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Public Education Inc.: It's Not Privatized, but It Might As Well Be

The corporate culture is driving deep into public education, and even education advocates are adopting the corporate mindset.

Gene Carter, Executive Director of ASCD, an educational leadership organization, writes eloquently about the purpose of schools in the 21st century, and the poor policies that are guiding current education reform. However, he does one thing that I think is symptomatic of the shallow way that we address education today; he puts the premium on global competition. Schools in the 21st century are to build students with skills that can contribute meaningfully not to society, and not even the democratic process, but to the workforce. In that way we’re bringing corporate culture to our schools, framing education as job training and making every school a trade school.

Standardization is a way of quantifying and commoditizing performance, both of students, teachers, and administrators. It’s a way of creating a bureaucratic system around communication that should simply be happening between parents and teachers. Yes, it allows us to compare schools in a way that they haven’t been able to before, but the primary political push behind that agenda is so that parents can harness their “free market” rights in school choice. In other words, if they can see a spreadsheet comparing the achievement of kids across schools, we can move our kids to the best one. The problem is that schools are not restaurants or gas stations, and when a school is abandoned of all investment, the community around it withers as well. Particularly in the rural areas, a school is often the center of those communities. Consolidate or shut down a school and you take away a piece of that community’s identity.

The current scapegoating of budget shortfalls and low achieving schools on teachers has been explained in terms of comparison to the private sector. Educators’ pensions, strong because educators have been forced to unionize in order to protect what mediocre compensation they do have, have become the target of elected leaders around the country. In addition, they look at compensating teachers equal to their performance as the right way to run a school simply because its how the private sector works. “You should be paid for the quality of the job that you do.” Ideally, that would sound fair, but unfortunately a teacher’s performance is contingent upon the student’s attitude, the parental support, the home environment, and most influential: the students’ peers.

Finally, the tendency of education reformers and professionals to place the premium on global competition is to inevitably compare American schools to school systems in China, Singapore, India, and elsewhere. The fundamental disconnect here is that those schools may be turning out engineers and scientists, but their educational systems have serious issues of their own. For one, a Chinese scientist is not trained to innovate, to think critically, or to question foundational knowledge. In fact, for those sorts of experiences, their engineers and scientists come to the United States!

Mr. Carter did make the point that “whole child” education is, according to both research and conventional wisdom, the most effective and worthwhile educational platform. However, current policy may not be in keeping with that, but neither is focusing on education as “work training”. Kids should not be judged on whether they’re “career ready” in the U.S., because according to Gallup, most people have 4 or 5 careers over their work lifespan. Let’s leave career readiness to those careers, most of whom train on the job anyway, or to higher education. They can learn how to be a good competitive worker then. K-12 education should be for teaching kids how to be good, cooperative people first.