Public education for fun and profit . . . and profit and profit.by Marc Severson on Aug. 08, 2012, under Education
“The private equity guys and the hedge fund guys are circling public education.” Diane Ravitch 1).
I am not by nature, an alarmist. One reason I lasted so long as an educator is that I rarely react precipitously. I can, but I tend to wait, see what happens and reflect on what must be done before doing it. Usually I would offer my kudos to any other individual acting similarly. But in this instance the individuals I am looking at somewhat askance at are newly identified as such: corporations as people.
Private industry is watching public education right now, to see if there is an opportunity materializing right in front of their eyes. Stephanie Simon writing for Reuters and published in The Huffington Post discusses the reaction of many US companies to what they see as a financial frontier, freely open for further exploration and exploitation.
“Privatizing Public Schools: Big Firms Eyeing Profits From U.S. K-12 Market” 2) is a discussion of a potential burgeoning industry that could result in another source of record profits for someone. Simon points out correctly this is not a new phenomenon, the growth of for profit companies involved in public education has been steady over the last decade or more.
Simon states: “Big publishers such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have made hundreds of millions of dollars selling public school districts textbooks and standardized tests.” 2)
Those of us involved in the field can attest to the increasing number of offers for teachers to buy supplemental materials designed to improve instruction. Having reviewed many of the new and improved educational materials in my career I am of the opinion that most are representative of rediscovering the wheel, that is to say, they represent old techniques, repackaged and with a fresh coat of glossy paint.
By this I do not mean to imply they are of no worth, rather from what I can see they represent tried and true learning vehicles, useful but not unknown to the experienced educator. The problems arise as the expenses involved in order to purchase something that may already be available, or that can be replicated rather simply.
Conversely, I feel that much of the appropriate focus of education has been lost by looking in the wrong direction. We should not be examining the materials to see if they support our instruction until we know what skills we have to teach; we should focus on the student to understand what it is they need to learn. You don’t buy children clothes and shoes that are “one size fits all”.
The longer I taught the more I looked to old adoptions, materials that had been used and discarded, to find the tools that I needed to reach some of my students. My aim was not to fit the child to the curriculum but make the curriculum fit the child. We have lost the sense of this through our dependence upon time-lines and benchmarks. A benchmark is a goal, not a deadline. By focusing our efforts solely on product and ignoring process we lose the art and humanity of education.
And it is in this milieu my fears become emboldened and stalk boldly into the light to challenge me.
A tenant of the new Charter school movement is that teaching is facile and available to nearly everyone. Certified teachers are not necessary in this new profession because anyone can deliver the curriculum with a modicum of training and effort. This, as any good teacher knows is fallacious and dangerous on many levels but two of them intrude upon my professional sense of inner well-being most forcibly.
First, teaching is facile, and available to almost anyone but good teaching is not. A good teacher is an artist working in a human medium. It is not just hubris that empowers me to say this but rather observation and self awareness. It is because I see my own failings as a educator that I can recognize the concomitant instructional strengths of others. Are all teachers effective with all children? Of course not and that engenders my proposed corollary: our children as students have become more diverse in the skills and experiential characteristics over the last generation, just as our knowledge and technologies have broadened and deepened in their complexity.
The second fallacious and possibly injurious belief that arises out of the growth of Charter schools and their reliance on less well-trained professionals is that of a monetary focus. Many decry the supposed avarice of teachers, jealously guarding their tenured positions and generous salaries. Yet another danger implied in Simon’s article is clear. If teachers need not be trained, they do not need to be compensated for having acquired that training, therefore increased profits incurred by private schools serving as public education facilities will become available. Who will earn that wealth? Will it be passed on to schools as lowered costs for materials? I am not a “trickle down” proponent — to me that trickle has always appeared more as a wet spot on the ceiling indicating that the roof needs fixing. And believe me when I tell you I know how much a new roof will cost.
The pursuit of ‘for profit education’ is analogous to other formerly exclusively public service industries i.e. cable television, special deliveries, and the rapid growth of private prison facilities. Has the service improved? Expanded yes, but not necessarily improved, not unless you have the funding to afford those improvements. Follow the money, it still comes back to cost and profit.
Perhaps most insidious in my eyes is the lusting after the Special Education field:
SPECIAL ED AS A GROWTH MARKET
Another niche spotlighted at the private equity conference: special education. Mark Claypool, president of Educational Services of America, told the crowd his company has enjoyed three straight years of 15 percent to 20 percent growth as more and more school districts have hired him to run their special-needs programs. Autism in particular, he said, is a growth market, with school districts seeking better, cheaper ways to serve the growing number of students struggling with that disorder. 2)
Is this what our country has come to in its children’s education? Chortling over the wealth to be realized through the misfortune of others? Public education was established as a non-profit service industry for a reason. It needs to be one of the few sources of equitable treatment for all Americans and a consistent opportunity offered regardless of race, creed, culture or mental or physical limitations. Oh, and yes, regardless of wealth.