School & District Management Opinion

A Teacher Responds to Steve Denning’s Ideas: These are Education, Not Management Issues

By Anthony Cody — September 10, 2011 5 min read
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I present here a rebuttal to the interview I carried last week with management expert Steve Denning. It was written by a Massachusetts teacher who goes by the name Chemtchr.

Guest post by Chemtchr.

Steven Denning’s Forbes essay on “The Single Best Idea for Reforming K-12 Education” was welcomed by teachers, because it deplores some of the egregious management practices imposed on public school systems in the name of corporate education reform.

Mr. Denning was then kind enough to answer some interview questions for teacher-blogger Anthony Cody on Edweek, and this led to a lively discussion in the comments.

Denning made one central assertion in that interview with which teachers would seriously disagree, and I’d like to follow up by exploring that disagreement. I’m addressing primarily teachers, but also Steve Denning and businesspeople of good will. I’d like it if we could actually talk them over.

Denning wrote,

If the issue is framed as an education issue, "how do we improve education?" there is a risk that anachronistic management ideas will be implicitly assumed as self-evident and imposed on the sector. ...By framing the issue as a management issue, "what does the world know about running knowledge organizations?" then the whole array of evidence can be brought to bear on the discussion.

He justifies the leap because of his management consulting experience in the software development industry, which he contrasts to outmoded factory management thinking.

We actual educators know education issues need to be framed as education issues. Education is absolutely not a subset of the software industry, where profit is made from proprietary products and delivery systems, any more than it is a subset of factories. In spite of Denning’s idealistic writings about good businesses managing themselves to delight their customers, the goal of business management is profit. Public education is no kind of business.

I was disappointed that Denning twice ducked my challenge to address the issue of the aggressive drive of the new “public-private” interface, to manage education as an entrepreneurial sector. He has written repeatedly of his ambition to remake the “education sector”, and I wonder what he means by that.

I would be more comfortable with his management advice if he would comment on the corporate reform model of bringing public institutions under the control of private management. Privately selected management shares in government regulatory control, through “accountability” legislation, but serves its for-profit “partner’s” business goals instead of the public.

Denning’s dismissal was strange:
“Please tell Chemtchr not to hear music that isn’t being played. I have never suggested moving public sector schools into the private sector.”

Mr. Denning, that music is being played.

My question has nothing to do with “moving schools into the private sector”. The public-private partnerships demanded by Gates, Broad, and Duncan leave the schools in the formerly public sector, with its public revenue stream, which is all brought under private control.

Here are the Gates Foundation, Pearson, and Microsoft, playing the melody line. Microsoft is already developing computer games which can be aligned to Pearson’s standardized tests on the Gates/Pearson common core curriculum materials.

Here is Denning humming along, in his July 29 Forbes blog, “Wake-up Call for the Gates Foundation.

Denning reiterates (without quarrel) the same tired Gates lies about “lessons learned” (teacher unions and government monopolies are obstacles to education improvement), but he counsels Gates to think “bigger” by adopting Denning’s management formulation. Denning himself makes this reply to a commenter, “As you predicted, the $600 billion Government run system has proven more enduring than might have been hoped, although the results are even worse than expected.”

Please open the link above, to see Denning’s diagram of the “sage on the stage” model he claims teachers follow now. There is a one way arrow from teacher to each student, and no arrows between the students. Colleagues, is that true of any teacher you know?

In Denning’s more enlightened management vision, all participants are gathered around the “internet”. There is an arrow for student-teacher, and between students, but most interactions are through the internet, and all the arrows suddenly become two way. Neither of these diagrams, of course, reflects the reality of relationships among teachers, students, and the world they interact with. We frame the questions as education ones, not management.

For instance, I would draw all my arrows two-way already, within my students’ laboratory teams, and between the teams. Mr. Denning may not be aware that most teachers already do something like that, because his arrows are management arrows and not real communication arrows.

Teachers also work, as educators, to preserve the human and community core of American education. Deborah Meier can give some references. We help our students build those precious two-way arrows that lead out of the box. These are their own experiential connections, between themselves and the world that is really around them in the physical universe, and in their communities.

Denning omitted those from his diagram. At his management system’s heart is, not the student or the community or the world, but a red box labeled internet. Rather than a tool in students’ hands, it has become a conduit through which educational services, testing, and virtual “experiences” can be dispensed and managed. Should the digital transformation be a business management decision, or an educational one?

Bankrolling the “Pearson Foundation” and “Gates Foundation” are two of the most insatiably expansionist for-profit entities history has ever seen.

I am disappointed in Denning’s answers, so far, because we need knowledgeable people who aren’t auditioning for the Gates juggernaut. Unfortunately, it looks like he’s talking to us because we took the stage, finally, on July 29. We went over his head to our people. Let us not be eager to hand our microphone over to him. We need to take back the narrative ourselves, because these are education issues.

Diane Ravitch also responded to the Forbes call for ideas about what its wealthy readers might do to improve public education. She (alone) didn’t suggest they take it over, but instead offered ways actual philanthropists could work more humbly to alleviate the horrors of child poverty.

What do you think? Is Chemtchr’s critique on target? Or is there value in Denning’s framing of the issues?

Chemtchr teaches science and advises a student service club at a public high school in a diverse low-income community in Massachusetts . She is a graduate of UC Santa Cruz and MSU Bozeman, and has taught in urban community-based programs and at a tribal college, as well as in public districts. She’s active in Citizens for Public Schools, and in local and state councils. She thanks Susan Ohanian for links used in this commentary.

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