Monday, April 6, 2015

Lab Rat High and Public Risk

The irreplaceable Mercedes Schneider has a sharp, tough piece this morning about profiteer Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Schools, that is one more reminder of why schools are not businesses.

Steve Barr has a good story (you can read the approved version on a Wikipedia page that is waiting to be edited by someone who doesn't already love Steve Barr). Single mom, working class background, former teamster, career as political operative, dabbling in TV production. Barr's younger brother did not rise up, but instead struggled with getting his act together before dying in a motorcycle accident. Barr asked himself why his brother followed a different trajectory than he did, and concluded "schools," and so took the insurance money from his brother's death to help launch Green Dot.

Bottom line: Barr is not a typical riches to riches success story, but he is typical of the business-politics approach to life-building, and therefor a good example of why that approach is ill-suited to education.

Schneider takes Barr to task for his dalliance with and abandonment of John McDonogh High School is New Orleans. Barr thought he'd give a long-distance takeover of that school a try in 2012, and he thought he'd just dump the whole project in 2014. Not his kids, not his community, and, not his problem. As Schneider puts it, "Just a long-distance business deal that did not pan out."

And that's the thing. If this were an entrepreneur trying a tentative launch of a new left-handed widget production facility, that would be fine. Taking chances, experimenting, trying something even when you know going in that it might not pan out--  that's a perfectly legitimate way to do business. If entrepreneurs never took a flier on new ventures, we would be far poorer for it.

That is what business people, investors, entrepreneurs do-- they take risks. If they win, then society is often better off and the investors reap the rewards of shouldering the risk. If they lose, then they're out some money and life goes on. They have risked investor money, maybe reputation, and the lives of those who worked on the enterprise.

None of this is wrong or bad. It's how business ventures work. But it should not, can not be how schools work.

For one thing, the reformster movement is another part of a larger trend-- shifting risk to the public while privatizing rewards. Too often reformsters get to finance their ideas while they get to keep the rewards. We've spent a lot of time looking at the many, many ways in which charter operators can get rich (yes, even the non-profit ones). But at the other end, we'll find that when charters collapse, nobody has lost money except the taxpayers. When Barr's Future Is Now group bowed out of operating John McDonogh, there were no wails about how much of their own money they had sunk into the place. This is one other thing that is appealing about charter operation-- the state gives you money and, if you have the right connections, even buildings. Start-up costs and investment expense is minimal, and personal financial risk is negligible-to-non-existent.

But there's another reason that schools cannot be businesses.

Students are not lab rats.

Barr's little experiment with John McDonogh High School lasted about two years, or about the half of the high school years of students at that school. Those years were taken from them, and nothing will ever get that time back.

Schools are not businesses for the same reason that so much education research is bunk-- because students are not lab rats, and it's not okay for adults to sacrifice students' education, well-being and lives on the altar of Let's Find Out If This Works.

Steve Barr's story is a recognizable American success story, and it involves plenty of experimentation, trial and error, and failure followed by rebounding. And those are all great qualities to apply to your own story. Gambling with your own life, your own future is both admirable and, occasionally, necessary. But gambling with other peoples' futures is foolhardy and irresponsible. Gambling with the futures of children is unconscionable.

Reformsters make a lot of noise about how the education sector is inertia-filled, conservative, extra-careful about change. Well, of course we are-- these are the lives of children we're talking about.

An edupreneur may think, "Hey, we could totally upend kindergarten with this new approach. Let's give it a try for a year or two and if that doesn't work out, no biggie. We'll move on to another idea." A year in business experimenting doesn't seem like so much. But we're talking about taking away a year from five year olds, tiny humans who will never be five again, and for whom that experiment will forever be part of their lives and history.

When we futz with the system, we can spot problems and change the system. But we can't change what we did to the students in the system while we were futzing.

So, yes-- we're conservative and we change carefully and slowly. It's fine to take big risks with private money. It's less fine to use public money to finance private risk. It's not remotely fine to take big risks with the education of young humans.

If there's one thing that marks the worst of the reformsters, it's a complete disregard for the tiny humans whose lives are shaped in schools. Reformsters are great at invoking children and using the well-worn talking points about putting the interests of children ahead of the interests of adults. But in practice, reformsters treat children like widgets or sweat-shop employees. When businessmen determine the fate of a factory or business enterprise, they don't worry about the stock, the soon-to-be-unemployed, or their former customers.

When we talk about the close of a business, the end of a venture, there is no analogy in which children come out looking like valued human beings whose concerns are central to how the end is handled. Schools are not businesses, because businesses fail and vanish like vaporware, but children never do. Schools are not businesses, because businesses must sometimes be experiments, and students are not lab rats.

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