Is there a market for education?
If you keep up with the news from the education world, a number of influential members of the business world are ready to put this question to the test. From Zuckerberg and Gates to Klein and Black, whether through donations and special projects or appointment to administrative positions, we are experiencing much high profile involvement in the way public education functions in the United States. I won't doubt their motives, but I find it hard to believe in their efficacy.
The focus on education zooms in during crises, and the first decade of the millenium has been one of crisis. Across the nation, unemployment has grown, and school budgets have shrunk. We face pressure to prepare students for a new economy with fewer resources than before and the task seems impossible.
Many districts believe that the innovation and efficiency driven/profit maximizing strategies of the business world may be the solution to our problems in education. I'm baffled why. If asked to explain why we are in a financial crisis today, would most people point the fingers at our schools or our business and financial leaders?
Yet for some, Superman has an MBA, or some other business world credentials. Superman is an entrepreneur who can market an idea. He is skilled at the art of PR and looks really good on paper. He is ready to prepare students for the 21st century by placing the latest and greatest technology in their hands. He collaborates with like-minds and creates a network of groupthink while dismissing critics as backward or stuck. And with a reputation built on good ideas and courageous execution, he moves on to the next great thing before the fruits of his labor are ripe (or perhaps rotten).
Another consequence of the "educational marketplace"-- focusing more on PR and marketing than on what really works. I recently read a blog post titled Educational Programs That Work: Funding the National Writing Project. Recently, the federal government cut funding for this program and educational bloggers have rallied to support the National Writing Project. I found the following paragraph from this post particularly relevant to the issue of the "education market."
The National Writing Project makes an easy target because it is a relatively quiet, modest program. Despite nearly 4 decades of success, they don't use the hyperbolic rhetoric that marks much of the current discussion around education reform. They don't oversell what they do, or oversimplify the amount of work required to enact meaningful change. And unlike many of the newer crop of educational reformers, when they talk about helping kids learn, their conversation is shaped by people who have direct experience working with kids. People working with the National Writing Project tend to focus less on marketing their work, and more on actually doing the work of transforming classrooms through day after day of thoughtful, reflective practice.Districts are increasingly pressured to "buy into" this "education market" because of the political decisions of state and local governments. The nationwide attack on teachers serves to undermine their credibility to measure student performance and improvement. Accountability has been outsourced. While teachers (and for that matter, we can include everyone in the school district) are expected to provide instruction, the only meaningful measures of accountability are administrated by testing companies. (Several recent articles do a great job of pointing out the flaws not only in testing, but in the testing industry itself- here and here)
Textbook publishers have long taken the criticism of profiting in the education market, but today, technology for testing and managing student and teacher data increasingly takes the lion's share of public education funding. (Many of which are already tied to long-time textbook publishers).
This is our problem. I'm a teacher, and I sell my subject to students. I motivate them by trying to unleash their natural sense of curiosity on the content of the topic that I am supposed to teach (or or should that read "they are supposed to learn"). I'm not good at selling myself, or my methods to anyone uninterested or unable to spend a little time inside the walls of my classroom or to talk with my students about what we do. Unfortunately, in today's educational climate, the ability to "market" an idea is beginning to trump the ability to effectively engage the 21st century learner.