Education Opinion

The Letter From: March 29, 2004 Asks if There is a School Improvement Industry

July 02, 2008 3 min read

What remains relevant from this letter in the March 29, 2004 issue of School Improvement Industry Week (SIIW)?

All industries consist of three parts: supply, demand and government. Meeting objective criteria is necessary to prove the existence of an industry, but not sufficient. Industries must also have a subjective sense of self-awareness that goes beyond the separate parts. The standards movement - a legislative trend starting in the 1990s, culminating in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, established a legal venue for private sector involvement to improve teaching and learning in public schools.

NCLB’s focus on Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) and Highly Qualified Teachers (HQT) hastens the development of markets in student and teacher testing, information and reporting systems. Where public schools fall short of student performance requirements, the law fosters markets in school wide professional development and new curricula. Where teachers fall short of qualification requirements, the law expands a market in individual professional development.

To instill a discipline of continuous improvement, the law moves the market toward the use of programs derived from Scientifically Based Research (SBR).

To introduce the pressure of competition to foster public school improvement, NCLB created a market in Supplementary Educational Services (SES) and boosted the charter and contract school markets. And, if this is not enough, the Administration would (unwisely) add vouchers to the mix.

In each of these markets, we have hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of buyers on the demand side. We have tens, even hundreds of providers on the supply side. We have billions of dollars of transactions. And behind the law, we have administrators in the state and federal departments of education ruling on how private sector providers engage with public education and overseeing the use of funds to purchase private sector services.

In many of these markets, the buying and selling predates NCLB by as much as a decade. Federal law reduces the political risk of participation, accelerates growth and, through federal regulation of NCLB funds, begins to foster a national marketplace.

Objectively, we have a school improvement industry. Yet the supply, demand, and government sectors lack an overarching sense of coherence, interdependence, partnership, or unity.

Providers on the supply side talk about “selling into” public education, implying they are separate from it. Lockheed-Martin’s leaders do not talk about “selling into national defense” - it considers the firm integral to our national security.

Schools and districts on the demand side know they need outside assistance. Still, they hold school improvement service providers at arms length as “vendors,” no different than companies that stock the soft drink and snack machines.

Congress intended NCLB to enlist the private sector to improve public schools, but officials administering the law lack a strategy to foster supply. Secretary Rumsfeld is responsible for monitoring and promoting the health of our defense industrial base. Secretary Paige does not even have the data required to describe the nation’s “education industrial base.”

So we have lots of transactions, but little self-awareness that we are an industry. The supply side’s growth depends on fostering that realization. Getting the three sectors to the table to discuss common interests and shared problems should be the constant preoccupation of school improvement industry leaders.

Marc Dean Millot is the editor of School Improvement Industry Week and K-12 Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. His firm provides independent information and advisory services to business, government and research organizations in public education.

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