Education companies don't share your interests
Wall Street analysts see 10,000 failing schools as a boon to investors.
By Peter Campbell
Private, for-profit companies that run public schools have a different mission from their public counterparts. The mission of public schools is to serve students, while the mission of private educational companies is to make a profit. Public schools must answer to the public. Private companies must answer to their investors.
Now, admittedly, we in the general public are “invested” in the success of children, and we are “invested” in how they will be raised and the decisions they will make. After all, they will inherit the planet after we’re finished. So the future is quite literally in their hands. But being “invested” in schools and children is a far cry from being an investor in schools and children.
To make this point clear, step into the shoes of Wall Street analyst Jerry Herman. In The Wall Street Transcript, Herman writes: “NCLB is a big opportunity because it layers in an expanded source of funding. The dollars devoted to Title I now approach $12.5 billion and are up about 35 percent since NCLB was signed into law. The dollar flow is significant, and perhaps more important, it now appears that the decision makers -- principals and superintendents -- have an improving understanding of requirements under the law and how to access funding.”
Herman concludes, “From an investment perspective, we are more intrigued with the K-12 sector than we’ve been in many years.”
Herman’s colleague, Robert Craig, agrees. “We continue to see estimates of over 10,000 failing schools, and that encompasses an awful lot of kids,” he says. “These kids and their families have choices in terms of supplemental education services like tutoring or school alternatives if their school continues to fail. Certain areas like testing in assessment, teacher development, and supplemental education services are attractive, and each has significant growth potential.”
Craig concludes, “Overall, we think that the K-12 business is starting to improve, and we are actively looking for ways to capitalize on it and invest in that segment.”
Those of us who are invested in schools have a different take on “the K-12 business.” While Craig and Herman are “intrigued with the K-12 sector” and see signs that it is “starting to improve,” others of us are alarmed by rising dropout rates, resegregation, and the mounting evidence that schools are turning into test prep factories.
The decisions that businesses make are business decisions. These decisions are usually framed by the questions, “How can we do this for the least amount of money possible?” and “How can we get the largest return on our investment?”
I learned this first-hand when I worked in the for-profit software development business. As it turned out, the tools I designed for a commercial developer were never built because we could not afford to build them.
They were great tools and would have greatly benefited teachers and students. But there was no way to quickly and easily recoup the cost of developing them.
Good ideas are not necessarily the ideas that get developed. The software development business, like any other business, is about realizing efficiencies, reducing inefficiencies, maximizing profit and productivity, and satisfying the interests of investors.
That’s OK with me. But what’s not OK with me is that the businesses that run schools put their shareholders’ interests ahead of my children’s interests.
If a business alienates its shareholders and chooses to serve students ahead of shareholders, it will go out of business very quickly.
Shareholders in private, for-profit educational management organizations demand that schools be efficient -- that they produce more and better learning for less money. They use the word “inefficient” to describe traditional public schools, particularly urban schools. The implicit assumption is that inefficient schools need to be made efficient, and that if they are made more efficient, then all will be well.
While it is altogether appropriate to discuss businesses in terms of efficiency, it is less appropriate to do so when discussing schools. After all, what are public schools supposed to be efficient at? What does efficiency have to do with learning?
Imagine a car company trying to produce a unique vehicle that is specific to the needs of each driver. Pretty inefficient. No way to make money on this. Now imagine a teacher trying to produce a valid learning solution for each child that is specific to his or her needs. Pretty inefficient. No way to make money on this.
Ultimately, teaching is an inherently inefficient process. Each child learns differently, and each child requires a unique approach that is specific to his or her needs.
We accept that no two people are exactly alike, but we quickly forget that no two children are exactly alike. Because no two children are exactly the same, no two children learn in exactly the same way. Children are not widgets, so they shouldn’t be taught in such a way that suggests they are.
If your goal is to make teaching and learning efficient, you’ll create mass-produced, one-size-fits-all solutions. In other words, you won’t be teaching at all. And students won’t be learning. You may have achieved efficiency, but you will have done so at the expense of teaching and learning.
Schools should not be trying to reduce inefficiencies, cut costs, and maximize profits. They should be trying to educate children.
Peter Campbell is the Missouri state coordinator for the Assessment Reform Network, a program of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), www.fairtest.org/arn.htm.
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