"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Warning: do not read this Forbes piece if you recently finished eating:
What Educators Are Learning From Money Managers
Daniel Fisher, 06.07.10, 12:00 AM ET

Brownsville Elementary School in Brooklyn is surrounded by neighborhoods with the highest murder rates in New York City. But inside the charter school at 10:30 a.m. everything is tranquil. Dressed in identical uniforms of green polo shirts and khakis, students walk carefully along tape strips in the halls before sitting down at their desks. Except for controlled bursts of excitement, as when a teacher asks kids to yell out their goals for a lesson, classrooms are hushed in concentration. Children perform tasks like organizing papers on their desks and placing pencils next to their books with precision.

The emphasis on polite manners and discipline is straight out of the 1930s. Except for what is going on behind the scenes: From quiz scores to homework and attendance records, every detail of a student's performance at Brownsville Elementary is fed into computer databases where teachers and administrators examine the constantly unfolding record and quickly adjust lesson plans and individual teaching strategies in response. Achievement First, the New Haven, Conn. nonprofit that operates Brownsville Elementary and 16 other schools in Connecticut and New York, is more like an information-driven company than an old-fashioned school district. "We're obsessed with using data on an ongoing basis," says Douglas McCurry, Achievement First's co-chief executive and a frequent presence in school halls. "Schools are fundamentally undermanaged."

American education is, as always, in a state of crisis. In the past four decades spending per pupil (adjusted for inflation) has gone up 2.6 times, but sat scores have not budged. Despite the $661 billion a year this country puts into public K--12 education, we are churning out a nation of mediocre graduates ill equipped to meet global competitors. Thousands of teachers are being laid off. Central Falls, R.I. fired all of its high school teachers (half will be hired back); in Kansas City, Mo. half the schools are closing. Reformist politicians in Florida, Colorado, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey are confronting teachers' unions and the sacred rights of tenure and rising compensation.

Away from the angriest national debates, however, a quiet revolution in American public education is occurring at organizations around the country like Achievement First. Most were launched by idealistic liberals with dreams of social equality. But with annual budgets exceeding $50 million, sophisticated computer systems and hundreds of employees, they are starting to resemble corporations--tracking and responding to minute changes and putting resources to efficient and innovative uses. The question is whether these strategies can be writ large, like Wal-Mart, to work in thousands of schools with millions of students nationwide. There are plenty of doubters.


Can best practices be replicated across America? "It's pretty much the same recipe you would have had putting a school together in 1910--an execution-based model," says Frederick Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Education Unbound (ASCD, 2010). He has doubts. "It's bumping up against natural limits." Whereas Wal-Mart can achieve superior results with the workforce it finds in any region, Achievement First and its peers rely on young, inspired teachers coming out of training programs like Teach for America. [Ken's note: I included the Hess quotes only to provide some context for the Wal-Mart/TFA comparison.]


It's lamentable how many defective products the U.S. education industry sends out of its $660 billion factory. But it's encouraging to see that there are ways to boost the output.

The Forbes followers, corporate stooges, and hedge fund-backed "reformers" will always define students as products, learning as test scores, and good schools as quiet schools. That's their model, the only way they're capable of thinking (and, hence, the only way they can "solve" the problems faced by public schools). It's a form of intellectual sterilization reserved only for the poor, black, and brown - not for the children in affluent suburbs or private schools like Sidwell Friends. Most educators - particularly those with real classroom experience and knowledge of child/human development - are smarter than these crooks and corporatists, but their wisdom is disregarded in favor of "data" and "scientific management" imposed by MBAs and their ilk. The fact that schools like this are pushed by "idealistic liberals with dreams of social equality" is yet another piece of convincing evidence that liberalism has severe limits, and certain branches of liberalism are practically indistinguishable from the neoconservative/ultra right-wing philosophy that disdains any forms of social progress and genuine equity.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. Yeah, how bout them liberals? The sad fact is that fascism continues to drive politics in America, with the Right moving so far right so fast that the pursuing Left's positions simply mirror now those of Bush conservatives of the early 90s. As "democracy" and "social justice" are rendered dangerous heresy, we may have to come to depend upon the admirers of the Third Reich to save us from totalitarianism.