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Public Education Suffering from Parasitic Profiteers

Paul Krugman's recent column describes the unproductive forms by which many of our largest and most profitable corporations are making money. As I read, I got a disturbing image in my head. In education, it seems as if our leaders are purposely re-engineering the system to introduce a plethora of profit-seeking parasites into the workings of our schools.

To understand what I mean, let's begin by defining what is essential to a wonderful school. Think of the Lakeside School, attended by Bill Gates himself several decades ago, and now by his children. Lakeside's website says this about their program:

Lakeside's 5th- to 12th-grade student-centered academic program focuses on the relationships between talented students and capable and caring teachers. We develop and nurture students' passions and abilities and ensure every student feels known.
Each student's curiosities and capabilities lead them to unique academic challenges that are sustained through a culture of support and encouragement. All students will find opportunities to discover and develop a passion; to hone the skills of writing, thinking, and speaking; and to interact with the world both on and off campus. Lakeside trusts that each student has effective ideas about how to maximize his or her own education, and that they will positively contribute to our vibrant learning community.

I chose this school not just because it is where the Gates family sends their children, but because it is such a sterling example of what great schools are all about. They emphasize experiential learning, empathy, and above all, relationships between teachers and students. And of course, class sizes are kept below twenty to make all this possible.

All we need to produce the very best education in the world is great teachers and a building to house them, and some basic technological support.

So you might think that our education reform crusaders would be attempting to recreate these conditions for all students. Why are they not? Because they have the belief that the driver of "innovation" in education, that euphemism for all things new and efficient, is the marketplace - which is in turn a euphemism for a hunger for profits.

The model offered by Lakeside is decidedly not efficient -- at least when efficiency is defined as spending the least amount of money spent for a minimally satisfactory result. It requires experienced, expert teachers, small class sizes and excellent facilities. We could simply devote our efforts to making sure all schools got the funding they need to pay for these three basic things, and loosely monitor progress as such schools do, through occasional tests. But where would the profit be to "drive innovation"? So the drive for profits has led to a system redesign, with the introduction of new elements, required not for educational purposes but for the needs of the profit makers. Our education system is being remade to emulate a consumer-driven marketplace. What are the key components we must have?

  1. A standardized testing accountability machine. In order for schools and various educational delivery systems to be compared, we must have a common set of standards and an efficient means of comparing the student learning that they produce.
  2. A system by which schools that do not yield desired results are quickly dispatched, so as to create opportunities for innovators.
  3. Standardized tests, test-aligned curriculum, and software designed to prepare students for tests.
  4. Computer labs, laptops or tablets to allow for "personalized" instruction, delivery of computer-based instruction and assessment, and significantly larger class sizes.
  5. Funding systems that allows money to "follow the child" to whatever form of schooling the parent might choose; including private, parochial, virtual, or home.

None of these things is essential to the creation of great schools. These changes have been justified by urgent calls to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students, yet evidence shows that each of these things actually widens the gap, actually creates additional disadvantages for students in poverty, English learners, and those with special needs.

These changes develop a momentum driven by the corporate interests that are looking for a return on the investments they are making.

The Common Core is the embodiment of this drive to standardize. As this investment analyst's presentation gleefully declares, "Help Close the Performance Gap! If Common Core has teeth, the 'Performance Gap' will get a lot bigger!"

These corporations have entered the political arena and are actively lobbying for the "reforms" from which they profit. So we have test and curriculum publishers like Pearson driving hard for ever more tests. We have Murdoch's Amplify partnering with the Gates Foundation to promote inBloom as a data storage system to enable the expansion of data driven accountability systems. We have virtual charter corporations like K12 Inc working with ALEC to promote legislation expanding their market. We have politicians like Rahm Emanuel diverting funds from public schools, and actively closing schools, while opening opportunities for semi-private charter schools, presumably to please deep pocket donors.

All we really need, remember, are great teachers, a well-supplied building, and some basic technology.

The result of all this is that funding for teachers, buildings, and reasonable class sizes are all being systematically sucked dry in order to feed the "innovators." We have schools of education under huge pressure to align themselves with a test-driven outcome-based model. We have school buildings turned into profit centers for clever charter operators, and hedge fund managers, who happen to be very well connected to the Obama administration. We have high teacher turnover accepted and even celebrated as a means by which we can bring in fresh, inexpensive new teachers to replace the veterans we can no longer afford. And we have class sizes headed skyward as funds that could be spent on teachers are diverted into technology.

Public schools were not conceived of nor designed to be profit centers. The nurturing of children is not an activity that easily lends itself to the extraction of great wealth, as generations of educators can attest. There is an aggressive campaign to demoralize working educators "stuck" in this unprofitable mindset, and replace them with a combination of inexpensive high turnover novices, trained in the 47 techniques that allow one to "teach like a champion," and a battery of profit-seeking edupreneurs constantly seeking ever-more efficient means of preparing students for the world of work.

Educators do not require profits in order to drive innovation. As we have seen in the reports I have shared about the work of the Mills Teacher Scholars, teachers are highly motivated to engage in this complex work when they are given autonomy, support and when they can see that their innovations and inquiries are helping their students to grow. As Daniel Pink has taught us, we need to pay people enough so they are NOT focused on worrying about money, and can put their energy into the complex work of educating students. But because the mind of the corporate reformer cannot wrap itself around a system that is driven by anything other than market forces, we get the re-engineering now well under way.

Those who seek to profit from public education are parasites draining resources at an unprecedented scale. Parasites are inherently destructive to their hosts. They sap energy needed for growth and vitality, and divert it towards the counterproductive growth of the parasite itself. Hosts can adapt to coexist with a parasite, or they can take steps to rid themselves of the parasite altogether. By far the best course of action is to identify the elements the parasites have introduced into our educational system for their selfish purposes, and drive them out, starting with the standardized testing machine, and the false claim that this is any sort of accurate measurement of educational excellence.

Educational excellence at the best schools is measured not in test scores but in the quality of the relationships between students and teachers, and in the authentic work they do as they learn about the real world. The ever-more intrusive and consequential tests, the scripted curriculum, the active disruption by school closures, high teacher turnover; these are all the symptoms of a systemic infestation of profiteering parasites. Our schools will become healthy only when we have shed these parasites, and restored their mission to what it should be - in service of the common good.

What do you think? Have we got an infestation of profiteering parasites on our hands? Or is the profit motive a prerequisite for innovation?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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