Failing at the business of school

10th June 2016 at 08:31
Stop Dave, please stop

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Many members of the corporate-political class that have forced negative reforms on public education have done so thinking the schools should be run like businesses. This is no doubt a big reason for the push for one-size-fits-all standardized testing. In business it's vital to measure the quantity and quality of outputs so why shouldn't schools and teachers be accountable for testing results as their lone output?

There are two big reasons why using a business model to think about education is seriously flawed.

  1. If schools are a factory for learning, then teachers have NO CONTROL over their raw materials. They simply take the students in the district and do what they can. This would be like Microsoft hiring random applicants, only worse.
  2. The second reason is the "business" of school is currently run from the top by people who for the most part lack real expertise in the so-called business that they are running.

You work with what you are given

When it comes to the "raw materials" of a business, when it comes to school we're talking about the students. If you work in a school district with a large representation of poor and underprivileged students, English as a second language students and special needs children you start out with raw materials that need a lot more resources and time. Unless something fundamentally changes in those districts to provide more support to teachers and students, some teachers will get raw materials that are much more likely to achieve at a lower level on standardized tests no matter what the teacher does.

If a private or charter school has better results, it is most likely due to the fact that it can control their raw materials.

Business leaders are not educators and educators are not business leaders

The people elected to school boards are mostly volunteers who get together maybe twice a month to make policy decisions that run their school districts. While some board members are former teachers or administrators, most are employed in other businesses. Even the few educators on school boards are not likely to have doctoral level expertise in the field of education.

The district superintendent may have a doctorate if the district is large enough, but most administrators do not. Due to the size of many schools and districts, administrators need to be generalists as they have a wide range of responsibilities. Compare this to businesses where leaders at all levels generally get there as they develop more and more specialized expertise. Businesses also are much more likely to employ specialists where they are needed to troubleshoot problems. The problem with letting the business-elite run schools is they don't even know enough about school to put the right experts in place or ask the right experts to troubleshoot.  In short, when it comes to leadership in schools, it's no way to run a business.

There's the easy way and the right way

Judging schools and teachers by tests that are unreliable and therefore invalid is easy, but bad for schools, teachers, and students. We should be seeking more advanced ways of judging the effectiveness of various teaching practices, but that is apparently more than the policy makers can wrap their heads around. At a time when we should be pushing toward more self-paced instruction, we focus on testing that promotes single-paced test preparation for students regardless of their ability, circumstances or starting point.

How to get back on track

Now that I have explained how schools don't fit any business model, let's ask what schools can learn from businesses. As part of my blogging effort I summarize books that I think educators and parents can use to promote learning. A significant number of these books are not education books, but books aimed at a business or general self-improvement audience. The best example I can think of is Daniel Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

When I was teaching, I wished that motivation was something that came in a bottle. Since it doesn't, it makes sense that educators and parents draw on this fine body of recent research on how to motivate people.

I have also summarized books on how to foster creativity, which is something that schools and business alike seek. A good question here to the reformers is, just how does standardized testing foster creativity? At a time when all businesses expect schools to produce creative employees, many business people promote reforms that prevent schools from doing just that. I would like to help schools produce students who will be better workers for current businesses, but many business leaders are getting in the way.

To quote a line from 2001 a Space Odyssey, "Stop Dave, Please Stop."

Dr. Doug Green is a retired STEM teacher and principal and now runs an extensive educational website. This is an original article for TES USA. He tweets @DrDougGreen.


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