Is Education a Product?
Leadership Insights

School, Inc.: Are Students People or Products?

By Monica Fuglei June 7, 2016

Is Education a Product?

With the post-No Child Left Behind focus on school reform, many schools have began to look like tiny people factories dedicated to producing high-quality students. The idea of education as a commodity that can be improved through competition is evident in policies including teacher evaluation processes that tie salary to performance level, implementation of benchmark standards and charter school expansion. Policymakers who advocate running schools like corporations identify free-market principles and competition between schools and educators as key tools in educational reform.

Education as a business: Not a new idea

Indeed, many people use the language of business when discussing reform. In a recent Frontline episode, Rod Paige, Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, stated that education has a bottom line: “the amount of learning” that can be measured in student performance.

In the same piece, New Yorker correspondent and history scholar Nicholas Lemann pointed out that the father of modern education, Horace Mann, used a business viewpoint to gain support for public education in its infancy. Thus, the language of business seeping into modern discussions should be no surprise.

Many education policymakers believe incentivizing educators is fair and effective

The largest challenge of schools using corporate strategies is setting standards and ensuring that methods of performance measurement are accurate and fair. This trend may not be pushed by business as much as it reflects the need for school districts to abide by legislation like NCLB or the Every Student Succeeds Act.

As states and districts implement pay-for-performance measures, ensuring that performance is being adequately measured is essential. Bob Schwartz, of Achieve, Inc., told Frontline that he, too, is put off by the language of business sneaking into education reform, but also highlighted the importance of setting standards, developing measurements, and instituting “incentives, rewards, and sanctions.” He acknowledged that complex organizational structures in districts and the process of education make a strict application of the business-model approach relatively impossible in schools.

Running schools ‘like a business’ contributed to teacher turnover and student protests for a school district in Colorado

While business provides some answers to education challenges, there are also drawbacks. Last month in Parker, Colorado, students organized a walkout. Their complaint? Beloved teachers were taking early retirement, moving to other districts, or leaving the teaching profession altogether because of education reforms instituted by the Douglas County School District. Over the past six years, since the DCSD school board reform slate was elected, the teacher turnover rate has risen from about 10 percent to 17 percent, a jump of concern to students and their parents, not to mention neighboring school districts.

Survey: 71 percent of DCSD teachers said evaluations did not accurately measure their performance

Teachers who left Douglas Country schools cited the business-minded educational reforms discussed above as a primary or contributing reason they left the district. DCSD’s market-based pay scale and teacher evaluation system were cited as common reasons for quitting, but it’s not just the advent of an evaluation system that is driving educators away. The increased need for self-evaluation and collection of student data to fulfill the evaluation requirements creates a significant workload for each educator as they try to earn adequate ratings. Even worse, after engaging in the intense evaluation process, about 71 percent of educators surveyed said it was a poor measure of their performance.

To serve students, education reform must allow teachers to remain passionate about their work

Bringing competition, evaluation and incentivization into the public sector can add a spark to a district. However, it is essential that these processes are streamlined and balanced in a way that does not bury educators under paperwork or ridiculous steps. Graduating classes are not measurable products on a production line, but people who deserve teachers who are knowledgeable about content and also full of passion, creativity, and spark.

Every school district wants highly-talented educators who provide meaningful learning for every student. In the twenty-first century, it’s also important to remember there are other, less quantifiable measures of teacher performance, such as the ability to inspire creativity and divergent thinking, to develop grit and growth, and to connect with students as people.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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