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Open Season to Run Schools

It was predictable that demand for an unfettered educational marketplace would bring out opportunists less interested in instruction than in profit. The $3.5 billion earmarked this year for turning around failing schools - about 28 times as much as in 2007 - is proving too alluring for companies with little or no experience in the field to pass up. Only in education is this absurdity allowed.

Overhauling the approximately 5,000 schools in the U.S. that have been identified as failing requires a combination of expertise in education and management. But what works in the business world does not work in the world of education for reasons that are poorly understood. A brief review of the differences reveals why.

First, personal satisfaction is more important than pecuniary rewards to teachers. Surveys of teachers who quit consistently cite salary low on the list of reasons. Instead, teachers name poor working conditions as the No. 1 factor.

Second, competition does not bring out the best in teachers. They are far more responsive to collaboration. Teaching by its very nature is a helping profession. As a result, teachers are disposed to sharing ideas and strategies, rather than trying to get an edge on each other.

Third, punitive measures are totally counterproductive. The morale of teachers is already at an historic low after years of fault finding about their performance. Ratcheting up threats about firings and school closures will do nothing to improve instruction. It's like kicking someone who's down.

The irony is that reformers demand evidence-based solutions, and yet they are quite willing to sign contracts with groups devoid of any such data to support their proposals. If this policy is to continue, then at least let's adopt the American Enterprise Institute's recommendation that school districts demand performance guarantees. This would make contractors forfeit payments when they fail to achieve their goals.

The need for evidence, however, was downplayed by the co-founders of the Center for School Transformation in a letter to the editor published in the New York Times on Aug. 18 ("Reforming Schools: The Crowd Has Ideas, Too"). Because "everyone of good faith is concerned with the same bottom line," they argued that "emerging groups must certainly be part of the equation." The trouble is that not all innovators are interested in providing a quality education. Instead, they see public schools as a source of enormous profit. This is already evident in the news about for-profit colleges. Why would K-12 schools be immune?

To put the issue in a larger perspective, Larry Cuban in The Blackboard And The Bottom Line (Harvard University Press, 2004) reminds readers of "the century-long prickly relationship between educators and business leaders over school reform and their contrasting assumptions about what is needed to improve schools." In light of today's scandals involving corporate greed and fraud, it's hard to have confidence in their stewardship.

That's why the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, offers hope. When the Board of Education put contracts out to bid for 36 schools last February, most observers expected charter school operators to win the lion's share. But United Teachers of Los Angeles stepped in to help teachers, administrators and parents write their own proposals. The result was that they were given the right to operate 29 schools.

This kind of action by teachers unions deserves high praise. It demonstrates that they are not obstructionists, as their critics have claimed, but are interested in innovation. In Los Angeles in particular, the move will help win the respect of taxpayers who are weary of the politics of school reform. But the LAUSD model also has potential for replication elsewhere because it allows those closest to the school to take charge. They know what needs to be done far better than outsiders.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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