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Should We Risk a Free Market in Education?


Dear Deborah,

Over the time that we have been blogging, we have found many issues on which we disagree—mostly having to do with externally set curriculum, standards, and tests—and many on which we agree—mostly having to do with autocratic school leadership and efforts to force a business model on the schools.

Since I am writing you on a day when the world economic system is in disarray, I would like to focus on the relevance of the business model for the nation’s public schools.

For the past 15 years or more, we have heard a steady drumbeat from the business community and their allies that the schools need a strong dose of businesslike methods. They need choice, competition, accountability. They need to be more like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King, they need to fight for consumers, they need to be shuttered if they can’t get customers. In short, let’s turn the schools over to the free market. And, of course, we must measure relentlessly, shaming and humiliating those teachers whose students are not constantly getting ever higher test scores. Test scores, I suppose, are the equivalent of a sales target or profit margins.

And of course schools should be deregulated, so that the competition can be as fierce as possible.

As the free market lies in shambles around us, bringing down with it many people’s life savings, I wonder if its advocates in the education arena will stop and reconsider whether they are importing free-market chaos and free-market punishments into the lives of children? And who will stop them before it is too late?



Diane, indeed it is compelling to bring this up. What are these innovators thinking?

Things are going so well in education, its impossible to imagine why anyone would muck with the status quo. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, my Dad has told me a thousand times.

Teachers, of course, are paid so well they're nearly embarrassed. It is good that the economic model they use treats them so generously. Its good the collective, stepped, no merit model assures that students have the best we can find. Indeed, schools are stealing good people from other fields at such a rate that there is now a huge glut of teacher candidates-way too many for the limited number of jobs we have to offer.

Graduates of the public schools, are of course, extraordinarily satisfied with the experiences they had. Maybe not perfect, but most grads recognize that the schools and the teachers in them are organized in probably the most effective manner possible. Only as yet undelivered technical advances could allow schooling to be more advanced than it is now.

In fact, the education sector serves as a role model to so many other sectors. Medical workers and engineers and designers and so many other professions these days are looking at the success of the mandatory collective bargaining in so many states and saying, "that's what we need to improve our profession!"

Shaming of teachers is rampant; teachers respond to it in a number of different ways. They may fall into despair. They may try to fight it. They may quit. They may try to ignore it as much as possible. They may believe it is deserved and endure it. They may play the game but complain behind closed doors.

None of these responses is ideal. (I think of Jane and Helen in Jane Eyre; I remember admiring Helen but being unable to emulate her.) Shaming puts you a teacher in a quandary with herself or himself. It is difficult to live with yourself when you are caught between so many things, none of which seems complete.

The opposite of shaming is not blanket praise, but respect. Most teachers know their strengths and weaknesses and are willing to admit to them. Schools do not always see straight; their priorities can get skewed under pressure. Wouldn't it be great for schools to have some perspective: to see beyond current fads and mania, whatever they might be? What would that take?

Wouldn't it be great to see education as something greater than ourselves or the noise around us? Then we could see past the blaming. Then we could have better schools.

Diana Senechal

Diana, good evening.

It happens that I come from just such a profession that had to endure shame. When I started out of school it was not teachers abused nightly on the Tonight Show, it was aerospace workers. You perhaps can remember the nonstop jokes about $500 hammers and million dollar toilets? More to the point were the systemic failures to deliver anything anywhere near on time or budget, spiced up by the odd crash or complete mission failure (Iran hostage rescue, Mars, Hubble mirror,...)

We in the engineering side never accepted the burden of shame personally, yet we did work to correct the systemic issues. Chief among these was to increase the opportunities for a company, and its workers, to lose the job. Still couldn't do that at any and every point, of course, but Congress and the government contracting authorities worked to put more responsibility into the hands of private integration contractors, (and less in the hands of tenured government bureaucrats), to demand more competition at points where it made sense, and to structure in rewards and penalties for surpassing or falling short of success.

Now, no doubt, acceptance testing on a fighter make take years but it is still a discrete works/doesn't work sort of thing, and a hs grad is certainly more difficult to assess.

Nonetheless, we are kidding ourselves if we say its impossible to look at class P on one side of New Orleans and class Q on the other and not be able to tell that one class cannot read and the other can.

Its not shame to admit that improvements can be made; even at the structural core of your meta-organization, just as we in software and aerospace did before ye.


In a family, is it good for a child when one parent shames another? Can children separate themselves from it?Often children carry such humiliation throughout their lives. Do you think it's any better for children at school when their teachers are shamed? Is it good for the teachers?

Shaming is often based on an assumption that teachers are doing something wrong and shirking their duties. More often than not, it is generalized to all teachers. The test scores are held up as the highest truth and god. Everything and everyone must bow to them.

Teaching has great rewards, but the paperwork and group management tasks often take over. As Ben Foley pointed out in an earlier comment, teachers' duties leave little room for "crafting deep, rich, interesting lessons," which is what many teachers hoped to do when they entered the field. Teachers are told to differentiate, carry students' test scores around (lest they be questioned on the data), fill out paperwork during class time, follow senseless pedagogical models, attend meetings about all of the above, and substitute for other teachers at a moment's notice.

In my experience, teachers are fairly humble. They do what they are told and more. They follow all instructions, put in extra hours at their schools, and spend weekends preparing lessons and materials. But teachers need an opportunity to work with full brain and heart.

Teachers should have room to accept and offer criticism. They should have professional freedom to teach not according to the latest fad, but according to their understanding of the subject and their students.

There must also be a way to teach and live. Yes, we need to work hard. But we need a way to sustain our work over time. Shaming creates unnecessary exhaustion. And it is all for test scores, which do not merit such obeisance.

Diana Senechal

Precisely. The teachers lot is an overburdened one. This means the system is not serving them properly.

Yet any and all attempts to change the system are immediately and roundly denounced. This post is an example of just such blanket rejection of change.

The test scores are not an end. (Not unless teachers make them so). The tests were merely the only leverage we could find against the reactionary opposition to all change by union bosses and their sycophants in the press.

If you as a profession reduce the power of these bosses back to where it belongs - extreme instances of abuse by management is a few rare school systems - then you will shrug off the degradation you rightly or wrongly feel.

More to the point, you will begin to earn both the rewards and support that comes with a job well done.


You are wrong. It is not teachers who make test scores an end. Teachers often oppose such abuse of test scores.

If it is true that you and others have been using test scores as leverage against union bosses, then you have made a grim admission. So you'd choose to have children, teachers, and schools bear the brunt of your quarrel?

Unions are complex organizations, but I'd rather have a union than not. We can't give up tenure. It is essential to good teaching and honest participation in a school. It's already being eroded with "excessing" of veteran teachers and massive recruitment of novices.

We need experience in the schools; we need people who are somewhat immune to a school's vicissitudes. Children look up to such teachers, sensing strength and knowledge. Abolish tenure, and you give up a school's wisdom and soul.

Diana Senechal

The free market thing worked so well for the banking sector. Let's subject the educational sector to the same failures. :-/


I wanted to respond to your statement, "I would like to focus on the relevance of the business model for the nation’s public schools."

There is no single business model. Rather, there are successful and unsuccessful models. Let's stop demonizing business practices and look honestly at great businesses and how we in public education might pull worthy principles and ideals out of their successes.

We can start with Jim Collins excellent research in Good to Great. Every school could benefit from grafting some or all of his principles into staff operations.


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