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Peter Greene: Why Business Ideas Don’t Work in Education

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Peter Greene once again nails a basic fact: education is not a business, and it can’t be run like a business.

Business ideas work well in the world of commerce, where businesses compete to provide a better product or better service. Probably there will be readers who question how well business is functioning right now, as megastores like Walmart gobble up neighborhood stores, destroying Main Street, and as online giants like Amazon threaten to gobble up all brick-and-mortar stores, even Walmart.

Greene writes, and I quote him in part:

We are living through yet another demonstration of the ways in which market-based approaches fail, and in some cases, fail really hard.

Long Term Preparation Is Inefficient But Essential

Back when I was a stage crew advisor, there was a pep talk I had to give periodically to crew members, particularly those working in the wings as grips or fly. “I know that you sit and do nothing for a lot of this show,” I’d say, “but when we need you, we really need you. In those few minutes, you are critical to our success.” In those moments we were talking about, every crew member was occupied; there was no way to double up or cut corners.

Emergency preparation is much the same. It’s economically efficient to, for instance, keep a whole stockpile of facemasks or ventilators. Big-time businessman Trump justified his cuts to various health agencies by citing business wisdom:

And rather than spending the money—I’m a business person. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.

This turns out to be just as smart as disbanding the fire department and figuring you’ll just round up personnel and equipment when something is actually on fire. It doesn’t work. And as we have witnessed, it leaves you unprepared to deal with the critical moment when it arrives.

But the market hates tying up money in excess capacity or emergency readiness, because you’re spending all that money on capacity that isn’t being used this second. Are those guidance counselors and school nurses seeing students every single minute of the day? Well then, we should be able to cut them back. Are we sure that every teacher is teaching the maximum number of students possible? Couldn’t we just put some of those students on software? This is why so many business heads are convinced that public education is simply filled with waste–because there seems to be so much excess capacity in schools.

But in many schools, there’s not enough excess capacity. When a student is in the middle of a crisis, we should be able to respond immediately, whether it’s a personal crisis, a medical crisis, or an educational issue. The response should not be “tough it out till the counselor is on duty tomorrow” or “we’ll just wrap that in some gauze until the nurse comes in three hours from now” or “I know you need help with the assignment, but I can’t take my attention away from the other thirty-five students in this classroom.” And that’s on top of the issue of preparedness, or having staff and teachers who have the capacity–the time and resources and help– to be prepared for the daily onslaught of Young Human Crises. When wealthy people pay private school tuition or raise their own public school taxes, this is what they’re paying for– the knowledge that whenever their child needs the school to respond, the response will come immediately.

Sure, you can cut a school to the bones in the name of efficiency, but what you’ll have is the educational equivalent of a nation caught flatfooted by a global pandemic because it didn’t have the people in place to be prepared.

Competition Guarantees Losers

Ed Reformsters just love the bromide about how competition raises all boats and makes everyone better. And yet, the pandemic’s free market approach to critical medical supplies doesn’t seem to bear that out. States are being forced to compete with each other and the federal government, and all it’s doing is making vendors rich. This is free market competition at its baldest– if you have more money, you win. If you have less money, you lose. At some point, if it has not already happened, some people in this country are going to die because their state, municipality or medical facility will not have enough money to outbid someone else.

The free market picks losers, and it generally picks them on the basis of their lack of wealth. The notion that losers can just compete harder, by wrapping their bootstraps in grit, is baloney. It’s comforting for winners to believe that they won because of hard work and grit and not winning some fate-based lottery, and it also releases them from any obligation to give a rat’s rear about anyone else (“I made myself, so everyone else should do the same”).

A system built on picking losers and punishing them for losing is the exact opposite of what we need for public education. You can argue that well, we just want free market competition for schools and teachers, but if that kind of competition is in the dna of the system, it will stomp all over students as well, just as all free market businesses pick customers to be losers who don’t get served because they aren’t sufficiently profitable. Kind of like a low-revenue state or old folks home that can’t get its people necessary supplies because they don’t have enough wealth to bid with.

“Compete harder” just means “be richer.” It is not helpful advice.

Please open the link and enjoy the rest of his good essay on why business thinking and cost cutting doesn’t work in education.

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