Risky business

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Can private firms turn around the fortunes of struggling schools? Or are the well-oiled machines the business world aims to build at best 'robotic and chilling'? Michael Duffy explores the US example in a new book

Learning on the Job: when business takes on public schools

By Steven F Wilson

Harvard University Press pound;18.95

Behind the optimistic rhetoric of last term's White Paper there is one unshakeable conviction: that only choice and market forces will drive up education standards. Its proponents look across the Atlantic: since the early 1990s the movement in many parts of the United States towards voucher systems, academies and charter schools has provided heady examples of what privatisation promises for state education.

But promises are easily made. In 1990, in Baltimore, one of the first academy providers was promising to "dramatically improve" student performance "without spending additional dollars". Investors would get annual returns of 30 per cent; the world, according to its founder, would be "beating a path to our door". Other companies, pitching to run schools or to win service contracts with them, made very similar claims. "We'll combine rigorous back-to-basics academies, strong moral development and a universal commitment to all children," one said, "and we'll drive down the cost of education".

It hasn't worked like that. By 2005 only 240,000 of America's 60 million school children attended public schools run by education management organisations. Few, if any, of those organisations were yet in profit and the educational gains their schools had made were bitterly contested. In Learning on the Job, Steven Wilson offers us a timely and convincing analysis of why this happened.

His title is wryly chosen. He was founder and CEO of Advantage Schools, an early failure in the education market; he is currently a consultant to Edison Schools, still (in spite of its share collapse) a significant force.

But he is also a research fellow at Harvard and, though he makes no secret of his free market convictions, his account is remarkably balanced.

It tells the story of seven major players: one of them (KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Programme) a not-for-profit organisation; the others committed to quick returns and an early public listing. Typically, the companies over-hyped their prospects. Edison, financed from the profits of Esquire magazine and a television station, promised to open 200 schools and gave its executives private jets. Advantage planned more modestly: a handful of schools in inner-city areas but with the highest expectations: a foreign language for all, and also Latin. All of them were confident that with output-focused private-sector management and an unremitting focus on behaviour and instruction they could solve the problems of America's urban schools. In the 1990s, with the stock exchange steeply climbing, there was no shortage of investors. America spent $350 billion a year on its public schools: profit, it seemed, was there for the asking.

So what went wrong? Wilson looks not just at the business plans of the companies concerned, but at their education plans. He pays particular attention to their concepts of management and leadership, and to the sort of teaching and learning that they aspired to. Except for KIPP - carried forward on a possibly unsustainable tide of passionate conviction - he sees a common pattern.

They all under-estimated, he says, the complexity of America's education system. Faced with thousands of district, state and federal requirements, they got hopelessly lost in the detail of compliance. Taking its "sclerotic inefficiency" for granted, they underestimated, too, the support the public school system was capable of generating at school or district level. And they got their sums wrong. Forgetting that it was likely to be the poorest-funded districts who were most interested in charters, they found themselves running schools for less than half the money per pupil than they had expected. To pull in more revenue, they had to expand, even if it meant opening schools that were under-staffed, ill-housed and ill-equipped. As they expanded, their administration started to buckle so that in most cases "little time remained for honing teaching and learning".

Most of all, they underestimated teaching. Rightly, they identified low expectations as one of the weaknesses of the system, but it was an article of faith for all of them that teachers, tightly unionised and with virtual security of tenure, were responsible for this and most of the rest of education's ills. So they looked first for managerial solutions: hiring and firing, targets and performance-related pay, a longer teaching day and an instruction-based curriculum that was as near as possible teacher-proof.

"We don't give a damn what the teacher thinks," one executive is quoted as saying, "as long as they do it."

Pupil behaviour was problematic, too, even in the elementary (primary) schools that formed the majority of charter schools. Rigidly assertive discipline policies could produce an atmosphere that was ordered, but also "robotic and chilling". And almost all the companies had great difficulty in finding and keeping school principals of the calibre that they knew they needed. It wasn't unknown for charter schools to have two or even three principals in their first year of operation.

It's an instructive but not wholly pessimistic story. Private companies, for example, brought to American schools a new emphasis on school-focused professional development, and their relentless emphasis on "outcomes"

helped to change the culture of the system. All of them reported learning gains that at the very least were statistically significant, but even here the lack of any consistent national or state-wide assessment framework (and some well-founded allegations of data-rigging) means that the safest verdict is at best "unproven".

Wilson acknowledges all of this, but it doesn't alter his conviction that private action should be welcomed, not decried. These early pioneers, he says, just tried to do too much too quickly. They were hampered by the school boards that they answered to. The often vehement opposition they encountered from parents and teachers was an ideological defence of an indefensible system. And because the ultimate test was always profitability, the collapse of the dot-com bubble was an unforeseeable, crippling blow. That's what he argues, and (you have to hand it to him) he argues very well. There are real insights here, not just into the short-termism of entrepreneurial interest but also into the structural weaknesses of American public education. His book is enjoyable, clear and fair-minded: on any basis, a major contribution to an important debate.

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