Friday, September 29, 2017

Why Schools Are Not Food Trucks

Betsy DeVos's continued search for an analogy by which to illustrate her view of schools regularly reveals how uch she doesn't understand about public education.

Last night at Harvard, DeVos unleashed this one:

Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants. But you know what — food trucks started lining the streets to provide options. Some are better than others, and some are even local restaurants that have added food trucks to their businesses to better meet customer’s needs.

Now, if you visit one of those food trucks instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? Or are you trying to put grocery stores out of business?

No. You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at that time

Just as in how you eat, education is not a binary choice.Being for equal access and opportunity – being for choice – is not being against anything.

As always, DeVos chooses an analogy that paints education as a commercial transaction in which the customer buys some goods. That's fatally flawed, but let's move on for now. DeVos likes to focus on the customer's point of view, while ignoring all the other factors that will, in fact, affect both the "customer" and the vendor.

The food trucks on the mall in DC are involved in a zero sum game. There is only so much space on the streets where food trucks deploy, and it is all occupied, which means that if anybody wants to park a new food truck there, an old one will have to be removed. Space on those streets is a finite resource. To give it to one truck is to take it away from another.

DeVos likes to characterize these sorts of balancing acts as emotionally charged moments-- here she points out that food truck patrons don't "hate" restaurants. Hatred is beside the point. This, too, is a zero sum game; if I spend money at a food truck, that is money I cannot spend elsewhere.If everyone eats at food trucks, restaurants will go out of business. DeVos does not have to hate public schools in order to choke off their resources and let them be run into the ground (in fact, I get the impression that her feelings are somewhere between disdain and indifference).

Note that DeVos continues to drift further and further away from any interest in accountability for quality-- in this analogy we pick the choice that tastes good, and if it happens to be unhealthy or toxic or laced with fried dog meat, none of that matters. Taste is not a bad guide for matters of food, but with schools, what "tastes good" today is not necessarily what will best serve the student, the family, the community and the nation over the coming decades. "Tastes good this moment" and "provides a solid education for a lifetime" are two entirely different metrics

Like every other commercial enterprise, the food trucks of DC are not geared to handle all customers. There are many reasons that comparing schools to businesses is a huge fail, but this is one of the hugest-- there is no business sector in this country built on the idea of serving every single person in the country. Each food truck operates on the idea that some people will eat there and other people won't, and as long as enough people eat there, the food truck is good. But if there are people who don't eat at any of the food trucks, some people who don't eat at all-- well, that is not the food truck operators problem.

And as a customer, you can't get whatever you want-- you can only get what the trucks are serving.

The modern charter industry is a business model, and just like any other business model, it is built on serving some customers. Making sure that every student in America gets a good education is not the goal, the purpose or even the concern of the charter industry. But it has to be the concern of a public school system.

Schools are not businesses. Students are not customers. And education is not a side of fries.


  1. IF one views students as consumers, then the food truck vs. food truck vs. restaurants is a piss-poor analogy anyway.

    In this case, the 'customer' is making commitments for maybe 15-30 minutes in time & $5-$30 for the food.

    In no model of education does a student attend Watsamatter U charter on Monday, Harvton Pre-Ivory charter on Tuesday & then on Wednesday go to Atlanta Outer Limits HS, home of the 7A state public school FB champion Bullpuppies.

    For education, the "consumers'" time (if not financial) commitments are more like the purchase of a house, or at best a new car.

  2. Peter, I agree her analogy isn't perfect, but neither is your criticism.

    "DeVos chooses an analogy that paints education as a commercial transaction in which the customer buys some goods. That's fatally flawed"

    Peter, why? I know many people (including many public school teachers) who's children attend private school. They purchase education for their children as a commercial transaction every year. How is that different?

    "If everyone eats at food trucks, restaurants will go out of business."

    If everyone chooses to eat at food trucks, the restaurants must be terrible. I'm cynical about public schools, but even I don't think they're so bad that no one would go there.

    "You can't get whatever you want-- you can only get what the trucks are serving"

    And in a world of only public schools (which you advocate), there would be so much more variety of educational methods? How does fewer providers improve quality or variety?

    Education isn't like buying dinner, but it isn't like making widgets either. There isn't an "education factory" that you can pour children into and they all come out fully educated 12 years later. Parents values differ. Definitions of "education" differ. Kids learning styles differ. Your inputs are too diverse to believe that any one factory system will work for every child.

    We have variety in every other aspect of our lives. Why are you so violently opposed to allowing variety in education?

    1. Variety is well-delivered by public school systems. It's facile to dismiss public education as one factory system, but that characterization misses the reality on the ground.

      As I write here and in many other posts, a business approach to education is great if you want an educational system that only serves some students. There is no business sector-- none-- founded on providing that service or good to all citizens. Business sorts people into folks that will be served and folks that won't be served, and that is unacceptable to me for public education.

      Where we have public schools doing the worst job of serving the public is generally where the business approach to education has made the most inroads. Privatized armies, police, and schools will only serve a portion of the population, leaving the rest to go pound sand.

      Charters already provide an excellent proof of this. The most "successful" all share one thing in common-- they serve only the customers that they choose to serve. That is unacceptable for a public education system.

    2. Peter, part of the reason there is variety in public schools is because of the charter movement. That would be an interesting study: public school performance before and after charter introduction. You may know if it's been done.

      You detest a business approach to education. I detest a monopoly approach to education. We break up private monopolies because they notoriously don't serve customers. I see nothing in education that invalidates that anti-monopoly logic.

      For an industry as important as educating the next generation, I want lots of options, not fewer.

    3. There is no public school monopoly. Each school district is locally controlled and operated. What invalidates anti-monopoly logic in public education is that there is no monopoly in public education.

      The charter movement has produced zero new variety in public school. After all these years, there are still no lessons for public schools to learn from charters. Schools run more smoothly if you only have to deal with the students you choose to deal with? Schools can achieve more with more money and resources? Fancy not-entire-truthful marketing helps recruit customers? These are not new lessons. Charters, which promised a cornucopia of new innovations, have produced none.

    4. Peter, you make one wildly inaccurate assumption: That any significant number of the "market-based solutions always work" crew ever actually consider evidence.

      Brian, I spent 24 years as a public school HS teacher and 10 years as a private school HS teacher. And most of your assumptions are patently false.

      There is no monopoly within THE SAME SCHOOL with so-called instructional methods or programs. One off the schools where I taught had more 'options' within its campus than all of the Columbia SC area public & charter schools combined. Both (Spring Valley & Dutch Fork) were & are relatively well-funded by today's standards.

      Your off-spring gifted academically? AP classes offered for all the disciplines. check

      Your son is mechanically inclined and wants to earn serious dough only weeks after graduated? check

      Your child has a great eye and needs to be prepared for the Savannah School of Art & Design? check

      Your child is not college material but is empathetic with great people skills and would like to be in the health field, potentially licensed as a practical nurse immediately upon graduating? check

      All of these options (and more) were in place YEARS before the charter movement was a wet dream for rich people to reap my tax dollars for their benefit.

      As a whole, charters are not around long enough to 'innovate'. The churn in faculty at most charters make it impossible for so-called 'innovation'.

    5. Gentlemen, as I've done here before, I always look at this issue from the perspective of a single student.

      A single student's (call her Jane) experience of public education is a monopoly. Her school is chosen for her, without regard for her needs or desires, based on where she lives.

      That great school you talked about, fizzicks, is only available to those students who live within its attendance boundary. Wrong ZIP code, tough luck, kid.
      And as a public school teacher, surely you recognize that such a school is hardly typical.

      I'm thrilled that there are great public schools; I wish there were more great public schools. But there are a great many public schools that are not only "not great", they are downright bad. I believe the continued existence of lousy public schools is, in part, perpetuated by their monopoly position within a geographic area.

      If Jane is stuck in a lousy attendance boundaries (the wrong side of the tracks, say), what, exactly, is her family supposed to do? Where is this great panacea of public education if you live in Washington DC, or Compton, or East Palo Alto?

    6. The instant that you privatize any public service, the people being served by that service instantly cease being human beings, and instead become "commodities." Once privatization is imposed, IT CAN'T NOT BE THAT WAY.

      PUBLIC EDUCATION: before a business or market-based model is imposed, children are full human beings with all the dignity and potential that comes with that, and the goal of the institution is to help each and every children reach his or her highest potential --- be that a high maximum potential with gifted children, or low maximum potential with severely disabled children.

      To achieve that, the monetary cost or other non-monetary costs of assisting children in reaching that highest potential is never considered.

      For example, child shows up in the main office of a public school (a truly public school, not a faux-public school or charter school purporting to be a public school) and he has proof of living in the attendance boundary of that school, no one behind that counter in that room or elsewhere in power over that school judges that child based on the monetary cost or difficulties that will come with helping that child reach that potential.

      The child is accepted --- no matter what --- and ideally, the system will spend whatever is needed and do whatever is required to meet that child's needs.

      Even if that child is severely disabled,... even if that child is technically homeless and living in a shelter or a run-down transient motel, the public school eagerly accepts that child and all the challenges that will come with educating that child.

      I've been in that office when a homeless parent brings in a child. Before that parent can even finish the paperwork, someone walks that child to his or her new classroom to begin the process (at that school) of helping that child reach his/her potential.

      PRIVATIZED CHARTER SCHOOL A MARKET-BASED MODEL: the child is a commodity, and the child's quality is based on two factors: COST and BENEFIT

      COST: how much will it cost to educate this child. If the child has any innate disability, that means a smaller class size, and more adults in the classroom, and more expensive training for the staff. The greater the disability, the greater the cost, and the less those operating this privatized school want anything to do with that child.

      BENEFIT: the market-based model of schooling also judges students on their ability to generate higher scores on standardized tests --- a dubious measure, at best. The higher a student's potential in scoring high on tests, the more desirable the student. The less potential, the desirable.

      Disabled kids, or problem behavior kids will not score well, so they must be kept out of privately-managed charter schools at all costs, and they are.

      Again, special ed. kids, or homeless kids, or foster care kids, or non-special ed. kids who act out with disruptive behavior because of the baggage they bring from a distressed home life ... all of these make that child less desirable under a market-based model... and thus, they don't get in, or if they do slip through that initial filter, they are kicked out later (but the remainder of funding allocated for that child doesn't follow that child back to the public school system.)



      The applications for charter schools often include questions about language spoken in the home, the income level of the parent, the country of origin of the parents, whether or not the child has special need. All of this is geared so that only the children who are easiest and less costly to educate make it into that school.

      Why? Because that's what's best for the BOTTOM LINE.

      As a condition of entry to a privately-managed charter, kids are often given tests, and asked for prior report cards, or results from standardized tests previously taken by those kids, or to provide a portfolio of work.

      In essense, those are just private schools --- non-transparent, unaccountable private schools --- being operated with public money.

      The thing is... even with all those advantages, those charter schools are NOT out-performing the public schools, most often performing worse or at best, at the same level of those public schools. That is partly due to, once again, cost cutting, as when you pay teachers poorly, you get lower quality, less experienced teachers.


    8. Jack, you must know a great many charter school administrators to speak so knowledgeably about how they view children.

      Those that I know (with the exception of only 1 man), are all in it for the same reason as public school teachers: to help kids succeed. That 1 outlier is a homeschool/virtual charter operator, and because everyone can see he's in it for the money, he has thus far been unable to secure a charter permit. (In short, local oversight is working in that case.)

      I have heard charter administrators talk about the "bottom line", but only in the aggregate. I've never heard anyone discuss is in terms of a single child or small group of children.

      I don't know what your characterization is based on, but it does not match my experience.

    9. I'm looking at it from a single student also.

      I notice you said "administrators". "administrators" MAY empathize & want to help a single student, but ask those guys about how well they are doing in attracting & keeping teachers? How many teachers have left midyear? Devastating for lower grade children. Extremely disruptive for teenagers & their remaining teachers.

    10. Except that the costs of providing more than a minimal level of education to a highly disabled child can be very expensive. Endrew v Douglas school district before the supreme court a few months back addressed this. It ran about $70K/year in private school tuition for Endrew to attend a special school. Being such would equate to reducing the public schools staff by 1-2 entry level teachers, they were reluctant to pay the private school tuition. Alas, the supreme court ruled that the public school had to pick up the tab, since they were unable to provide the specialized education Endrew needed.

    11. Brian V, I just reread one of your responses...

      One of the reasons why there ARE more than a few great public schools is because they are close to being adequately funded AND those schools tend to have a relatively stable cadre of faculty that keep those various HS's consistent in quality.

      When charters get "established" (given the fly-by-night nature, "established" is gross exaggeration for charters) the usual deal is that they suck funds from public schools, leaving them less adequately funded, AND the charters are less than adequately funded. Add to that the inadequate funded charters are further sucked dry by whatever for or non-profit so-called administrative investors enrich themselves with MY F'ing tax money.

      I recently retired as an award winning physics teacher. I have been contacted by various charter corporations from MI, FL, UT & OH about how they need a quality teacher like me. When I ask about working conditions? In every case the salary they offer is insulting, they want the teacher to teach more preps with less prep time & more hours on off time than any school I've ever been employed by.

      Brian, I am going to tell you straight up:
      If your ilk want pros teaching your little snowflakes, you'd better pony up. A 29-year-old version of me in 2017 with a young family would not even consider teaching HS science as a career, much less even a short term job, in today's environment.

  3. Because of everything I have studied, read on this blog, in the news, and in the media in general, I feel ashamed to be American and have felt so for my whole adult life. Food truck schools, racism, bigotry, exploitation, lying, stealing, cheating and hypocrisy make it impossible for me to feel proud.

    All of this makes me hopeless and discouraged. I don't know why we bother with the farce of the national anthem.

    The more I read blogs like this, the more certain I am that this country is a hopeless case.

    I am grateful that I am at least not delusional. And the good that I see can never outweigh ugliness nor the history of ugliness.

    I have lived in other countries and we are thinking of leaving.

    This place is one big lie.

    Maybe other people will react to your blog with more optimism than me.

    The final conclusion is that overall, people are bad to the core and worthy of all derision. That includes me. I haven't done anything significant except try to teach and be kind to my neighbor. I am not an activist like Peter. My efforts are a drop in the bucket against a vast ocean of awfulness. And that is assuming that any decency I have counts. I am the product of white privilege. There is no getting around it.

    I have been looking for someone to come up with an honest assessment of education, civilization, etc. with an ounce of positivity.

    Can't find it.

    I will continue to be who I am, but I say, get rid of the national anthem and all the other farces which marginalize people.

    We have nothing to honor and it is becoming clearer and clearer thay we never did.

    America was never great. That is for sure.

    1. Dear Kobis, I hate it you're so sad.

      When you're feeling down, it doesn't help much to tell you that I'm sure all your individual efforts are doing more for those individual people you interact with, and therefore probably for people they interact with, than you think.

      I don't want you feeling helpless because you think your efforts are for naught. None of us as individuals can right all wrongs and save the world. It's so frustrating, because if everybody were like us, cared the way we do, had the same priorities we do, we could! If only the people in charge of everything weren't so selfish! Sometimes misguided, but that could be dealt with if they weren't so selfish!

      Some of what I read gives me hope, of progressives winning special elections, and I think a turnaround has to begin soon, a new zeitgeist. But then, I'm just lucky to be blessed with an innate optimism.

      You are a caring, sensitive, empathetic, lovely person, and you're too important to have to feel like this. If you would be happier in another country, then maybe you should do that. It's just not worth your emotional and mental health. If I wanted to move to another place within the U.S. where there seem to be more people of like minds, I might move to Oregon or Minnesota or Asheville, N.C.

      But don't read the news, and if Peter's blog depresses you, don't even read that! Stay within your own sphere, or find one more to your liking. Sometimes all we can do is be like Voltaire's Candide and cultivate our own little gardens!

      Take care of yourself! You matter!

    2. I apologize for disagreeing with you, but no, overall people are not bad. I like to refer to Patton Oswalt's quote: "We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves a long time ago." He goes on to say [paraphrasing here] if you spot the bad stuff remember, "The good outnumber you, and always will."

      Also, please don't undermine your good efforts. That drop in the bucket, as you say, has ripples that carry your positive effects of being a kind teacher and neighbor farther out than can be measured. Who is to say that a conversation you've had with said neighbor or a student hasn't brightened their day or brought them to reconsider their place and purpose to hopefully do good in this world? Upon being forced to go to the alternative school for something he was accused of it turns out he actually did not do, before he left, a student came to shake my hands and said, "Thank you, Mr. Smith for being one of the good ones. You've cared about me." You've had one of those moments (or several!) I hope...and yet that's only a drop in the bucket? That that decency somehow doesn't count because you aren't a senator or some CEO? Pfft.

      I'm a history major, and I'll never be an apologist for it, but I will argue that with fits and starts, and a lot of bad happening too, there is a steady march of progress and benefit for the vast majority of humanity. Not enough to be sure, but would you really want to live in a different time period than now?

      Nothing to honor? You're not looking hard enough. I could obviously go with soldiers both past and present, but if not them, what about every man and woman who went into the Trade Towers to rescue folks during 9/11, every volunteer who brought their boats down to Texas recently to rescue people stuck on the roofs of their houses, or every teacher who gives up their time to be with their family in the evening so that she can help that one student master some sort of content?

      I don't worry about whether past, present, or future America is great, because I know that, with few exceptions, people are great.

    3. Thank you for taking the time to share something positive. I sincerely appreciate it.

    4. Thank you very much, Rebecca.

  4. If I eat at a food truck, it's because *at that moment* there is food available, which I may or may not like but dammit I'm HUNGRY and so are my kids and I'm tired of hangry kids yammering at me.

    If I eat at a food truck, either I didn't have the foresight to get to a restaurant BEFORE I/my kids got hangry OR something happened to slow me/us down en route to a restaurant (or even to home) and we still have to eat NOW NOW NOW. I might have wanted to go to, I dunno, Potbelly's, but the gyro truck or the shawarma truck or the hot dog truck is in front of me so that's what I get. It's a default choice, a spur-of-the-moment choice, not a thought-out choice.

    This is why Betsy's analogy is flawed. The restaurants might be fine and IME are the preferred choice (kids' menus and available restrooms and even wine for ME and all that!), but the show ran long or the bus was late or I forgot to pack snacks - the reason I'm patronizing the food trucks is NOT because restaurants are bad in any way.

    Sorry Betsy. Food trucks are cool, but your analogy sucks. Try public school, where they teach you about analogies.

  5. Betsy claims that she wants the poor kid forced to eat at the crappy, unhealthy publicly funded hot dog truck to be able to choose the fancy, expensive, private restaurant where the rich kids now dine on a wide variety fine cuisine using their parent’s money. She thinks to be fair, some of the money keeping the hot dog truck afloat, should be used to help the poor kids eat at the fancy restaurant. The average meal at the restaurant runs about $100, and she claims that if she gives the poor kid $25, this will allow him to eat like the rich kid. And to be extra “fair” she thinks the rich kid should also get $25. Now she fails to mention that the fancy restaurant has a limited number of seats, a selective dress code, and will refuse any patron if all they can afford is $25. Nor does she care that the $25 given to the rich kid will be taken from the pool of cashola being used operate the crappy hot dog truck. In Betsy’s view, it’s ok for the poor kids to be stuck eating in at the crappy hot dog truck that now has no condiments and only warm soda. Meanwhile the restaurant stays filled with even richer kids. A strange brand of restorative justice if you ask me.