Sunday, April 29, 2012

Buyer Beware!

The way to tell if a for-profit enterprise is successful is to look to see if it's turning a profit. And just so we're clear, we're talking about money. 

For instance, the way to know if a television manufacturer is successful is whether or not it makes money. The quality of the actual TV set is immaterial: if they can persuade enough people to buy one, even if they break down a week after the warranty expires, they are a successful for-profit company. The argument, of course, is that this company won't stay in business very long if they gain a reputation for defective merchandise, and I suppose that's true, but that doesn't mean that they can't enjoy years of profit in the meantime. Success!

Or how about that for-profit hospital? The quality of health care is immaterial: if they can persuade enough sick or injured people to check themselves in, even if most of them never get better, or even die, they are a successful for-profit company. Again, a reputation for dead patients will ultimately hurt the bottom line, but in the meantime . . . Woo hoo! 

That's how the so-called invisible hand is supposed to protect us all in the fantasy world of free market capitalism. Eventually, if the "product" is bad, customers will just take their business elsewhere. Meanwhile, "buyer beware!" Blame yourself for those TV programs you missed. Blame yourself for the death of that loved one. You should have done better research before trusting those for-profit businesses. These neo-Calvinist evangelists say, Blame yourself! because if you blame the holy capitalist system you are a sinner-communist. 

I am not a communist. Nor, at least, am I the kind of sinner that kills people for money: that requires a particularly horrific brand of sociopathy. Neither will I label myself a capitalist, at least as long as it requires, as it does today, a blind faith in this deeply flawed economic model.

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. ~Abraham Maslow

Capitalism may well serve some of our lower level needs, like building televisions, but when it comes to things that matter like health care or food or education, it can only result in tragedy. What they're banking on is that the tragedy is so slow-motion that no one notices until they've extracted their profits: success!

I was inspired today by Gail Collins' recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled A Very Pricey Pineapple, in which she discusses the rush to privatize public education.

It's not just the (standardized) tests. No Child Left Behind has created a system of pubic-funded charter schools, a growing number of which are run by for-profit companies. Some of them are completely online, with kids getting their lessons at home via computer. The academic results can be abysmal, but on the plus side -- definitely no classroom crowding issues.

The "leader" (i.e., the corporation that has been the most successful in profiting from our tax-payer funded schools) in this drive toward corporatizing education is a company call Pearson Education.

Its lobbyists include the guy who served as the top White House liaison with Congress on drafting the No Child law. It has its own nonprofit foundation that sends state education commissioners on free trips overseas to contemplate school reform . . . An American child could go to a public school run by Pearson, study from books produced by Pearson, while his or her progress is evaluated by Pearson standardized tests. The only public participant in the show would be the taxpayer. 

Lest you doubt the size and power of these guys, they make nearly $100 million per year off just one testing contract with the state of Texas. And this is an international company. I spent some time going through their website this morning and found myself clicking through the "Careers" section. It doesn't appear that they hire teachers: most of the job offerings seemed to be for sales people and testing experts, jobs being "sold" to prospects with the line: 

Pearson has one defining goal: the help people progress in their lives through learning.

This is either a lie or their stockholders have cause to sue. Pearson is a for-profit corporation. By definition their "one defining goal" is to make as big a profit as possible. And that profit must come at the expense of our public schools. Buyer beware!

What the corporation called Pearson is selling is an unproven batch of "education products," products designed to turn a tidy profit, while education is, at best, a secondary concern. If education were really the "defining goal" (and it simply can't be so long as we're talking about a for-profit enterprise) there would be no standardized tests, no standardized curricula, no for-profit charter schools, no online schools, and a minimal use of technology in the classroom, at least in the early years. If Pearson was really selling education it would be advocating for things like "portfolio-based" student assessment, a project/inquiry based curricula, increased funding for public schools (to be used, among other things, for advanced teacher training and smaller class sizes), and stronger partnerships with the parents of their students. This is what Pearson would be selling if education really were their "defining goal," because these are the things that actual research, performed over the past century, has shown leads to the best educated children. What they are actually selling, like all for-profit corporations, is stuff that is profitable. Period.

I know we've spent the last 30 or so years deregulating business, but certainly we still have child labor laws. It's hard not to see companies like Pearson as amoral enterprises set up specifically to make money off the labor of our children. You think that's hyperbole?  Most public schools, their administrators, and teachers are now rewarded and punished based upon the performance of students on standardized tests which are created, administered, graded, and evaluated by private for-profit corporations. How do all the adults in this system benefit? By working the kids harder, making them memorize more, drilling them, focusing them not on what they want or need to know, but on what will appear on these computer-graded tests. This is not education, this is labor, and the defining goal of this labor is profit for Pearson's stockholders. And the children's pay: a degraded education hardly worthy of the name.

Now I realize that by publishing this post, I've guaranteed I'll never work for a for-profit education company and if they, as is apparently the current plan coming out of state houses around the country, wind up taking over our educational system, I'll be looking for a new profession. You see, I'm attempting to speak the truth as I see it, and there is little room for that in corporations, which are, after all, privately run dictatorships allowed to operate here in the midst of our democracy. And perhaps more than anything else, this is what convinces me that for-profit companies should never be entrusted with education: the bottom line of education is truth, even if it undermines profit. Corporate education cannot allow that.

If we are going to stop the slow-motion tragedy of the privatization of public education, we must find a way to step back from these free-market fantasies, and re-embrace the promises of democracy, people working together toward a better world, rather than fighting amongst ourselves for a greasy buck. And we better do it soon or it will be too late. Already, large portions of our public education system are in the hands of profiteers, and what we see now is just the tip of the iceberg. Billions are being diverted away from our schools every year and into these corporations, who are answerable only to their stockholders. Buyer beware!  Already the only recourse many of us have is to whine, because we are in no position to take our business elsewhere.

With all its imperfections, public education -- owned, operated, and answerable to we the people -- is still the best way to educate our children. For-profit corporations have no role here. If we will keep it, it's going to take teachers and parents working together, in the great tradition of our democracy, to fight back against corporate education, to advocate for our children, the citizens of tomorrow. 

This way lies the only real success, the kind that is measured in the coin meaningful, productive lives which is the bottom line of a democratic education. 

Talk to your friends and neighbors! Share this post! Share Ms. Collins op-ed piece! Call and write your state and federal representatives! Attend your next school board meeting! Get active in the PTA! These are the things we do to make a democracy work.

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Critters And Crayons said...

Teacher Tom- This is a very thought-provoking post. Our daughter is currently in a Montessori curriculum which I really love- and at home, we play, play, play- and utilize the outdoors as much as possible. She is starting public school in the coming year and my plan is to assess her progress and to monitor whether or not the fire she has to learn (and play) is diminished. We don't have co-op-type alternative schools where we live- and homeschooling is always an option if it appears there is some squelching of her playful/intellectual spirit...Sadly, I must admit, a major consideration in the selection of schools WAS the standardized test/student-teacher ratio, etc... Other than word of mouth, it is very difficult for parents who want the best for their kids to determine which school will be the best- and I could only hope that the best teachers would wish to teach at the best schools. I'm not sure how to approach the decision-making process other than the empirical data that is available to's a real dilemma...Thanks for this post... :)

Floor Pie said...

Said it on your FB page and I'll say it here, too:

Not to be all "blame the parents" about it, but part of the "democracy" at work here is that way too many parents still buy into the myth of test scores. Before you can convince them to speak out, you'll have to convince them that those numbers are only telling a small part of the story.

And to my fellow parents and education consumers, I say this: Like it or not, education is more art than science. There IS no way to objectively measure it.

A "good" teacher/school for my daughter might be a terrible teacher/school for my son. A school that can consistently boast of top test-scoring students might not have the first clue how to help a child for whom test-taking does not come easy. A teacher who devotes herself to helping students living in poverty, or special ed students, or English language learners, will NOT see her good work reflected in their standardized test scores.

You won't get the "best" education for your child simply by dumping them in a school with the "best" test scores like it's some Play-Doh Smart-Kid-Making factory. All you're doing is driving a market that is trying desperately to make us believe that schools ARE as simple as the Play-Doh factory, and you do so at the expense of students who cannot and will not fit the mold. Please understand and respect that education is more complicated than that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your brave post! As an educator that has worked in public schools, coops, and alternative programs I see the current educational trends in public and possibly private schools too, as absolutely damaging to children. Schools are being operated for the convenience of adults and not with the needs of children in mind. It's very frustrating when preschool sets the stage for hands on exploratory learning, and then as soon as a child walks through the door of kindergarten the rug is pulled out from under them. Children are expected to sit still, be quiet, and "work".If you ever talk to a child what's the favorite part of the school day? Recess! And yet many schools are reducing or removing recess to make more time for academic drilling so that test scores will improve. Guess what? Physical activity stimulates the brain and gets the blood flowing, and is much more likely to produce students ready to think! Also, supervising recess costs money. Either you have to pay instructional assistants to do it or you have to pay teachers to do it. So as as far as schools operating on limited budgets are concerned, recess is not as cost effective as having those same teachers instructing children.
Kids thrive in a prepared learning environment that allows playful exploration. Kids thrive when they can learn about things that are interesting to them. Ask homeschooling parents and they'll tell you that a kid that wants to learn about rockets or dinosaurs or horses for example is motivated to read, draw, write, build, discuss, question, research and otherwise use academic skills to discover more about their favorite topic. When you have a reason to read for instance, you want to do it. And do you have to learn how to decode words just because you've reached a certain magic age? There are plenty of resources out there for nonreaders such as books on tape, videos, or willing adults or older siblings that can read to you until you are developmentally ready to tackle the task.
Obviously not all families can homeschool. I for one as a single parent can not. I get very depressed knowing what my kids have to put up with in their schools which really do seem to operate on the factory model churning kids through the system. Fortunately I spend quality time with my kids and have provided numerous enriching experiences from their earliest years. My kids have been successful in the educational factory system, but they do not love school.
Another concern that I have is that often the very best programs available for kids like arts enrichment, engineering, or robotics are after school or in the summer because they are considered to be frills. These frill programs are what should be the heart of school not just something to keep kids occupied when their parents need childcare.
For more info on this topic of charter schools and private corporations there's a great article that was published in Mother Jones recently:

igranderojo said...

The guardians of society are failing in their ethical obligations and allowing an unjust commercial system to leave millions in poverty.

Public Schools Blamed for Poverty

Shawn Cornally said...

Tom: I really enjoyed reading this, especially because I live in Iowa City, which hosts the headquarters of both Pearson and ACT. Not kidding.

My wife is a preschool teacher, and I'd like to thank you for such a cogent article on education reform from that arena. My wife is often seen as "base" or "simple" when it's pretty obvious she's the most influential educator in her students' lives. She loves them and teaches them through play and experience, despite being gifted workbooks and sticker charts. So thanks for upping the ante, for everyone.

Second, your call for an assessment system that makes sense really resonates with me. I've been a high school teacher for 5 years now, and I've dedicated the last few years to getting rid of grading in favor of some iteration of the portfolio-type system you mentioned. I wanted to start a company to sell these kinds of products so that schools could avoid Pearson altogether, but as soon as money got involved things got weird. So, I'm giving away accounts for free in the hope that someday everyone will assess what kids know and do instead of what they're "missing."

Finally, thank you for proving that men can take care of young children. I love being a father, and I love working with my wife's preschoolers.

B Y Rogers said...

Calvinist, not Cavinist

Teacher Tom said...

Thanks BY Rogers! Calvinist . . . Correction made.

Jolee Burger said...

This is an incredible post - I love when you take a stand, Tom. I love the line about the greasy buck! You say so many amazing things here that I got chills several times. I wholeheartedly agree with you - EXCEPT for this one line: With all its imperfections, public education -- owned, operated, and answerable to we the people -- is still the best way to educate our children.

I think the best way to educate our children.... is at home. So that is what I am doing. I cannot let my children be the 'guinea pigs' for this for-profit monopoly.

Anonymous said...

This article seems to present for-profit charter schools and public schools as the only two choices in educating children. As some other comments have mentioned, public education is not the only alternative to the for-profit model that you criticize. Homeschooling or private schools run by families and individuals (rather than corporations) would hopefully have the student's best interest in mind- and have less hoops to jump through than a public school. One of the criticisms of public school education is teachers are extremely limited on what they can and can not do in the classroom. These rules are determined by nation or state wide legislation, not necessarily families or teachers that are connected to the school itself.

Teacher Tom said...

Private schools, homeschooling, unschooling, and other options are the right choice for many families. I know. After all, I teach in a private, parent-owned cooperative school and my daughter attends private school. But these are not options for public education. We as individuals make our choices, but they are not options for most of us and since our democracy has a vested interest in well-educated citizens, we must have a school system of some sort. That's what I'm writing about in this post.

Tammy said...

I follow your blog from the UK. You raise some very interesting points. Our Government is currently making lots of changes to our Education system and privatising the system through the "back door".

We also have National testing - SATs (at ages 7, 11, 14)and the results of these are published in performance tables.

So sad to see 5,6,7 yr olds stuck at tables writing all day long because they need to make those grades

Anonymous said...

You keep saying "democracy" but we live in a Republic. Direct democracy failed in ancient Greece, and is most susceptible to demogaugery. I agree that corporations should not run our education system, but neither should a government that is beholden to corporations. I think you are right about co-ops, and un/homeschooling being the solution.

Teacher Tom said...

Actually Anonymous, we live in a democratic republic. "Republic" refers to a form of government, while "democracy" refers to a system of government. Not all republics are democratic (e.g., the old Soviet Union), and not all democracies are republics (e.g., India). Direct democracy will always fail because of the tyranny of the majority: a republican form of government is who we protect the rights of minorities. When I write about democracy, I'm talking about the active involvement of citizens in self-governance.

Anonymous said...

Thank youfor postingthis. This confirms a growing paranoia I've been experiencing for a few years as I turn over the materials provided by the public school I teach in and see the words Pearson over and over again. We are using one source for nearly all instruction and assessment. The conversation you have started here seems to not be happening. I often wonder, am I the only one questioning the motives here?

A common theme I hear over and on your post and in comments is parents with the resources and privilege to be able to, are opting out of the public school mess. I seems my own children to a project based school that teaches through inquiry. I feel good about the education they are getting and hope they will grow to be people that change the world. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, at the 80% poverty school in which I teach, no matter how much rigor is increased and recess is shortened, we can't quite seem to get enough kids to pass the test to meet AYP. All of us parents who are opting out must remember to never stop fighting for a better system for the sake of the students who do not have anyone advocating for them.