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

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

K-12 Teaching: A Service Industry

At The New Republic, "Making the Grade" poses this about the difference between college professors (notice that term "professor," as in "one who professes") and K-12 teachers:
"The vast majority of states have long granted public school teachers tenure. The way it works is simple: After a certain number of years, teachers qualify—'virtually automatically' in most states, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality—for a form of job protection that makes it extremely difficult to fire them for the rest of their careers. 
"The system is analogous to the protections that university professors receive—but with one important conceptual difference. Universities are not just educational institutions; they are our country’s idea factories. And so it makes a certain amount of sense that we would want university professors—the people our society relies on to explore ideas, including unpopular ones—to enjoy protections from ideological or intellectual retribution.
"But this rationale doesn’t apply at the K–12 level. So what is the case for K–12 teacher tenure? The truth is, there isn’t a good one."
Diane Ravitch has confronted this argument as "bizarre," but otherwise, I have heard little challenging of this sentiment, leading me to wonder how powerful this claim is.

Some of us in education, scholarship, and research have argued that the corporate-driven "no excuses" reform movement aims to make teaching a service industry, but I now wonder: Is K-12 teaching already considered just a service industry?

And if so, who is to blame for this?

Every professional organization, every administrator, and every teacher who have grabbed chairs at the table serving the Common Core State Standards—well, that's a start for the blame.


  1. When was it not a service organization for national ideologies, primarily the business ideology? We are reaping the confluence of a consistency of messages via our national institutions, are we not? Recall the excerpt I offered from Burke the other day:

    "Anomaly One: That even in a world highly militant, the educator may most easily set himself at peace with his fellows by subscribing to the rapacious values in authority and training his students to accept things as they are. To be sure, he need not deny the evidences of trouble all about him. He may parade some modicum of discontent with the present. It is even advisable that he call for a better future, if only his pleas do not imply a basic attack upon current institutions which, if preserved, would make this better future possible. “Futurism” of this sort may be in exceptionally good repute, if the several complimentary tributes to the forward-looking uttered by the authors of Redirecting Education are evidence.

    Unfortunately, it is quite reasonable that an educator’s attempts to alter the social framework in any serious respect should be resisted. A society which believes in itself and its values will insist that its schools be used to perpetuate these values. A society of crooks which firmly believed in crookedness as a “way of life” would probably insist that its children be taught how to steal. And similarly a society built around the expropriative devices of capitalism will insist that the fundamentals of expropriation be taught and hallowed. In the natural order of events, education is a function of society. If we imagine an ideal world, for instance, we think of a just and stable economic structure, with a system of education designed for teaching youth how to maintain this justice and stability."

    And there is this from JS Mill, our "progressive" progenitor: "All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State, should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence. Unless, indeed, when society in general is in so backward a state that it could not or would not provide for itself any proper institutions of education, unless the government undertook the task; then, indeed, the government may, as the less of two great evils, take upon itself the business of schools and universities, as it may that of joint-stock companies, when private enterprise, in a shape fitted for undertaking great works of industry does not exist in the country. But in general, if the country contains a sufficient number of persons qualified to provide education under government auspices, the same persons would be able and willing to give an equally good education on the voluntary principle, under the assurance of remuneration afforded by a law rendering education compulsory, combined with State aid to those unable to defray the expense."

  2. This is a very important topic for the reform of public education. It is at the core of the miss-guided efforts of the business community to fix the schools. They see us a kind of service to the parents. Like a cleaners, we have a task to do, they think, and when we do it poorly they want to take their business elsewhere (like to private schools), or, if that's not possible, punish us until we do better.
    The problem is that they are viewing public education as if it were a private business; one whose job it is to satisfy the customer, namely the parents of the kids.
    But we are not private. Our customers are the public, the people who pay for the schools. We have been seen as private, though, because the public aspects of our program don't work very well these days.
    It didn't start out this way. When our schools were first founded, in the towns and districts throughout the country, the public in those small districts could see how they benefited from their support of the schools. They could see with their own eyes how the graduates made their towns stronger and better. In time, though, these graduates moved away to other towns and the connection between costs and benefits of the schools became less clear. The partial benefit the taxpayers got from the schools, due to that mobility of the graduates, meant that they only wanted to partially support the schools. Ergo our current stagnation and mediocrity.
    To "solve" this problem the schools pulled back from this public system of finance that no longer worked very well and concentrated on just being a "service" to the parents. That they could still do well, since the parents get a 100% return from their efforts through their life-long connection to their own children. The schools themselves, in effect, made themselves into a species of private education, "serving" the families of the current students and not the public in general.
    So, what should we do? Let's get back to being a truly public program. Let's find ways to show the general public, not just the parents, that we are providing them with a benefit. That's what other public programs do, like the police and public health. This means finding a way to document the value of our graduates to society in general. We could do this. It would be complicated, but worth the effort.
    One strategy would be to replace the state governance of the schools with a national system of education, leaving the local districts alone. This would solve the mobility of the graduates problem and allow us to demonstrate our public benefit. Then we would no longer be just a "service."

  3. Anonymous10:37 PM

    From the perspective of private corporate tyrannies, students are "human resources," or "human capital." They just don't acknowledge that perspective (it just wouldn't sound good, from a public relations viewpoint) until students turn 18.

    Perhaps schools should be renamed "human resource development and exploitative centers"?