The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"True education makes for inequality; the inequality of individuality, the inequality of success, the glorious inequality of talent, of genius; for inequality, not mediocrity, individual superiority, not standardization, is the measure of the progress of the world."... ...Felix Schelling.

Commentary of the Day - May 9, 2003:  Widgets and Other Misunderstandings.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

A few years back Louis Gerstner was invited to address the nation's governors about restructuring public education.  Mr. Gerstner was the CEO of IBM at the time, which qualified him as an authority.  That's because the only requirement for being an education expert is you can't be a teacher.

Mr. Gerstner even wrote a book about "reinventing education," which almost convinced Poor Elijah to write a book about reinventing multinational technology corporations.  Instead here's a look at some common business world misconceptions about schools.

Public schools may cost a lot, but they aren't businesses.  This doesn't mean that schools should be inefficient, even though some are.  It doesn't mean that schools should waste resources, even though some do.  It does mean, though, that it's often inappropriate to impose business expectations on classrooms and teachers.

For example, business people properly think in terms of productivity.  As a result, they think of students as products.  "If my company," they complain, "turned out as many defective widgets as schools graduate substandard students, I'd be out of business."

They're probably right.  Schools produce more competent students than they're given credit for, but too many are admittedly deficient in skills and knowledge.  The trouble is students aren't like widgets.  I don't mean that they're young human beings who need care, nurturing, mittens, and hormone police, although they are.  I mean that widgets come from raw materials.  Students come from parents.

Businesses get to choose their suppliers, but public schools don't work that way.  One mark of a competent manager in the business world is that he knows when to look somewhere else for higher quality raw materials.  If he accepts inferior component parts, he's not doing his job.  In fact, it's a reason he could lose his job.  Public schools, on the other hand, don't get to choose our raw materials.  We're required to work with whoever shows up at the door, regardless of their talent, their motivation, or their home lives.

Here's a deal for you.  You let me choose the kids I get to educate, and I'll turn out higher quality students.

Speaking of choosing, business people tend to put a lot of faith in school choice as the remedy for what ails public education.  School choice isn't the demon its opponents decry, but it isn't the solution to our problems either.

For starters overcrowded schools don't have room for even "No Child Left Behind" mandated transfers. Even where space exists, parents frequently choose to leave their kids where they are.  This lack of enthusiasm has characterized parental response in Kentucky and Texas, states where school choice has been an option for several years.  In most cases distance, transportation, jobs, friends, and family situations are much more likely to determine where parents send their kids than the apparent quality of education offered at an alternate school.

Business voices support charter schools as alternatives.  Except charter schools, when successful, frequently face similar space shortages.  Besides, most charters are successful only to the degree that they can escape the disruptive students and crippling regulations that hamper their more traditional public cousins.  Why not just unshackle public schools?

Free enterprise advocates insist that choice and the resulting competition would force schools to improve. These folks don't understand how schools are already held hostage by money.  A vocal, litigious handful of parents routinely extorts grades, disciplinary leniency, and unreasonable services with the threat of lawsuits.  Arming parents with voucher dollars would further empower the irrational few, but it wouldn't serve the generally satisfied majority who can effect change though their elected school board and rational channels.  Ironically, it's often the bottom line business approach to expenses that prompts schools to avoid financial exposure and cave in to tyrannical demands rather than fight for what's right and sensible in court.

Business people support choice because they see parents as schools' customers.  Except that's the wrong analogy.  Customers are the ones who pay the bills.  That means us.  We pay for other people's children to go to school because we agree with Jefferson that the republic needs educated citizens.  Tuition dollars don't belong to parents to spend in pursuit of personal or family goals, however admirable.  Society provides schools governed by the public to serve societal interests.  Why should customers -- in this case, taxpayers -- be expected to support alternative schools over which they exercise little or no control?  It certainly isn't sound business practice to hand out money that way.

Finally, business leaders need to stop listening to the same misguided education reformers who've presided over the past generation of decline.  Fifteen years ago I attended a school restructuring conference.  On the stage were two podiums, one for business roundtable types and the other for education experts.  One by one the business folks called for higher standards, basic skills, uninflated grades, and the pursuit of meaningful academic excellence.  In short they called for a rigorous, fairly traditional public education.

Then their education counterparts spoke.  They doled out the same bankrupt, feel good, 1970s nonsense that got schools in trouble in the first place.  I expected the business folks to howl in dismay, until I realized that they didn't recognize the old, bad ideas in their new packages.  That's why everyone on the stage could smile and nod at each other.  The business leaders didn't know they'd just signed on to reform in the same old wrong direction.

It's understandable that business people would look at schools -- or hospitals or politics -- from a business perspective.  The good news is that after all the widget talk most business folks are looking for sound, common sense schools.  The better news is that those are the schools the rest of us -- parents and teachers -- want, too.

In that consensus there is hope.

©2003, Peter Berger

Peter Berger teaches language arts in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments: We could not agree more with Poor Elijah.  Recent revelations about practices in the business world suggest that perhaps not everyone who runs a company is in a great position to be making suggestions about how to run schools.  However, there is one facet from business to which those of us in education could give greater attention.  Great businesses pay attention to quality control at every step.  As Poor Elijah notes, we cannot control the quality of our "raw materials" in education, but we can insist on more quality control along the way (the higher standards, basic skills, and uninflated grades that Poor Elijah mentions).


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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.