Sunday, September 28, 2014

One More Way To Kill Public Schools

AEI has a new video about education. It's slick and well-produced, featuring Muchael McShane walking through a school while telling us how things should be. He has a three-point program which features, among other things, school choice on steroids. It also has numbers and facts, and I'm not even going to address whether they're accurate or not, because even if they are, the arguments attached are full of holes.
You can watch it here if you must. I've hit the salient points below.

The Haves and Have-Nots

McShane opens with the usual business about how Americans without high school diplomas end up having crappy lives, and those with diplomas don't do much better. He introduces Hypothetical Child Jennifer, born into the bottom 20%. He notes that without a college diploma, it's likely she will not get off that bottom rung.

The problem with this argument has been, and will always be, that it confuses correlation with causation. Jennifer is poor. Because she is poor, there is a high likelihood that her life will include certain features, and somewhere on that list will be lower level of education and later success in life. What reformsters want to do is take one of those outcomes (lower educational prospects) and assign it the role of cause.

We could make the same argument about nutrition or clothing. Jennifer probably doesn't eat as well or dress as well as a child from the top 20%. Does it follow that we need a program to get her better food or better clothing because if we do that, she will escape poverty?

McShane says that with a college degree, Jennifer is more likely to make it out of poverty. Is it not equally likely that if she has the qualities to make it out of poverty, those qualities will lead her to pursue a college degree? It's not that I don't see value in a college degree, but the case that simply having a college degree causes an escape from poverty hasn't been made.

Choices and Price Per Pupil

McShane says Jennifer's big hurdle is a lack of choices; wealthy kids have options that she does not.Well, yes.

McShane says the poor-schools-in-poor-neighborhoods is not a spending problem, citing stats about how some of the poorer districts actually spend more per pupil. That may be a stat that can be challenged, but I don't care. It could well be true, because when we talk about Cost Per Pupil, we are talking about an incomplete stat.

What rich kids have going for them is a hugely larger expenditure per pupil-- just not in direct tax dollars to school district. Buffy and Chip may cost $10K apiece for the taxpayers, but they are also taking tennis lessons and SAT coaching and dance class and a hundred other enrichment opportunities that are not paid taxpayer. Part of being a poor kid is not having your total education subsidized by family and friends.

In other words, a rich kid's education costs more than a poor kid's. Let me try an example. Poor Pat and Comfy Chris both need to buy a car. Each gets a stipend of $10K, but Chris's folks chip in another $10K. So Chris ends up driving a nice new fully loaded Ford Focus, and Pat ends up in a used Yugo. What reformsters want to argue is that Pat is driving a lousier car because Pat shops at a crappy car dealership, and if there were only more competition, Pat could have a fully loaded new Focus, too. They are pretending that Chris bought a new Focus with the $10K.

Yes, school financing is way more complicated, and my analogy is imperfect. But my point is still, I believe, valid. These comparisons of schools are invalid because we are not counting the true costs of a wealthier student's education. And the assertion that spending money on schools doesn't help has been debunked more times than Sasquatch.

McShane would also like us to know that school staffing has mushroomed since the seventies, which is undoubtedly true for a myriad of reasons. It's just not immediately obvious what his point is, except maybe "look at all this money wasted on personnel costs," a favorite refrain of the profiteer reform crowd.

The problem

McShane says the system does not foster innovative and entrepreneurial solutions. Do not expect him to tell us why or how entrepreneurial solutions would help education. For privateers, that question makes no more sense than being asked to prove that water is wet.

Schools stifle creativity. Principals spend more time on reports than leading. Teachers are stuck in narrowed curriculum directed at passing tests. "It's demoralizing, it's dehumanizing, and it hurts kids like Jennifer." The AEI folks are not blithering idiots. These are true things. What is not at all clear is how entrepreneurial solutions would fix any of that. In fact, I'm pretty sure that it's the innovative entrepreneurial spirit that brought us some of those stifling reforms in the first place. 

But McShane does have three solutions to propose.

1) You think you know choice and vouchers? You ain't seen nothing yet.

McShane starts out with the old victims of geography argument, where students flow to schools and the money follows them, whether the schools suck or not. This is a nice rhetorical trick, because it presents schools as objects that just appear, like barnacles or crop circles, and not as community institutions created and maintained by the local taxpayers in order to provide education for their local children.

McShane says vouchers would be better, and I've already burned up bandwidth addressing why he's simply wrong. But let's not stop for that argument because this is not your father's school voucher concept. This is choice hopped up on steroids.

McShane wants choice on the course level. Giving one school, any school, Jennifer's block of money in order to arrange her whole education is a fail. Better, in his opinion, is an educational account for Jennifer that she can use to buy/hire specific courses.

This is a pretty stunning vision. It allows content-providing companies to specialize to make their profits, and it puts all the responsibility on the parents, many of whom will pay dearly for advice on how manage Jennifer's account. It is the educational version of the idea to abolish social security and let/make everyone manage their own retirement fund.

The most obvious implication that McShane doesn't flat out state-- under this system, we can get rid of schools as institutions entirely. McShane's out not just to cut personnel costs, but to get rid of many other overhead costs involved in operating schools. Hear that sound? Ka-ching, baby.

2) Better regulatory approach.

Using "scores and formulas" to hold schools and teachers accountable for a "one size fits all definition of success" is sucky. Can't disagree with that a bit.

Oh, wait. Yes, I can. Because McShane says it sucks because it stifles competition, and we need to let parents vote with their feet. He also says that we need a "flexible, market-based system that relies on performance contracts, inspectors and accreditors to hold educators responsible to many kinds of results." It's hard to be certain what he has in mind other than scores and formulas, though "performance contracts" suggests deliverables. But that means concrete number results, which means data, which invariably means test scores. It would seem that McShane has something else in mind, but it's really not clear what.

3) Freedom to slash

Okay, that's not how McShane puts it. He wants the people who provide these new services to have access to financial and human capital. "They would need the freedom to rethink the roles and compensations of teachers and leaders." "Rethink" is such a harmless word. It sounds much nicer than "freedom to squeeze money out of every corner of the company without regard for the human beings involved."

He'd also like to be able to retrain teachers for "unique environments," and these companies need the flexibility to search out private and public funds.

Behind that curtain

The system that McShane envisions would be extraordinarily cumbersome, with dozens of independent operators jostling for their market share of Jennifers while thousands of parents try to sort through the marketplace. It seems that the inevitable result would be the rise of contractors-- businesses that operate as clearinghouses for content providers and shopping centers for parents.

Some charter operators are close enough to the model to jump on it quickly. Jennifer's Not-Actually-A-School could hire independent contractors for low pay and no benefits, easily replaceable. Not-Actually-A-School would be most efficient if it had programs in a box and just had to hire some content delivery specialists to unpack the box (a job requiring no real expertise). The education services would basically be go-betweens, connecting audience-students with content deliverypersons. In effect, these innovative entrepreneurs would re-invent the recording industry.

Wrap it up

McShane wants to unleash the innovators and entrepreneurs so that they can help Jennifer, who is sweet and well-scrubbed and bright-looking and who walks compliantly beside McShane as he brings it on home. He wants a vibrant marketplace that will compete for her dollar (it is apparently not the taxpayers' money once we hand it to Jennifer). These businesses would compete by showing "better results for her futures" so I guess there is a time machine or a crystal ball in there somewhere.

McShane says nothing at all about how this vibrant "ecosystem" would respond to Jennifer's classmate-- the one who has disabilities and behavior problems and is more expensive to teach. McShane says nothing at all about how this nimble marketplace would treat "customers" who were not attractive or optimal for use of human and financial capital.

McShane asserts that his ideas are pro-teacher, pro-principal, pro-family and pro-children, and I'd assert that they aren't any of those things. He would like to reduce teachers and principals to at-will subcontractors, children to walking piles of money (bring us your voucher!), and families to advertising targets.

Would the education system he envisions be any good? Would it honor the American ideal of educating every single student? Would it in any way honor the tradition of community based and supported schools?

Or would it just make somebody a big pile of money? Ka-ching. Yes, I'm doing a lot of conjecturing here. I look forward to being shown how I'm wrong, because in this instance, I really don't want to be right.


  1. I'm just trying to figure who his target audience is. Investors?

  2. Me, too, laMissy--just who is supposed to respond to this deceptive argument around human capital? I think the "your life is crap if you didn't go to college" think is still conventional wisdom--but cui bono? Who benefits?

    Because now--folks with college degrees in those nations that are "catching up" to us (dun dun duhn) can't get jobs, either. There are serious economic reasons that skilled labor goes cheaply, and college degrees are increasingly worthless in the labor market.

  3. Peter, great analysis. Thanks for watching the whole thing so I didn't have to. I found myself getting queasy --was it the bobbing graphics? McShane's repulsive Ayn Rand-hipster persona? The hideous future he sketches out?

  4. I agree that the video is slick and well produced, with a definite market driven business orientation, however I think it exposes an even more fundamental reality. The future of education is changing rapidly, and I am not just talking about the standardization movement and the big business influences. As parents and students are beginning to demand more from their education – just look at the growth in homeschooling/un-schooling, the development of the hack-schooling movement, and the increase in alternative educational options including but no limited to charter and online schools, plus the explosive growth in educational technology delivery such as Khan Academy, iTunes U, MOOCs and others – we as professional educators need to recognize these growing trends. I truly believe in the next 10-15 years (and I might be too optimistic here) the educational landscape in America is going to be very different then it is today. I see a future where choice is the new reality. Choice driven as much or more by parents and students, than by so called reformers. The innovation and access revolution is fundamentally going to change the way we as teachers relate to our students. The days of 8:00 a.m. -3:00 p.m., Labor Day to Memorial Day, age sorted classrooms, located in large school buildings are going the way of the Dodo. So instead of putting our heads in the sand and hoping that it will go away I think we need to be a the forefront of the education evolution. We need to be actively educating ourselves to adapt to this future. We need to have a voice and a seat at the table. We need to show that we can move beyond doing what we have always done, because we have always done it that way. And we need to recognize that our profession is not going to look like it did when we first started. As a teacher and administrator I find this both frightening and exciting. I don’t know about others but I am going to continue to believe in the power of teachers and schools (even if they look much different than they did when I started), and I am going to fight to provide my students with the best educational options no matter where what that future leads.

    1. First, thank you Peter Greene for an excellent choice of video, and you comments against this. They are eyeopening and extremely helpful. I find myself researching all your links to help me fully understand - even though I am a teacher.

      Second, Peter Wieczorek, you make very valid points and your look forward is very good. I agree that the most influential pushers for choice are parents, who want the best for their children, too. I believe you are correct, the static dates and days of schools need to be considered for further change based on parental input. But I think you overlook one important thing, public school is the best place for Americans to learn to be social to their community, and to be good citizens. Sitting in front of a computer all day, or learning in little "silos" of groups does not promote socialization, and many parents know this.

      I see many home-schooled children come to karate classes in my little town so they have socialization with others and for their exercise component. If we can enhance these kind of socialization opportunities for our public school children, and support public school offered home schooling for those children that really need it, I believe we would strengthen the need for public school. The ability to have contact with other children their age in learning activities, art activities, sport activities, and extra curricular activities is one of the strengths of public school. Defunding these programs plays right into the hands of the "choice" (read as "I want your tax dollars") reformers.