Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Demonstrating Why Business Ideas Don't Help Public Education (Example #3,244,781)

As always, let me say up front that I don't hate the free market and business, and that I believe there are things that they do pretty well. But the free market does not belong within six-to-ten feet of public education (or health care or basically anything that involves taking care of human beings, but let me try to retain some focus here).

We are living through yet another demonstration of the ways in which market-based approaches fail, and in some cases, fail really hard.

Long Term Preparation Is Inefficient But Essential

Back when I was a stage crew advisor, there was a pep talk I had to give periodically to crew members, particularly those working in the wings as grips or fly. "I know that you sit and do nothing for a lot of this show," I'd say, "but when we need you, we really need you. In those few minutes, you are critical to our success." In those moments we were talking about, every crew member was occupied; there was no way to double up or cut corners.

Emergency preparation is much the same. It's economically efficient to, for instance, keep a whole stockpile of facemasks or ventilators. Big-time businessman Trump justified his cuts to various health agencies by citing business wisdom:

And rather than spending the money—I’m a business person. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.

This turns out to be just as smart as disbanding the fire department and figuring you'll just round up personnel and equipment when something is actually on fire. It doesn't work. And as we have witnessed, it leaves you unprepared to deal with the critical moment when it arrives.

But the market hates tying up money in excess capacity or emergency readiness, because you're spending all that money on capacity that isn't being used this second. Are those guidance counselors and school nurses seeing students every single minute of the day? Well then, we should be able to cut them back. Are we sure that every teacher is teaching the maximum number of students possible? Couldn't we just put some of those students on software? This is why so many business heads are convinced that public education is simply filled with waste--because there seems to be so much excess capacity in schools.

But in many schools, there's not enough excess capacity. When a student is in the middle of a crisis, we should be able to respond immediately, whether it's a personal crisis, a medical crisis, or an educational issue. The response should not be "tough it out till the counselor is on duty tomorrow" or "we'll just wrap that in some gauze until the nurse comes in three hours from now" or "I know you need help with the assignment, but I can't take my attention away from the other thirty-five students in this classroom." And that's on top of the issue of preparedness, or having staff and teachers who have the capacity--the time and resources and help-- to be prepared for the daily onslaught of Young Human Crises. When wealthy people pay private school tuition or raise their own public school taxes, this is what they're paying for-- the knowledge that whenever their child needs the school to respond, the response will come immediately.

Sure, you can cut a school to the bones in the name of efficiency, but what you'll have is the educational equivalent of a nation caught flatfooted by a global pandemic because it didn't have the people in place to be prepared.

Competition Guarantees Losers

Ed Reformsters just love the bromide about how competition raises all boats and makes everyone better. And yet, the pandemic's free market approach to critical medical supplies doesn't seem to bear that out. States are being forced to compete with each other  and the federal government, and all it's doing is making vendors rich. This is free market competition at its baldest-- if you have more money, you win. If you have less money, you lose. At some point, if it has not already happened, some people in this country are going to die because their state, municipality or medical facility will not have enough money to outbid someone else.

The free market picks losers, and it generally picks them on the basis of their lack of wealth. The notion that losers can just compete harder, by wrapping their bootstraps in grit, is baloney. It's comforting for winners to believe that they won because of hard work and grit and not winning some fate-based lottery, and it also releases them from any obligation to give a rat's rear about anyone else ("I made myself, so everyone else should do the same").

A system built on picking losers and punishing them for losing is the exact opposite of what we need for public education. You can argue that well, we just want free market competition for schools and teachers, but if that kind of competition is in the dna of the system, it will stomp all over students as well, just as all free market businesses pick customers to be losers who don't get served because they aren't sufficiently profitable. Kind of like a low-revenue state or old folks home that can't get its people necessary supplies because they don't have enough wealth to bid with.

"Compete harder" just means "be richer." It is not helpful advice.

Expertise Isn't Always Marketable

May I introduce, once again, Greene's Law-- "The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing."

Now sure, marketing can sometimes be based on actual quality or expertise. But that's not always the best way to sell your stuff, and we are living through a yuge demonstration of the results of a focus on marketability over actually knowing what the hell you're talking about. It gets us things like a movement by anti-vaxxers to replace Dr. Fauci with a miserable quack. It gets us Fox News and an endless parade of ignorant talking heads who can sell the heck out of their ill-informed answers to the current crisis. It gets us officials whose scientific illiteracy informs a parade of bad decisions because they pick based on what appeals to them, based on their deep distrust of "experts."

Letting these kinds of forces loose in public education is not now, nor has it ever been, a good idea. The notion that schools should be devoting time and money to marketing themselves is a dumb idea. It's not just the waste-- it's the tendency of the marketplace to favor what is sexy and truthy and appealing to biases over what is actually recommended by actual experts.

We are living through the kind of mess created by devaluing expertise. Public education would not be helped.

None Of This Is New

These are not new reasons to reject free market businessized thinking for public education (and, for that matter, for private education as well). But we are living through a full-scale demonstration of what happens when you try to apply free market business-ish philosophy to the care and support of actual human beings in a functional free society. We can do better than this.


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