privatization of education: a cautionary tale

For some, the silver bullet to kill the beast of under-resourced and ineffective American public schools is the for-profit model, because we are a free market, and the free market makes everything better, right?

Not if you ask Kaplan teachers in New York, who for 21 months have been negotiating their first union contract with a company that has resorted to 19th-century models of worker intimidation and worse. To know more, read Josh Eidelson writing on Salon.com for excerpts from ESL teacher Paul Hiava’s interview about Kaplan, a well-known, for-profit provider of education for a price.

Though I cannot relate to Mr. Hiava’s struggles with unionization (at my school, we are forbidden from unionizing as a condition of employment), I understand the fragility of faculty morale and the effect it can have on teaching. Having recently been told by my school director that if I got an offer for a job at another school I should take it, I know how difficult it is to give my days, nights, and weekends to a job where I feel undervalued. Yet I am well compensated, I know I do good work, and I get enormous personal satisfaction from working with the students I have in my classroom. While my director may be trying to encourage me to leave (for reasons I can only assume are economic: I’m on step 19 of a 22-step pay scale, so my experience costs the school dearly), he cannot fire me without fear of a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal. As long as I keep doing my job — and perhaps stop giving constructive criticism to try to make the place better — I should be able to stay there for at least a few more years. Not so for the Kaplan teachers, who risk termination based solely on student surveys, where a 0.1% decline in student satisfaction can be cause for a severe sit-down with higher ups.

Data and statistical measures are only one view of effective teaching: they do not tell the whole story. There are elements of education that are difficult to measure from test scores and student surveys alone: engagement, passion, depth of knowledge, varied activities, efforts to reach neuro-diverse learners … the list goes on. The students in the classroom are often unaware of the invisible work teachers do to make their learning experience the best it can be. Students’ self-reporting is highly subjective and could vary from day to day, depending on mood, what happened to them on the way to school, or negative feedback they may have just received from their instructor. Likewise, neither test scores nor the financial bottom line can prove effectiveness, and education cannot be squeezed into a business model for success.

This past week I saw Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a horrific view into the excesses of a small group of the so-called 1%. The movie has been criticized (by the daughter of the main character, among others) for glorifying the lifestyle of Jordan Belfort, but I would argue that it does just the opposite. Any viewer with a smidgen of critical thinking (which we teach so well at my school) should see through the façade of high-jinks, misogyny, drug abuse, and ridiculous displays of wealth to see how lonely and lacking in value this life is. While I know that not everyone on Wall Street lives like Jordan Belfort, the film serves as a metaphor for the dark side of capitalism. I think Scorsese did his job brilliantly, and the excesses of the early 1990s have not disappeared with the dawning of a new century, as demonstrated by Mr. Belfort’s real-life rebound shown at the end of the film. The inherent critique is still and perhaps even more relevant today.

I bring up Wall Street only because I hear pundits and politicians point to the free market as the cure-all for the woes of public institutions (see the somewhat outdated article by economist Milton Friedman for an example of this argument). I would say that the free market is even more rife with problems than solutions for education (see a counter-argument to privatization by Michael Perelman in the socialist Monthly Review). In our current free-market model, extreme wealth begets dehumanization (epitomized by these rich ignoramuses), unethical practices abound (but shouldn’t have to, according to Devin T. Stewart), and mergers can result in monopolies where one-size-fits-all is perhaps an unintended consequence. (Read about a new generation of American monopolies here.)

Rethinking the free-market vs. government-run dichotomy would be an interesting first step toward brainstorming solutions for education. The “capitalism is good and socialism is bad” mindset is self-defeating, as is pointing fingers at the failed experiments in various forms of socialism of the past (“just look at Russia!”). Time to think beyond a two-option paradigm, just as we ask our students to do.

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One thought on “privatization of education: a cautionary tale

  1. All of this makes me sad. Why are we, as a country, so short-sighted and selfish? The same people who throw around “socialism” when speaking about the public good certainly want to take their Social Security and Medicare, don’t they?

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