get jobs with the public school district? Will that be in the brochure?

You want the best evidence that new private schools won’t pop up in response to vouchers? The conditions that vouchers would create are already in existence. The existing private schools are already at capacity and turning people away, so there is already an unmet demand for private education – and yet no entrepreneur has jumped in to fill that void.

Want to know what will pop up? Scams. There will be schools that make promises, collect the voucher tuition, and then don’t offer much if anything. There will also be families that will claim to “homeschool” so they can cash that voucher check themselves. Some of these will be legitimate. Many, however, will be people who desperately need the money and have no ability to instruct their children.

“It’s all about teacher quality.”
I have seen the studies that show that the students who have a “higher quality” teacher get higher test scores. And they look good until you find out that the study identified the “higher quality” teachers from their student test scores. It’s circular logic. All they have discovered is that the teachers with students who have higher test scores tend to have students with higher test scores.

Corporate Education Reformers, for all of their talk about being “data-driven” don’t have any meaningful data on what contributes to academic achievement. Without even a shred of legitimate attribution analysis they have decided that it’s all about “teacher quality” – whatever that is. And they have defined “teacher quality” to mean: “has students with high test scores”. So they have defined the source as the outcome. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation loudly announced the start of a project to quantify teacher quality a few years ago – it ended in quiet failure.

If this were really true, then Corporate Education Reformers would be putting the bulk of their efforts into improving the teacher corps. They would be doing this by investing in teacher training, starting with schools of education and including professional development, and they would be improving salaries and working conditions for teachers to attract the best talent they could get. But they aren’t doing anything like that, are they? Instead, they are supporting efforts to short-circuit teacher training and they are working to worsen the working conditions and salaries for teachers. The teachers in charter schools represent the barely qualified, short-term, low paid, high burnout disposable staff that prove the emphasis on teacher quality to be a lie.

“Students are stuck in failing schools”
There are very few failing schools. Usually the Education Reform types who talk about “failing schools” mean schools with low test scores. These are not necessarily bad schools. They may just be schools that happen to enroll a lot of low-scoring students. There’s a big difference.

The difference comes when people realize that the bulk of the factors that determine academic achievement are home-based, not school-based. Take a moment and consider this question:

If Eckstein and Aki Kurose swapped student bodies, do you expect that the former Aki Kurose students, housed at Eckstein and taught by the Eckstein teachers, would start getting scores on the state tests like the current Eckstein students and, likewise, do you expect that the former Eckstein students, once moved into the Sharples building and instructed by the Aki Kurose staff, would start to get test scores like we see now from Aki Kurose?

Is there anyone – in Seattle or anywhere else on God’s green Earth – who believes that swapping schools would result in swapping academic outcomes? Anyone? Let’s put aside this nonsense about “failing schools”. The funny thing is that Aki Kurose may well be doing a better job with their students than Eckstein could do and may even be doing a better job with their students than Eckstein is doing with theirs. We don’t really know, do we? Not so long as we rely entirely on judging schools by the share of students who pass the state proficiency tests.

So what do students need? Students do well in school when they are prepared, supported, and motivated. Most of the students who have these elements of success get them from home. It is the rare school or teacher who can provide them when they are lacking. We have not given our schools the mission, the charge, or the resources to provide students with the preparation, support and motivation they need to succeed in school. Want a reform that would work? This would be it. Corporate Education Reformers are not supportive of this sort of reform, however, because it is contrary to their primary goals:
  1. To reduce the costs of public education, thus reducing taxes and keeping more of my money in my pocket.
  2. To re-direct what funds do go to public education into the hands of my company or my friends’ companies.

You will notice that neither of these goals as anything to do with teaching kids anything.

“Teacher productivity has not increased”
They have some mistaken understanding of what teachers do. They seem to believe that the teacher’s job is to stuff knowledge and skills into students’ heads, perhaps as the heads come down the assembly line. They seem to imagine that all of the knowledge and skills are standardized and all of the heads are uniform. It’s one thing to have a model; it’s another thing to imagine that your model is real.

In truth, teaching only happens in concert with learning; it is mutual relationship between teacher and student in which each contributes. Teaching is not something that happens TO students, it’s something that happens WITH students. Consequently it requires a relationship between the teacher and the student. Also, the knowledge and skills are not standardized. Some students need pieces that they should have gotten before but didn’t. Some need more than the standard. And, more than anything else, the students are not uniform. Far from it. They are, in fact, each a unique individual who presents their own constellation of needs, abilities, motivations, and challenges.

There is a limited number of professional relationships that a person can have. Most studies put it at 150. Teachers cannot work with more students and continue to have a meaningful relationship with each of them. Human relationships are not scalable.

“Teach for America”
Teachers – and teachers’ unions – are a favorite target of Education Reformers because the bulk of the spending in schools goes to teachers, so their best path to cost savings is to reduce teacher payroll. Towards that end, they are working very hard to de-professionalize teaching. This effort includes Teach for America, online instruction, video lessons, personalized learning, attacks on seniority, fidelity of implementation, and lots of other efforts to reduce teaching from a profession to a factory job.

The attacks on seniority are of special interest to Education Reformers because teachers only start to make pretty good money after they have more than ten years’ experience. The Reformers would be very happy to replace senior teachers with novice teachers who get half the pay. They would like nothing better than to see teaching become a temp job that people do for a couple years between college and whatever their real career will be. This is why they like Teach for America so well.

The response for each student requires a professional – a person with an education in theory, trained in methods, and granted the license to exercise initiative and creativity to address the unique needs of each student. The only way to build up a toolbox of methods is through practice. Teachers get better as they gain experience. They encounter a greater variety of students and discover additional techniques for working with them.

Because Corporate Education Reform is about saving money, they are working very hard to de-professionalize teaching.

“The union protects bad teachers and holds good teachers back.”
Let’s remember why there are teacher unions in the first place. In the bad, old days principals could fire teachers for any reason or no reason. The union not only negotiates salary and working conditions, the union also assures teachers of due process in job actions. The union doesn’t protect bad teachers, it prevents bad process.

What’s the alternative? No matter what fantasy the Ed Reformers may present, absent the union there is no negotiation. The offer from the district will be a take-it-or-leave-it offer for every teacher. Let’s remember that there is no profit motive here. Every teacher has the same economic value to the District as every other teacher. Good teacher, bad teacher, new teacher, old teacher, their economic value to the District is the same: they occupy a classroom of students.

Corporate Education Reformers suggest that good teachers don’t need the union to protect them. The quality of their work will protect them from unwarranted dismissal. That would work in the private sector where businesses keep workers who contribute to profits, but there are no profits to be had in the public sector. Also, in the private sector, a competitor could hire that profitable employee away, but, again, no profit in the public sector (and often no competing employer). Funny how these business types keep forgetting that all of their rules and models depend on the profit motive.

“Charter schools don’t drain funds from public schools because the money follows the student.”
Again, you would think the proponents of capitalism would know how it works. Apparently not.

If a public school loses 10% of its students to a nearby charter, the school’s revenue drops by 10% but the school’s costs do not. It still costs the same amount of money to light and heat the school. The non-teaching staff still cost just as much because the school still needs a full-time principal, secretary, custodian, nurse, and librarian. The teaching staff can’t be reduced by 10% either; the teachers just have 27 students in their classes instead of 30. In fact, the school’s costs practically don’t go down at all. You would think that business people would understand this.


Melissa Westbrook said...

So I'll have more on the profit motive in charter schools coming up. It speaks to many of the issues Charlie brings up.

Also, Milwaukee has had vouchers for decades. Anyone ever hear how great their kids do on state tests and outcomes? No. And, the amount you get generally never gets you into a truly good school.

Liza Rankin said...

Makes one wonder - do they really not understand, or do they just not care? Do they really think they can set up vouchers and charters and whateverelse parallel to the public school system, without addressing the things you have outlined here, and do any better by our students?


Thanks for this.