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Are Schools Becoming a Service Industry?

The public loves ratings in all fields of human endeavor. Anyone doubting that needs to look at Consumer Reports, which has expanded its coverage over the years from products to services of every category. So it wouldn't surprise me at all if K-12 schools will soon be rated overwhelmingly on parental satisfaction. At least that's what I see forthcoming after reading "Hospitals Aren't Hotels" (The New York Times, Mar. 15).

I realize that comparing schools with hospitals is risky, but I think enough similarities exist to make a case. Theresa Brown, the oncology nurse who wrote the essay, explains that not all sick patients get better despite the best efforts of doctors. Moreover, a lot of hospital care is by its very nature dehumanizing. Despite these realities, hospitals are being evaluated on the basis of the ratings that patients give them. What emerges is that the patient experience is often an unfair way of determining reimbursement.

I maintain that public schools are not unlike hospitals. They also must enroll (admit) all who show up at their door and are expected to produce positive outcomes (cure) regardless of the conditions with which students (patients) present. Yet we know that in both education and medicine, the past history of those served plays an overwhelming role in determining success. If patients have smoked all their lives, for example, we don't blame hospitals if they can't cure lung cancer. But we expect schools to post evidence of learning even when students come from the most chaotic backgrounds.

This strategy flies in the face of reality. Just as hospitals have patients for only a short time, so do schools. The bulk of the waking hours of a student takes place in the home and in the neighborhood - not in school. As a result, asking schools to produce the kind of results now demanded would require turning them into Lourdes and making all teachers clones of Mother Theresa. We don't expect that from hospitals and doctors.

There's evidence that a "consumerist ethos" has already established a toehold in schools ("This pampered private school elite can only lead to US decline," The Guardian, Mar. 22). Although it is most obvious in tony private schools in large urban areas, I believe it won't be long before it permeates public schools everywhere. The trouble is that when power shifts to parents, schools become like companies because the customer is always right. That means teachers relinquish their professional judgment, since they are employees. I don't believe the change will benefit students as much as reformers maintain.

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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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