Trapped in a failing ideology

Market-based school reform values three things above all: efficiency, profit, and economies of scale.

That sentence alone right there should tell you all you need to know about why it will never work. Market-based reform will never be the basis of a successful school system.

But I'll elaborate if you don't get it.

Efficiency. Actual children are impervious to efficiency. Not every little set of hands can tie a shoe at the same stage. This is obvious to everyone who has ever spent any time with more than one little kid who needs his shoes tied. Or take that reading moment--where kids have that Helen Kellery breakthrough and suddenly the tiny letters on the paper make sense and turn into words--the age at which that moment happens varies wildly. For some kids it's 3, and for others it's 8. That whole range is normal, but it blows efficiently teaching reading right out the window.

Profit? Derived from educating children? Look, let's just call a spade a spade and say that folks who even think in these terms have lost their moral compass. I mean it's really lost, like dropped off the side of a mountain on a hike in a remote area lost. Like bounced into a river at the bottom of the ravine lost. Like resting in the sedimentary riverbed lost. And that's all I going to say about that.

Economies of scale. This one's tough because it depends on efficiency and aims toward profit, so you can already sense the inherent problems.

No matter! Education reformers stubbornly insist that not only are these values good but they are achievable. And so they wish to replace inefficient and costly public schools with profitable charter chain schools. They seek standardization of curriculum, products, and goals. They push uniformity over miscellany, reproducible over unique, and cheap over expensive.

I want to explain to you what happens to our school system when we allow these values to dominate us.

Profit and economies of scale are what keep the charter chains going strong despite their at-best-no-better-than-traditional-school record of educating kids and their high incidence of scandal. Profit helps justify things like students walking on tape lines, silent lunch, and constant eye-tracking at the risk of punishment--"pedagogical" "methods" that no one whose name is on these schools would ever choose for their own child. The profit in the case of charter schools is chiefly in the form of campaign contributions to the politicians who pave the way for the proliferation of these schools whether the community wants them or not. Of course, we just got to see that in action at the last board of education meeting where 2 charter chain schools were approved in the face of the district's desperate financial shortfall and loud community opposition. There's too much personal profit in it for our elected officials to stand with their constituency and oppose these schools.

As for economies of scale, it's easy to duplicate pedagogical methods that rely on scripted teacher lessons, sing-song rote responses from students, heavy reliance on fines, suspension, and expulsion as discipline, and those good old tape lines.

These schools hit on all cylinders for the market reformers. But we need to examine the success of these schools over the long haul, and whether or not they actually educate children well. "Economically optimal for politicians and bankers" does not necessarily mean "good for children."

What of neighborhood schools? Are they machines of efficiency? Can they generate profit for grifter politicians? Can what they do be duplicated on a mass scale?

I'm just going to go way out on a limb here and say no, not likely. They are neighborhood schools, which means they bear a certain particularity unique to their own neighborhoods, so no economy of scale. They must educate all comers, no cherry picking, no expelling their way to success, so efficiency flies out the window.

And profit? These schools cannot beg, borrow, receive rightfully from CPS, or generate enough money to pay for their own programs--including things like libraries and librarians, school sports, AP classes, and even federally required special ed--much less keep a battalion of politicians in their pockets.

CPS has been whittling the budgets of neighborhood schools for years--especially high schools. Investing in them, of course, doesn't hit the market reformers' cylinders. It's to the point where some schools are in danger of losing the very things that distinguish them. It's to the point where if many more cuts happen, we will see the district begin to declare these schools "failures" and move in to close them. They always then say they want to "free" children from being "trapped in a failing school." We've seen it before. We will see it again.

Those market reformers, committed to the three values of efficiency, profit, and economies of scale--so preposterous when applied to education--have our Chicago public schools in their tight grip. And they're not preventing anyone from being trapped in fictitious failing schools. They themselves are trapped in a failing ideology.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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