School & District Management Opinion

Agreed: No Profiting Off Children’s Education

By Deborah Meier — March 06, 2014 6 min read
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Deborah Meier writes again to Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst.

Dear Robert,

I’m so glad we switched writing dates. Thanks. Of your two letters on “Business vs. Schools” the second could almost have been written by me! After having spent two exhilarating days in Austin, Texas, at the first conference of the Network for Public Education, mingling with 500 other like-minded parents, teachers, educators, and students, your letter gave me additional hope. I think I was nearly the oldest person in the crowd—which means that school reform “from the bottom” up has a future. Maybe you and I will EVEN be allies ... occasionally. Maybe we can start by agreeing that public monies shouldn’t go to for-profit schools.

You’ve romanticized Big Business a little. The auto companies knew how to produce cars with better gas mileage and tires that would last longer but didn’t change because they are conservative when it comes to risking their money ... unnecessarily. Self-driving cars were boasted about at the 1939 World’s Fair. Oh, how my brother and I loved the GM Futurama exhibit. But business is not into producing “excellence” unless it pays.

Another essential difference between schools and for-profit industries is that they succeed precisely when they can replicate cheaply. For decades people would tell me that they loved our schools but it took a “me” to do it; therefore it’s not replicable. Yes, “school products"—each one—have minds and hearts of their own. I think we both celebrate, not mourn this fact. It’s why I’m more comfortable with mom-and-pop charters vs. chains. I want to create school “systems” that can be home to such mom and pops. We don’t want to replicate good families or good schools, or even good democracies, although we hope we can learn from them. That’s perhaps our common platform, and I’m glad we got to it.

I believe that the jobs of the future, alas, are still going to mostly “reward” compliance. In a global economy with a lot of automation, it’s hard to find other kinds of jobs. There are many so-called STEM jobs that require less, not more, skill than old-fashioned jobs, e.g. tool and die makers. We call them STEM because they are monitoring switches and buttons and keyboards. I base this on federal projections and my own experience.

A few quick responses to your “specifics.” One: Yes, the propaganda starts in kindergarten, maybe even prekindergarten. Kindergarten is for getting you ready for 1st, 1st for 2nd, 2nd for 3rd grade, and so on ... until, at the end of that long trail, you can get a good job. Like my children when we would drive from Chicago to New York City, they couldn’t quite grasp how long 18 hours in a car would be. “Are we there yet?” they would ask over and over. But unlike many schools, we tried to make it challenging and interesting, or let them sleep through it. At school we try to keep them awake so we can fill them with “essential” knowledge and skill, and put the fear of—not God, but of being “held over” into them. (Try giving your fellow workers the 8th grade math or language arts test.) Yes, Robert, that’s what 5-year-olds are told when they ask, “Why school?” (Plus, mommy and daddy have to go to work ... so ... behave.)

What we do, where we came from, how we live our daily lives affects our perspective. Empathy for lives tougher than our own is hard work and generally avoided. For how long can you tolerate pretending to be locked in solitary confinement? It hurts too much. Yet roughly 40,000 mostly black men are, as I write, living day after day in such cells—in my beloved country.

We naturally avoid “seeing the world” from perspectives that are too uncomfortable, and we try our best to think of good reasons that “they” rather than “we” suffer. Good novelists sometimes “allow” us to sustain such discomfort for several hundred pages—as long as we are in the right mood and situation.

Seeing Like a State is the title of a fascinating book by James C. Scott. I’ve adopted that phrase when I think about some people’s politics. Scott studies a set of historical events that went wrong precisely because those at the top were unable to make sense of what seemed common sense to those at the bottom. One takes the world in, from small details to large concepts, through different lenses, sifting out and focusing in on different details. That, plus insatiable greed, goes a long way to explaining the world we live in. It’s not even mean-spirited, just “natural” to think like a “state” if one is in the role of “the state"—the rulers, policymakers, and order-givers.

Sometimes, “status” serves in place of power and money. It was impossible, for example, to explain to a well-meaning university physics professor why it was not complimentary to tell me I could have been a good science teacher rather than (just) a good kindergarten teacher.

We may disagree about how a rational reformer (of business or schooling) would act. First on your list of three: Setting goals? Your answer—academic achievement in low socioeconomic status (SES) city schools. Second, recognizing that the characteristics that reduce low SES achievement come from the family, not the school.

Actually, steps one and two miss the mark. The purpose of business is to make money (which you acknowledge). That rationale has to dictate each step along the way. Growing up, if it has a “purpose” involves far more than the “academics!” I’m sure we agree about this. Americans were/are famous for their snobbish counter-elitism about “academics"—thus the expression, “it’s academic,” means “it’s irrelevant.” So we try to make it “relevant” in ways that students usually see through. “If two trains leave ...” We actually don’t mean “academic” anyway, but test scores titled “Math” and “Language Arts.”

We need a better “purpose” for “incarcerating” children for five hours a day for 12-plus years. One we really believe in. Second, our problem is not that teachers and reformers deny the role of family, but that they don’t look for the strengths that children coming from less economically secure families possess, the positive power of their traditions, rules, and rites. They see the children’s families as obstacles to be overcome. How do you think that strikes the children?

And, finally, organized business misses the most important ways they could intervene—e.g. paying enough taxes so we could have saner health and housing policies, spending their capital on creating more and better-paid jobs, even if that means paying themselves less. The gap between their wages/profits and those of most Americans is the gap we need to be paying attention to. That’s the civil rights issue of our time.

The rational businessman might also realize that the highly glamorized differences in the way we live are just too painful. And getting indignant about the resentment and envy it causes is absurd. We all know that the advantages the rich possess are as “unearned” as the disadvantages the poor do.

No, Robert, I would not work in a school whose principal, in your words, “shares your philosophy and approach, trusts and supports you, but has the power to fire you at will.” That’s an oxymoron. The power to fire someone “at will” goes against my philosophy. If the only alternative were bureaucratically absurd schools, I’d pick another job. But you know, and I know, that there are alternatives. Having spent most of my working life in such schools, I see no “rational” reason others cannot, too. If democracy is worth dying for, how about our learning to live with it?

So, let’s celebrate. We both oppose making profits from educating our nation’s children. How about agreeing also that those who work in schools should not be required to live scared, or scare children?

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.