Schools Are Not Businesses. Why Do We Treat Them Like They Are?

“We really have a great product,” I have heard superintendents say. “We have several offerings for the students,” others have said. What is this? A car lot? A factory?
assembly line by Marie Van den Broeck from the Noun Project

For all the talk about differentiation, personalized learning, SAMR (a model for integrating tech into the classroom), UDL (Universal Design for Learning), UbD (Understanding by Design), the LDC (Literacy Design Collaborative) and a whole host of other acronyms for education’s alphabet soup, we are still being urged to use standardized testing and pacing in our classrooms. Why are we still using the assembly line approach?

My First Guess: It’s Easier

It’s easier to use the one-size-fits-all approach, just like it’s easier and possibly more cost effective to push out nightgowns that are one-size-fits-all. No need to re-tool that sewing machine assembly line for different sizes, right?

It’s possibly construed to be more equitable, too, since everyone is tested on the same anchors and eligible content. But have people of all sizes photograph themselves in the nightgown and send the photos to you. Do you really see the same fit for people of all sizes? Or is it only that the fabric covers their bodies, that there is enough coverage?

Coverage and Pacing

We talk about coverage in education as well. “Here’s a textbook,” you are told. Get through Chapters 1-10 and you have covered all you’re expected to cover during a certain time period. Groan… be still my student-centered heart.

That coverage is king is exactly why many of us do not use textbooks. A second reason is that most printed textbooks are not worth the paper they are printed on after they roll off the presses (another assembly line). A third reason: Textbooks are the epitome of “one-size-fits-all” thinking.

Digital versions are better, to a degree. At least authors can update the books with new information, which flows freely thanks to technology. Still, they are standardized, no matter what teaching tips they include. Why? Well, the authors can’t possibly predict what group of kids you will have in front of you!

Pacing is the other problem. I was a long-term substitute in a school that used a reading program I will not name. The idea was that there were levels to the program that did not necessarily correspond to a student’s grade level. Students were placed into a reading class after the diagnostic results came through. That sounded promising.

Once they were in their “appropriate” reading class, however, they “learned” at the same pace as everyone else in their class. The truth is that some kids were still left behind. They did not learn at the same pace as their classmates. They were afraid to ask questions.

Teachers were afraid to take questions, too, because they had to be literally on the same page as their colleagues each day. The curriculum was scripted, too. Yes, you received a script with your curriculum. You were told what to write on the board. You were told what to say. You were told when to pull a Popsicle stick from your apron and call on a student. Yes, you were given an apron to store all your props.

Needless to say, being a long-term sub who had not been formally trained in the program, I pleaded ignorance and went off-script many times. Oops.

The company made a lot of money from this program. The teachers felt better about having a program to lean on, perhaps. Some kids did benefit from it. Some did not. During the “Race to the Top” years, it made sense these programs were flourishing. After all, schools had to prove they were trying to improve, to provide evidence of improvement.

That pesky evidence…

My Second Guess: Observation of Student Engagement Is Hard

The principal and assistant principal of my school are some of the hardest working educators I have ever had the privilege to work with. I could not do their jobs. They have become human octopuses too, especially mentally. There are so many focus points: student engagement, attendance, behavior, building security, building function, staff management, faculty management, compliance, and many others. I do not know how they make it through the many hours of the day they work.

It’s no wonder that observations and evaluations are so stressful and why districts and states strive to standardize the observation process. There is not enough time in the day to understand what is going on in a classroom, with a class of unique students, and still perform all the other duties of an administrator. When faced with many classrooms and many unique groups of students… well, you understand.

Therefore, evidence-gathering has been reduced to a few formal observations, some anecdotal observations, and those pesky test scores.

You know, those test scores don’t tell us a damn thing. For example, the student could have been ill that day, not slept well, been distracted by an argument with a loved one, or been fatigued in general. Perhaps the student didn’t understand the content, but was too afraid to ask a question. Alternatively, perhaps, the teacher needed to go in-depth on a concept or skill he or she knew the students were struggling with and could not “get to” that concept or skill the student is now being tested on.

We need new ways of observing and evaluating teachers. I’m not saying anything that millions of educators don’t already know. So why hasn’t it happened?

Money.

Full Circle: Schools Are Treated Like Businesses, and Then They Aren’t

Schools are not businesses, but they are treated like they are. Funding for schools is disparate, because local tax revenues vary district to district. In that way, districts are like businesses, but businesses are in competition and raise revenue at different rates due to their products and offerings. Districts should never talk about products and offerings. Why? Because they aren’t businesses!

There should be enough money to go around to support students’ education, sports programs, and social and emotional programs that will help them contribute to their communities and become the next generation of leaders. There isn’t.

I am amazed that extracurricular programs depend on ticket sales, bake sales, and many, many fundraisers. We could blame our weight gain over the winter on all the chocolate bars we buy (and consume, of course) to support winter sports!

Has anyone considered the fact that we are asking students to go back to the same folks who do not pay much in taxes because they don’t have the same incomes and property values as folks in another district? What a burden we are putting on parents and community members already struggling to stay afloat! Why do we have to do that?

Well, that’s because the distribution of funds for education is unequal and unfair.

One of the few policies of the previous U.S. administration that I disagreed with was “Race to the Top.” It put the schools in competition with one another. It was stupid. Instead of doing that, why not make educational funding equal?

Sure, sure – the federal and state governments are not supposed to dictate the policies and procedures of local districts. Come on, people. It’s not working. We are less competitive than other educational systems in other countries all the time. It needs to stop.

Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), a character on The West Wing (my favorite TV show), summed up how education should be in this country a long time ago. I leave you with this quote graphic, which I found via an article written by Jeffrey Dunn on Medium in 2015.

As always, thank you for reading.