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Dropout Nation gang is taking off today to enjoy time with family. But there are still plenty of discussions going on today in the world of education. One of them: The role of the private sector in American public education. In this Best of Dropout Nation compendium of pieces from 2011 and other years, Editor RiShawn Biddle discusses the intellectual blindness of traditionalists to the benefits of borrowing lessons from the private sector, as well as the limits of what can applied to stemming the nation’s education crisis. These points are as important now as they were a few years ago.

wpid10641-wpid-bestofdropoutnation-1.pngChris Cerf and Education’s Anti-Intellectualism Problem: For all the taxpayer-funded doctorates and graduate degrees that are found among the defenders of traditional public education, there is little going on among them other than closed-minded, sclerotic thinking. This lack of intellectual vigor — the ability to see the value of new concepts, the lack of understanding of economics and technology, and the rabid opposition to anyone outside of education arguing for reform — is one reason why American public education is mired in the kind of mediocrity that has fostered the nation’s education crisis.

And that lack of thoughtfulness manifests itself even more when it comes to the thought of private-sector involvement in education. From where defenders of the status quo sit, the idea public charter schools causes them to reach into their Cliff Notes versions of The Communist Manifesto, and the school reform efforts of nonprofits such as the Bill & Melinda Gates  Foundation make them so apoplectic that they toss around terms such as “kleptocracy” without any understanding of their meaning. From where they sit, the private sector is nothing but pure evil, their involvement in school reform means the end of public education and a return to the dark days of, whatever they think of is the dark days. The fact that they are as dependent on the wares of the private sector and the economic marketplace for their very sustenance (you know, since companies and entrepreneurial philanthropists are also those guys who provide such items as computers and soap, along with paying those things called taxes, which support schools), never factors into their thinking.

One example of this silly anti-intellectualism comes courtesy of incoming New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s move to restructure the state’s woeful education department. Foes of the new commissioner’s efforts are particularly annoyed that Cerf is getting help in this work courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which is ponying up $60,000 for the hiring of the consultancy helping to develop the plan. Status quo critics of Cerf’s effort have complained that it is a conspiracy to privatize education. They have argued that the ties between Cerf, the consultant William Cox, and Broad (which helped Cox spin out rating service Standard & Poor’s school evaluation project to become, and counts Cerf among its alumni) makes the whole effort an exercise in cronyism. And they have speculated about the role Cox played in the Garden State’s failed effort to win a share of Race to the Top money.

Given the scope of work — and the reality that American public education remains quite public — the first complaint is just thoughtless. The cronyism argument would have slightly more merit if this was being paid out of Garden State coffers. Since it isn’t, the argument also falls apart. And with no evidence that Cox played any role in New Jersey’s Race to the Top bid, the speculation is merely that; given that the Garden State’s bid was rather problematic, unlikely to be picked even without the botched work of Wireless Generation (the consultancy that helped New Jersey assemble its bid and had Cox on its payroll for a time), and opposed by the same status quo defenders now using the situation for their rhetorical argument, that discussion is rather meaningless.

Now the critics could have considered some real questions. For one: Whether a consultant is really needed to think through the difficult question of how to revamp the organization? (My own answer is no; Cerf is just using Cox and Broad to gain cover for the overhaul he already plans to do.)  Another: Cerf and his boss, Gov. Chris Christie, failing to consider the more fundamental question of whether the current system of educational governance — including the array of local school district bureaucracies — is even necessary in the first place? Given that Christie’s colleagues, including Gov. Christine Gregoire in Washington State, are already pushing to restructure their state education governance structure, the governor and Cerf should be using this time to push for a Hollywood Model of Education for New Jersey under which district bureaucracies would be tossed out altogether and traditional public schools would essentially become charters.

But this would actually require status quo defenders to stop reading Diane Ravitch’s claptrap, applauding Sir Ken Robinson’s creativity snake oil, and fawning at Daniel Pink’s vapid treatises on motivation. They would have to ditch such dribble about “democratic education” and “authentic learning”. It would require them to embrace the use of data in improving the quality of instruction and curricula, and understand the lessons (good and bad) from the private sector about recruiting and retaining talent. And would mean picking up copies of Wired, The Wealth of Nations and Education Myths.

Overstating What Can Be Gleaned From the Private Sector: School reformers may have the intellectual vigor at the moment, but they also suffer from the problem of oversimplification. Particularly when referring to the private sector, it is far too easy to argue that the solutions to the problems of American public education can come from Corporate America and entrepreneurs. The reality is far more complicated.

One thing to remember: Private sector has a variety of players, each of which deal with different kinds of constraints. Healthcare companies and electric utilities, for example, are heavily-regulated. They struggle with the same problems faced by traditional school districts, including bureaucratic structures (and corresponding inertia) that would make the agencies that oversee them proud and state laws that restrict their profit-making activities. Those firms share little in common with a Wal-Mart and Google which operate in lightly-regulated sectors and are structured more-nimbly to compete in more-active markets. So the respective problems each group of companies have for their human resources, cost-management and other operational issues — and the solutions they undertake — can sometimes be as different as night and day.

Another problem lies in assuming that every solution applied in the private sector can work in education. One example: Teacher evaluation. As Rick Hess rightly points out, the private sector doesn’t use objective measures of performance as the sole criteria for evaluations. But Hess forgets this: The cost of a poor-performing employee impacts a company’s bottom line, causing problems for customers, vendors, shareholders, creditors and other employees. But the impact is limited because private sector firms aren’t generally supported by tax dollars. The impact of low quality teacher quality is borne by a far-larger group — including taxpayers and children — who cannot avoid impact by just abandoning brands, selling shares, dropping clients, refusing to lend money or switching jobs. There’s also the reality that teachers and teachers unions don’t trust principals to evaluate their work. All things considered, using objective student data (from test scores for students to portfolio evaluations for electives such as music) as the sole criteria may make the best sense.

There are plenty of lessons from the private sector that can be applied to education. But we think through those lessons, apply them in ways that fit the particular characteristics of the education sector, and not simplistically offer up companies as the source of solutions.

Featured photo courtesy of Wired.

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