Punchback: Answering Critics

Forcing a Risky Business Model on Us

by Robert Brower

Shortly after the U.S. Department of Education awarded its first grants last fall in a new $94 million program to fund teacher-incentive pay, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution described the plan as “revolutionary,” saying it would “promote student learning to the fullest.”

In his op-ed commentary in The Wall Street Journal, Terry Moe claimed the disconnect between pay and performance had an effect on the quality and motivation of everyone in teaching. To Moe and others in government, business and academia, the private sector is the answer to improving the nation’s public schools. Certainly there’s a growing movement afoot to force public schools into a market-driven system of choice, vouchers, competition, charters and other capitalistic business models.

By applying an untested business model to educational reform, political and business leaders are openly promulgating forced competition among schools. They are demanding change for change’s sake, coveting any new idea that comes along to demonstrate anecdotal improvement and using flawed statistics to foist unproven changes on our schools. This strong push is more about political dogma than about raising the performance of public school students.

As educational leaders, we must make our collective voice heard loudly and clearly before it is too late. We are being driven down a tangential road by those with influence in high places who lack even basic expertise in educational research and whose desire for good political sound bites is more important than the future of our children.

Not only is the business model of reform misguided, there is not a shred of statistically significant research that supports the notion that competition will solve whatever ails K-12 education. If we succumb to this experiment of political thought, the consequences may be devastating to our economic and social future.

Market Rules
Prominent conservative thinkers such as Herbert Walbert, Joseph Bast, Gary S. Becker, John Chubb and the late Milton Friedman advocate a market-driven, business model of reform for public education, yet none offers any compelling, scientifically conducted evidence to support these experimental notions. These and well-meaning professionals in other fields offer only subjective supposition and wishful thinking as their research. Simply put, this movement is nothing more than a snake-oil remedy promoted by people who have no expertise in the educational arena.

Unfortunately, many educators do not recognize the hidden agenda — the dismantling of public education. During recent national elections it was common to hear politicians calling for schools to be operated more like retail franchises, competing for customers in a crowded marketplace. “Why,” these proponents ask, “should public schools be protected from competition?” But I ask, "Where is the research that supports such experimentation?"

While many think tanks, politicians and corporate executives believe the rules of business, with its bottom-line mentality, should apply to public education, if the public health field were managed similarly, without scientific rationale, patients would fall prey to quackery. We can’t afford political, social and economic experiments to be performed on children through wishful thinking.

Consider the comments by Marion Brady, a retired public school administrator, in the December 2004 issue of Phi Delta Kappan: “Today’s major education-related debates — about vouchers, choice, competition, merit pay, rewards, school shaming, discipline-based standards, high-stakes tests, accountability, privatization — do not even hint at the problem. … [B]ringing market forces to bear will not improve education. Indeed, present federally mandated ‘reforms’ will do just the opposite.”

Speculative Politics
As a public school educator for the last 33 years, I believe forcing business-like competition onto schools would lead to many undesired outcomes, while paying little attention to cooperative endeavors that could benefit students and school programs. For instance, the competitive business world does not encourage the sharing of successful strategies, but in education cooperation is a necessity.

Rather than shaming schools into improving, we should be supporting low-achieving schools partnering with successful schools. The “produce or die” operating model of the corporate arena and academia may work with manufacturing cogs and college professors, but this business approach to education has no proven track record of success for students and schools.

Those advocating a business model are ignoring what scientific studies demonstrate regularly: Charters, vouchers, choice, privatization and competition do nothing to improve student learning. The reality of this debacle is that speculative politics, rather than scientific research, is driving this movement.

Continuing to advocate a politically motivated, market-driven system of education will only delay the real work that needs to be done to help our public schools grow. We should not be at odds with one another but rather respectful of our separate areas of expertise.

Robert Brower is superintendent of the North Montgomery Community School Corporation, 480 W. 580 North, Crawfordsville, IN 47933. E-mail: rbrower@nm.k12.in.us