The reductio ad absurdum of the school accountability movement can be seen at National Envelope Co. You’re no doubt asking what a manufacturing company can possibly have to do with public education. Please bear with me.
As reformers demand measurable evidence of increased learning, they point to businesses as a model. If schools were operated like enterprises, they claim, then students wouldn’t be shortchanged. That’s where National Envelope Co. comes in because it has incorporated many of the strategies that reformers advocate (“As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 7). In an attempt to maximize operations, the company has resorted to rigorous performance quotas. To achieve this goal, it uses video cameras and software to track what workers do every minute. They also are expected to respond to e-mail at night and on weekends. (The Los Angeles Times identified other companies using these tactics as well.)
Some of these practices are already in place in public schools. Teachers are under enormous pressure to produce evidence that their students have learned, regardless of their backgrounds. The widespread cheating scandal in Atlanta is the latest example, with more likely to come. Just as workers in manufacturing are closely monitored, some public schools have adopted that technique through the use of daily scripted lesson plans provided by testing companies. Those who post high test scores are given bonuses, while those who don’t are given warnings that lead to dismissal. Teachers are also being urged to make themselves available to students and parents at the end of the school day via e-mail.
Not surprisingly, teacher morale is at its nadir. I’ve written before about compassion fatigue and why it threatens recruitment and retention of top talent. But I don’t think its true effects are fully understood. It’s stressful enough trying to teach subject matter to scores of students each day without having to work in a Panopticon. For readers unfamiliar with the term, it was the brainchild of Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher who published his ideas in 1791. It was designed for prisoners who were being observed in their cells at all times. The difference is that teachers in the classrooms of the future could be the subject.
I hope I’m wrong about the direction that public schools are moving. But if schools are run like businesses, what’s to prevent them from becoming more like National Envelope Co.?
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.