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By Angela Scioli, Wake County Public Schools Teacher
As much as education advocates (like myself) like to draw lines between education and business (exhibits A and B), there are some undeniable parallels. For example, there is a LOT of money at stake. In 2014, we spent $634 billion on public education in the United States.
Basic business principles are at work every day in our schools.
Principle #1: Branding “works”
Question: Which type of schools consistently demonstrate better educational outcomes when you control for variables such as income, race, and educational attainment of the parent? According to recent polls, most parents would get this question wrong. The answer is public schools, not private or charter schools. Research shows that charter schools vary widely in quality and that private school students’ educational outcomes are below those of public school students. Many education “consumers” don’t realize that private school teachers are typically not certified and charter and private teachers earn lower salaries than public school teachers.
How did consumers get such positive impressions of private and charter education despite their less than impressive academic track record? Simple – branding. Charter and private schools must attract students, and to do so they put a lot of time and energy and money into marketing. They produce well designed brochures, carefully staged and timed tours, and control what teachers can say about the school. They also create application processes that create an impression of scarcity and exclusivity– a tried and true driver of increasing demand. Marketing shapes community perception, and that perception becomes “reality”, even if teacher turnover and test scores tell a different story. The truth is that educating children is a complicated stew of pedagogy, educational theory, a healthy dose of “edutainment”, mastery of child developmental stages, social psychology, and nuanced behavior management. Given that fact, a parent at a school tour is a bit like a single guy looking for a date at a bar. They really want to make the right choice, but it’s easy to get distracted by variables that on the surface seem important, but will matter very little in the long run.
Alternatively, public schools do not flaunt, market or gloat. And while a high percentage of parents are happy with their public school (77% give their child’s school and “A” or “B”), happy news is rarely the subject of conversation.
While branding by charter and private schools is inevitable, it’s a case of “buyer beware” and we need to develop resources that arm parents with more transparency and information. An emerging model might be the information provided by the US Department of Education on its “College Scoreboard” website. Another remedy might be understanding the paradox of choice.
Principle #2: Choice is a paradox.
In America, we have been raised on a steady diet of “choice = freedom = good”. That mentality has led us to have supermarkets with 175 choices of salad dressings and 285 types of cookies. Ironically, research shows that an excess of choice can actually make us less, not more, satisfied. Market analysts believe that one explanation for the success of stores like Trader Joes is that they help consumers navigate what is not known as the “choice conundrum”.
I would suggest that we have met the choice conundrum threshold in some of the more metropolitan areas of our state. This became evident to me when a former student informed me that she was moving to Charlotte, NC. She inquired about which high school would be best for her daughter. When I informed her of the complex choices to be made even within the public school system, let alone considering charter and private, she became alarmed. It was clear that hours of research on schools would be required before she could even begin considering which neighborhoods to look for a home in. We weren’t even sure where her research should begin.
What does it cost us when we pursue our individual freedom and agency rather than committing to the social and communal institutions around us? In Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, he asserts that “Americans are paying for increased affluence and freedom with a substantial decrease in the quality and quantity of community. What was once given by family, neighborhood and workplace now must be achieved and actively cultivated on an individual basis. The social fabric is no longer a birthright but has become a series of deliberated and demanding choices.”
What if the school-choice movement is just a dead-end rabbit hole that on the surface seems ideal, but at the core will lead to a debilitating choice paradox that leaves us never quite feeling certain or satisfied? Would we actually be better off if we had fewer schools, committed collectively to their success for all students, and invested in creating a strong and dense social fabric for our communities? Business seems to be pointing in a surprising direction – less may be more.
Principle #3: Economies of Scale = Efficiency
There is a real chicken and egg controversy brewing about charter schools and children with learning disabilities. First, it should be stated up front that no charter school can turn away a student with disabilities. However, charter schools on the whole consistently have fewer disabled students, and, merely attending a charter school decreases the likelihood a child will be diagnosed with a learning disability in the first place. Why might fewer disabled kids attend charters, and why are charter school kids less likely to be diagnosed? I think it’s a simple answer: economies of scale.
You can imagine the feeling of a charter school administrator when a parent asks about special education services, or when a teacher suggests a child might need to be tested. On one hand, you know the law, and on the other, you know the school’s revenue and expenditure streams. If you can avoid hiring or contracting with special education providers, that will create more flexibility with already tight budgets. And so, you don’t turn the parents away. You just say that special education is not the “focus” of the school. You encourage the teacher to make modifications without testing and identification. You don’t say no, but you don’t say yes. And over time, the “problem” just kind of takes care of itself.
But that “solution” is just a band-aid that sidesteps the real business principle at work. It is inefficient to have multiple schools serving the same purposes, and that inefficiency is hurting kids. And not just disabled ones. Take AP classes. I teach at a large comprehensive high school. There are 2400 kids at the school and nineteen people in my department. We offer five AP courses in social studies. Enough students register for those classes that our teachers teach only one AP course and most teach multiple sections of it a day over the course of many years. They know the curriculum, they hone their ability to teach it, and they have a track record of student scores to be analyzed. Many go on to be exam assessors in the summer and contributors to online teacher communities focused on masterful teaching of that course.
Smaller charter (median size 286) and private schools (average size = 140) offer fewer courses at the high school level, and teachers are more likely to teach several different subjects within their department. They might teach an AP course once a day, every other year, for example. A teacher with three or more different lesson preps a day is in a qualitatively different position than a teacher with one or two. Small school teachers’ ability to master the subject, create detailed and effective lessons and assessments, and give quality feedback is compromised by how many lessons they must prepare for a single day. A parallel in the business world is developing a pitch to sell one unique product as opposed to selling four. Division of labor and specialization wins the day.
Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation learned this the hard way. One of their first reform ideas was to create smaller schools, and in 2003 they spent $20 million in North Carolina alone to make that dream a reality. But by 2015, they were closing or reorganizing those schools, citing evidence that the reform had not improved student outcomes in any significant way.
Larger schools also provide capacity for students with special needs. If you already have a speech therapist on staff, you can identify and serve more students that need therapy. The same is true for learning disabilities, autism, hearing impairment and behavioral disorders. If you think about it, public funds should not be going to schools that in any way, subtle or unsubtly, fail to fully serve students with disabilities. To do otherwise goes against the letter and spirit of the law.
What are the business principles, applied to education, that might produce the best societal and student outcomes? Understand the power of branding and arm consumers with information, or, avoid the choice conundrum altogether by offering fewer, larger schools that benefit from economies of scale, have the full support and investment of the entire community behind them, and better meet the needs of teachers AND students.
One of my most prized possessions is my grandmother’s cross-stitch of the Serenity Prayer. As I hung it on the wall in my new house this summer, I was flooded with thoughts about the coming school year.
God grant me Serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
Public education is complicated and costly. Despite our attempts to improve school resources and teacher conditions, the political landscape has not been friendly to these changes. Decisions about education involve the cooperation of educational leaders, politicians, and voting taxpayers. This can feel so unlikely at times it makes me want to give up. I’ve been spending too much time lamenting this reality rather than trying to find ways to navigate through it.
There is no cure-all for reaching all students. Every year I get a new idea for how to reach my low performing students, and I start the year optimistically believing this will finally be the year all of my students will succeed. Sure enough, I’ll reach students I wouldn’t have in the past but then lose other students who would have responded better with my old method. Some adolescents will actually sabotage their own success for some psychological or social reason unknown to you.
My family needs me and I need them. I can’t always put off time for my family until the weekend or the holidays or summer break. We provide each other unconditional love and care that is needed every day. All the time I spend on extra school work is non-refundable and the work will literally never be done. Time with family is precious and limited. My kids will stop wanting to always hang out with me, then they will be too busy with their own school work, and then they will grow up and move out.
…Courage to change the things I can…
I will stop trying to fix everything all the time. I genuinely want to improve my teaching and help my students more, but I get too stressed when I get in over my head. It makes me uneasy to let something go that needs work, but students are resilient and don’t require everything to be perfect. In fact, trying to perfect everything doesn’t work and may even backfire. Embracing my classroom as a “work in progress” will give them a model of a true learning environment.
I will let go of misguided feelings of guilt. I want to walk out of my classroom and feel good about what I did accomplish rather than guilty for not doing more. When I really do need to do something different, guilt is a helpful signal. But when I just feel guilty all the time over things I can’t change, it tends to make me both insecure and defensive. I plan to practice mindfulness through yoga and meditation so I can be more aware and accepting of myself.
I will start taking better care of myself during the school year. I can no longer stay up half the night to grade papers or skip lunch several days a week to help students. I need to take breaks throughout the day to use the restroom, get water, stretch, walk the halls, and talk with colleagues. When I have a medical issue, I am going to take care of it immediately instead of risking it getting worse. I am not going to let work interfere with my plans to cook healthy meals and exercise.
…and Wisdom to know the difference.
Which battles should I be fighting? When I started writing for Red 4 Ed, I was very optimistic about helping influence the outcome of the most recent state and local elections. When that did not happen, I got discouraged but also motivated to try harder next time. Something that would help me the most is school calendar reform – anything that would increase the number of workdays and spread breaks more evenly throughout the year. But if that is not going to change any time soon, I have to make more time for myself and encourage others to do the same. I started cutting back on my hours two years ago, but my lessons and assessments were still so high-maintenance that it didn’t work out. Last year, I said no to some leadership opportunities and limited my participation in committees. Most importantly, I had to start changing how I taught and ran my classroom so I would not burn out.
What can I simplify or scale back? Last year was an interesting experience. On the positive side, I learned how to do some things more efficiently by focusing on the purpose and end goal of everything I do. In some cases, this got me to think of something that was not only more efficient but also more effective. The weeks where I stuck to my reduced workload plan, I was more refreshed during class and had more mental energy when giving feedback. However, I could not always meet all the demands of the job. I had less time to prepare for lessons, less time to grade, less time to contact parents, less time to complete paperwork, and less time to organize my classroom. I was much more likely to forget to do something or simply run out of time to meet a deadline. I had to think of it as a juggling act with too many balls for one person to juggle, so I just had to choose which balls to let drop.
What really matters here? During this time, my father became critically ill and spent almost two months in the hospital. I missed over a week of school and spent many more afternoons going to visit instead of staying after school to work. We got lucky and he recovered, but this was a massive wake-up call. Taking care of family is my first priority, and school can go on without my constant attention. My colleagues handled plans and grading; my students were sympathetic and patient while I caught up. I got to be a person, a daughter, a caregiver, not just a teacher. We all focused on the biggest priorities and everything turned out okay in the end. It was good that I had already decided to cut back, because if I had not, there would have been less room to adjust. Building in more time for “rainy days” would also create more opportunities throughout the semester to give students the breaks and personal attention they need.
I am putting these statements and questions in italics on a sign as a reminder for the coming school year. You can download a printable version to keep in your plan book or make your own. (It is made from a picture of the actual cross-stitch I inherited from my grandmother, Frances Snow)
By Angela Scioli, Wake County Public School Teacher
An edited version of this article appeared as an op-ed in the News and Observer on July 26, 2017. It can be accessed here.
Since 2013, I have had no textbooks (yes, that is correct: no textbooks) for my American History classes. I’ve had age- inappropriate textbooks for my Civics classes (written for 7th grade, but my students are in 12th), and my AP Government textbook was written when George W. Bush was president. Suffice it to say that politics has changed somewhat since 2006.
The resources a teacher needs vary greatly according to grade, population, discipline and teaching style. Not all teachers need the same things, even if teaching the same grade at the same school. I would actually prefer textbooks, and I realize I might have lost you right there.
Textbooks have gotten a bad rap lately as outdated, biased and inefficient. You might assume I am “old school” and boring in my instructional approach; I assure you I am not. But textbooks make sense if you consider the courses I teach: American History, Civics and Economics, and AP Government and Politics. These disciplines are “content heavy”; students need to know basic information to master the course and do higher level critical thinking activities, collaboration, and problem solving at the center of our work.
A textbook solves that problem quite nicely, even if it isn’t perfect. First, assigning reading helps with reading comprehension and fluency, allowing me to teach the skill of note-taking, an important practice in any format, digital or otherwise. A textbook doesn’t require a broadband internet connection at home; it is portable, “fixed” (so related assignments make sense), and written and edited by a cadre of professionals and experts in the field.
My second choice: computers. If I send each student home with a computer (or have them use their phones), I would need to collect and curate my own digital content for each course I teach, much of which would be video-driven. This option does not aid in reading comprehension, and there is less editorial control for bias/errors. Also, the incredible amount of time required to construct this content presents its own issue.
Like many teachers, I have tried various options to get the resources my students need. Most teachers reach into their own pockets first, but the resources I need far exceed my salary. I have funded supplementary books through Donors Choose (the GoFundMe of teaching), or gotten grants, but again, the need here is greater than those platforms typically provide. (This is why we pay taxes and collectively leverage resources for public education, the most ambitious, and expensive, public project we have ever engaged in as a collective body. It’s bigger than well-meaning charities and grant opportunities). I have attended and organized others to attend protests. I started a statewide symbolic protest movement called Red4EdNC (like us on Facebook!) and we remind people weekly to Wear Red for Ed on Wed. I have marched 23 miles with other teachers to see if the Governor would meet with us (he did not, 14 were arrested). I have developed relationships with policymakers. I have had them as guest speakers in my classes – county commissioners, school board members, my state representative, my state senator. I have visited them in their offices. The Chair of the NC House Education Committee, Craig Horn, has spent hours in my classroom and met with me for hours in his office. My elected officials know me and greet me as a friend, as well as a constituent. I have spoken at public comment opportunities at school board meetings, county commissioner meetings, and state committee meetings. I have spoken to Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs. I have had a camera crew follow me around for a year for a documentary (that can be screened here until August 2nd). In the last election, I piloted a ballot project statewide: If you sent Red4EdNC your name and address, we would research your ballot’s education-related races, and text you back an image of your ballot with our voting recommendations. Due to gerrymandering, it had little effect: our elected leaders are safe in their polarized districts.
It is four years later. The embedded chart shows you the budget, in millions, for textbooks and instructional materials. The numbers came from the DPI website here. My students still do not have the necessary resources. I have ten laptop computers that students cannot take home, and I am grateful for that (thanks, Wake County Commissioners!), but it does not solve the problem. When I ask the commissioners for (more) money, they remind me that the state constitution says the state bears the responsibility for guaranteeing each child an equitable public education. When I speak to my state senator, he says the county commissioners could raise property taxes to pay for books if they wanted. All my elected state officials say they have very little influence over the state budget. I sense just a few people actually do.
So, it’s late July, and another school year is in sight, and I still do not have the necessary resources for my students. What else can I do? Time is running out. And my students deserve better. Please state your ideas in the comments.