Education Opinion

What Goes Around Comes Around

By Susan Graham — December 09, 2009 4 min read
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The education sector has certainly not been immune from the current financial crisis. Budgets are beyond tight. Programs are being cut. Classes are overfilled. Supplies are in short supply. Teachers are encouraged to apply for grants, sign up for classroom adoption programs, ask merchants for donations, sponsor fund raising events, and “save” money when purchasing books and other teaching materials out of their own pockets by frequenting garage sales and using coupons.

About this time last year, teacher Tom Farber made national news and stirred up a lot of controversy by selling ad space on his tests in order to raise money for more paper for AP Calculus prep.

""Imagine!” said the policymakers who continue to underfund schools. “Where will this lead? The next thing you know teachers will start selling their lesson plans! They will expect to be paid for their intellectual property!” cried the economists who seem to be in charge of education policy these days.

Of course teachers, being the resourceful creatures that they are, had already figured out how to save time and share ideas and pick up a little extra cash, which, in most cases seems to be going right back into classrooms. Teachers Pay Teachers is an open on-line market where teachers can actually sell the instructional materials they design and develop.

“Shocking!” said the textbook publishers, professional development consultants and university professors. They’ll flood the market with relevant, innovative and inexpensive materials.” Dr. Joseph McDonald, professor of education and published author of multiple books said

...the online selling cheapens what teachers do and undermines efforts to build sites where educators freely exchange ideas and lesson plans....."Teachers swapping ideas with one another, that's a great thing," he said. "But somebody asking 75 cents for a word puzzle reduces the power of the learning community and is ultimately destructive to the profession."

So what’s a teacher to do to provide students with not just the embellishments but also the necessities of a functional classroom? Well, there’s always The Fundraiser. In these hard times, doesn’t everyone need some overpriced candy, frozen pizzas, candles, cookie dough, or gift wrap? Sure it’s expensive, but remember out of every $5 of merchandise sold, your school will get to keep a whole $1! Elly Schull Meeks voiced her concern about professional fundraising companies turning our children into street corner hucksters. While these fundraising events are ubiquitous, most educators are ambivalent at best. According to Meeks

Interestingly, a majority of principals surveyed in 2007 by the National Association of Elementary School Principals said they'd rather not have fundraisers. Yet they valued the programs and technologies these activities were able to bring their schools, add-ons that promised to raise test scores and the schools' reputations. Other, anonymous reports suggest that principals are likely to allow fundraisers because doing otherwise means saying no to today's prevalent school booster types who wield their own agendas and have a can-do way of going over the principal's head for what they want.... Plenty of teachers detest fundraisers, too. At the same time, though, they rely on them to pick up the costs of supplies and materials their schools can't afford and that they often end up paying for out of their own pockets.

I understand Meeks’ concern about those fundraising companies who come in with their fast talking assembly and prizes. I do, after all, teach consumer education, and the best I can do is practice diplomatic discretion and remind students that nothing is free, it is simply rolled into the price of merchandise--any merchandise. Marketing gimmicks may boost sales, but the money trickles, rather than flows, into the school coffers while reducing students to a free labor source rather than free market experimenters. Meeks points out that we have said

Good-bye, bake sales and car washes--hands-on, largely student-run after-school ventures to pay for a special field trip or new team uniforms.

But there’s a reason for that--in public education liability and accountability are in the driver’s seat. If you have a bake sale how do you insure that food has been stored and prepared safely to insure no contamination? What about safe labeling of anything containing or having come in contact with peanut products? If you have a car wash, what about safe working conditions for students? Who would be liable if an automobile were damaged? If your school has an exclusive contract with Pepsi, can you be sued for selling Coke products at the sock hop? The potential hazards and litigation make teacher and/or student run fund raisers just a little too risky.

So what’s a school to do? Cutting right to the chase,

.....a Goldsboro NC middle school tried selling grades....A $20 donation to Rosewood Middle School would have gotten a student 20 test points - 10 extra points on two tests of the student's choosing. That could raise a B to an A, or a failing grade to a D....Susie Shepherd, the principal, said a parent advisory council came up with the idea, and she endorsed it. She said the council was looking for a new way to raise money.

And there you have it. Why not keep it simple? No fundraising assembly to mess up the instructional day, no contributing to childhood obesity by selling high calorie foods, no expecting the principal to kiss a pig or sit on the roof if enough stuff is sold, no liability issues, and, most of all, no middle man to rake off a huge profit.

“Horrifying!” said everyone.

Rebecca Garland, the chief academic officer for the state Department of Public Instruction, said she understands that schools are struggling in the recession....But Garland said exchanging grades for money teaches children the wrong lessons. She also said it is bad testing practice and is unfair to students whose parents can't pay...Garland said she has heard of schools offering test credit to students who bring supplies to school. But "I've never actually heard of being able to purchase grades before."

Well, actually, that’s not quite true. For several years some high flying Harvard edu-conomists have promoted paying 11 year olds for grades -- positioning the doling out of cell phones and applications to high schools in return for grades as cutting edge research based education policy. Students who are compliant and meet workplace quotas are rewarded by their employer, the school, with a stipend or benefits for doing a good job. Market economic principles at work to transform student learning. But in the Goldsboro scenario the roles are reversed, and it seems that if the students are customers and the school must play the part of the merchant, those same market principles are somehow sordid.

To my mind, it's the integrity of the educational enterprise that's at stake here," said Daniel Wueste, director of the Rutland Institute for Ethics.

Purchasing grades from children is good policy. Selling them to children is bad. I didn’t realize that the ethical validity of paying for grades was dependent on who controls the market. But then I’m just a consumer science educator, not an education sector economist.

However, you have to wonder, don’t you? It does seem that we started down a slippery slope. What will come next?

Making education funding a priority? Good for 10 points. Demonstrating significant progress in raising achievement and closing gaps? That's worth 30. Developing and adopting common academic standards, turning around the lowest-achieving schools and ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charter schools: Those are worth 40 each. Those are the priorities in the Education Department's rulebook for the unprecedented $4.35 billion Race to the Top reform competition. States and the District of Columbia are invited to compete. Bids will be rated on the point system, which Education Secretary Arne Duncan has approved. A perfect bid will score 500 points and could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Innovative!” they all cried. It’s a Race to the Top, a federal education raffle where states can compete for grants to fund education excellence or, at least, win some education funds.

My momma wasn’t an expert on education but she always told me, “What goes around comes around, honey.” I’m thinking that policymakers might ought to listen to my momma.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.