Education Opinion

Cage-Busting Skunks Disrupting the Status Quo

By Nancy Flanagan — April 27, 2013 4 min read
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“When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.”

~Garrison Keillor~

This is a blog about innovation--that is, innovation in public education. More specifically, creating catchy memes to push “pioneering” thinking while simultaneously attacking the “status quo” (painted as bad, very bad) in American education. Under the benign banner of...innovation.

A decade ago, we were new-millennials, thinking out of the box. Then it was all about Shift Happens, which morphed into mega-excitement around disrupting class--flipping classrooms, embracing blended learning, anointing “Video Sal” Khan as America’s best (read: cheapest) teacher. Now, all the flippers, shifters and disrupters have moved to the next big thing: cage-busting.

In Michigan, they’re doing this by creating a secret task force--no educators allowed!--to design ground-breaking plans to re-organize and finance public education. Busting out of the cage of equitable funding and investment in quality education. Surging forward to create discount schools--called “Value Schools,” kind of like Value City--where the instructional personnel, curriculum and programming reflect the Walton core philosophy: Always low prices.

Before you can disrupt, bust or shift, you have to declare the current system “broken,” providing de facto permission to destroy the existing structures. Even if your community has invested in a century of educational infrastructure, incalculable brain-hours, millions of tax dollars and family commitments--with many parts of the system working very well--you must jettison the current regime. Change is good. So out with the old, in with the disruption.

In Michigan, a so-called Skunk Works team was assembled, by aides to Governor Rick Snyder, tasked with:

...develop[ing] a lower-cost model for K-12 public education with a funding mechanism that resembles school vouchers. The education reform advisory team has dubbed itself a "skunk works" project working outside of the government bureaucracy and education establishment with a goal of creating a "value school" that costs $5,000 per child annually to operate... The school would seek to maximize the roughly $7,000 annual per-pupil funding regular schools get from taxpayers by applying "concepts familiar in the private sector -- getting higher value for less money."

The Skunk Works was so undercover that the President of the State Board of Education, John Austin, and the State Superintendent of Schools, Mike Flanagan, either knew nothing about it or had been misled as to its purpose. The one educator who was invited, 2011 MI Teacher of the Year Paul Galbenski, an inter-district technology consultant, quit when he discerned the group’s actual purpose. The rest of the task force is software developers, technology vendors and charter school operators. And lawyers.

Can you see where this is going?

In the flap following disclosure (via some good reporting by the right-leaning Detroit News), the governor and his spokes-busters hid behind the shield of (you guessed it) “innovation” and suggested that they needed cover to bust free from the suffocating cage of not-for-profit, community-based public education.

But. Isn’t a little disruption a good thing? Sure. Innovation in public education is good when:
• It solves a problem, identifying a flaw or weakness in the current system and devising a creative solution.
• It provides a better alternative than what we’ve got now. Not just a different alternative, but one that users generally agree is easier, more productive--and unequivocally better for the well-being of students.
• It is cost-effective, when given predictable outcomes.
• It taps into the creative spirit of educators, students, families and communities.

At a community forum on Tuesday, sponsored by the local League of Women Voters and hosted in a drama classroom at a local middle school, two State Board of Education members, two local superintendents and a university-based economist assured a fired-up crowd that they were ready and eager to innovate--and had plenty of informed experience with the problems, alternative solutions and budgets faced by Michigan schools. Turn us loose, they said. We have ideas about novel ways to fix things. And we actually know what we’re doing.

Some hard information about the secret plan was shared with an enthusiastic, full-of-questions crowd: “Value Schools” would practice selective enrollment to keep costs down. The Skunk plan was embarrassingly “not ready for prime time,” because it hadn’t dealt with accountability measures, increased administrative and transportation costs. The Skunk Works team’s template did not address special education, at all. The plan would devastate an already demoralized work force--teachers--and had no quality control constraints: pretty much anybody could open up a school, including people who were already running demonstrably bad schools.

The Skunk Works group was a stalking-horse development team for another cage-busting reform slotted for rapid approval in Michigan, known as the Oxford Plan, which dovetails with bills currently alive in the Michigan legislature. One local superintendent, asked if he’d spoken with state legislators representing the district about the disruptive “innovations” planned for public schooling. He hesitated, then said: Yes. Both of them. And they’re uninformed.

Quote of the evening, from State Board President Austin:
Secret groups are not democracy! You can’t fix education without educators--to leave them out is anti-democratic.


The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.