Corporate “reform” is public education’s death knell. Schools are being transformed from public institutions, influenced by community collaboration, to profit-making entities based on free-market ideology. Education is becoming a consumer good, knowledge a commodity, and students are products we manufacture on the assembly line of education. Rhetoric such as “effective teachers” and “test scores” is offered as the solution to public education’s problems.
When schools are run as marketplaces, serious problems can develop because of the contradictory natures of marketplaces and schools. Marketplaces sell products to customers and are underpinned by competition from competitors who offer similar products. To stay in the competition, the vendors must continually solicit customers, often operating from a “customer is always right” premise. Accommodating and pleasing customers becomes a major goal to avoid losing them to the competition. Such an approach works in places like Walmart and Target because they are selling inanimate objects that can’t think, speak, or act.
Until recently, schools have been community-oriented institutions designed to educate children. They have been places to nurture the education, growth, and welfare of human beings, with their unique genetic makeups and their unique and unpredictable thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Such an endeavor involves the complexity of human interaction and the development of relationships because humans are organic beings not inanimate objects.
Schools have also been places for students to gain workforce skills and become lifelong learners. They have been vehicles for mentoring children into becoming critically-thinking adults capable of participating responsibly in a democratic society. Such an endeavor acknowledges that factors other than effective teachers and test scores determine student achievement and success. Factors such as: student motivation, attitude, and ability; socio-economic discrepancies in schools, along with inadequate resources, inexperienced teachers, and overcrowded classrooms; and problems at home such as neglectful, abusive, or over-protective parents.
For the past 10-15 years in this “brave new world” of education, parents, students, local communities, and the nation have been led to believe that the success of a school hinges on the simplistic view that “getting an education” relies on results from standardized tests and on school report cards that demonstrate annual growth. It is assumed that if a school doesn’t make the grade, punitive actions will solve the problem. Such actions as firing teachers and administrators, allowing students to choose to go to other schools, or closing schools are part of the corporate solution.
In such an environment, administrators and teachers are compromised. Because school funding is based on student numbers, many schools are hijacked into doing whatever is needed to maintain student numbers, taking a “customer is always right” approach in dealing with parents and students. Administrators are put in a double bind: who to support—parents and students— or their teachers? Teachers are hamstrung. Parents and students wield the power, and what they want or demand often trumps teachers’ professional judgment.
A market-oriented education system reinforces the instant gratification modus operandi. Instant gratification reiterates “terrible-two’s” tantrum throwing—“I want what I want, and I want it now!” Guiding toddlers through this developmental phase is important because they, like all of us, must learn that delayed gratification is an important part of life. It teaches us that commitment, hard work, self-discipline, patience, time, and even sacrifice, are necessary for gaining what we want in life. It also teaches that we all need to grow beyond only gratifying our own needs to realize we are part of a family and community that also has needs. Such a realization is called maturity.
When a school allows students to opt out of situations they find disagreeable because the school feels threatened, the school is unintentionally letting these students down like parents who overindulge children. It isn’t necessarily in students’ best interests to let them drop classes they are failing, transfer out of classes because they don’t like the teacher or other students in their current classes, plus a myriad other demands that students often make. Repercussions for educators who don’t give in to such demands are often negative student evaluations, parental intervention on behalf of their children, or lack of support from school administrators who feel compelled to take the path of least resistance. The dilemma for teachers is that they are expected to show student growth; but how can they show accurate growth when their professional judgment is minimalized?
A strong sense of community is important for a society to survive. Humans are social animals. Membership within a community teaches a sense of security, belonging, and protection; the importance of cooperation, camaraderie, compromise, and commitment; a sense of responsibility and respect for others within the community. Are schools losing a true sense of community because of the effects of corporate reform?
We already know that the breakdown of the family has created instability in children’s lives. Are we going to let this happen to our schools? If corporate “reform” continues to hijack public education; teachers can be fired and schools can be ruthlessly closed because they haven’t achieved unrealistic, mandated goals. This has already happened to schools across the nation. It isn’t any wonder that the decline in experienced teachers has increased dramatically; with the median teacher in 2007-2008 having eleven years’ experience. Fifty per cent of novice teachers leave the profession after five years. Do we want such instability in our schools? Schools for some students are the only sense of community or stability in their lives.
Americans have experienced 911, Hurricane Katrina, the economic meltdown, Hurricane Sandy and other national disasters on a grand scale. None, however, is as insidious as the disaster in American education. An education system is the backbone of a society, and if it has become dysfunctional, it needs to be fixed.
It‘s time to turn the tide of corporate reform and ride the wave of community spirit.