Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Deeper Problems of Public Education

Joel at So You Want To Teach? had this post about the deeper problems of public education. Seth Godin, a guru among entrepenuers, noted that teachers have a marketing problem. But a differnt sentence caught my eye:
Education is largely handmade, not mass produced. That makes it difficult to share best practices and to figure out how to turn mediocre classrooms into great ones.
More on that in a second. Cam Beck, on the other hand, believes there is a product problem with public education, a notion that is not far off the mark and has probably been grasped by most education reformers. Godin and Beck look at the issue of education reform from the outside looking in, from a businessman's perspective. It does not surprise me, then, that they have reached the conclusions they have.

Beck's forte is advertising, particular new media advertising. He looks at public education as a commodity that has to be presented, marketed and to a certain extent sold to the public. The problem is that, on the obvious level, the service is not one that requires marketing since it is, largely mandatory and largely publicly provided. Beck notes:
Thomas Paine famously said, "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly," and that certainly applies to public schools. The children around the world who would eagerly accept a chance to get a useful education currently do not have access to one, and thus recognize the value of it.

Why don't American kids get it?
Although it's convenient to believe that it is because children in other countries are more wise than our children, it may just be because they do not have it -- and because they are not forced into it.

Children in public schools are, in every useful sense of the word, a captive audience. Not only does the law forbid them from dropping out prior to 8th grade, more than likely societal and family pressures forbid most of them from dropping out for years after.

To make matters worse, even many parents who care to do something about it have no option (either financial or by law) to take their children out of one school and put them somewhere that is not as disruptive as the videos indicate. To date, efforts to substantially change this situation by the law in the states have been struck down by various courts.

Are we hypocrites?
Though education, and in a much smaller sense "marketing," may help encourage people to exercise their freedoms more wisely, freedom itself needs very little marketing. People crave it for themselves, even if they don't consider the consequences of their actions with respect to their freedoms and the freedoms of others.

When you must forcibly remove freedoms in order to teach the value of it, impressionable teenagers will learn more by your actions -- that they have no rights concerning their persons that they can act upon -- than by what you're saying -- that their rights are unalienable and should be stridently safeguarded.
I think Beck's point is taken by Joel, who writes:
The biggest concern to me with the entire system is a value problem. The students, and it seems just as often the parents, do not value the service we provide.
But, what Joel misses is that it is very hard to value something that is seen as having little value. You can't market something that has no ascertainable market value.

The problem that Godin see, a marketing problem for teachers, is predicated upon the very nature of public school teaching. The "market" for teachers is largely monopolistic. There are options at private and charter schools, but the relative dearth of those in many areas of the country means that public schools have a monopoly on opportunities for the labor pool. Thus, not only is there not a market for the teacher labor pool, the market cannot operate since union contracts don't allow for incentives to better teaching and thus a teacher being able to market themselves in any meaningful way.

Take for example a largely rural or exurban community--such as my own Frederick County. There is one charter school in the county. There are perhaps a dozen, maybe 15, private schools, mostly in the city of Frederick or immediate area and almost all of them are parochial. Thus, if you are a teacher by profession, your options are generally limited to working for the Frederick County Public Schools. (Not that it is not a bad profession as I noted over here). Of course, the union contract doesn't provide enough incentives for a teacher to truly distinguish themselves, through hard work, classroom success or general ability in order to get more pay. Pay is largely determined by time in service and a few credentials.

Thus, Godin has it a little wrong. While education maybe hand made, teaching or at least the manner in which teachers are compensated is based upon a mass production model. There is no way to market that and there is little incentive to do so. If teaching and education were truly "handmade" then the incentives for better performance, collaboration and sharing of knowledge would be greater since those teachers who aim to perform at the best and provide a service that parents and students will value would be able to commande a better salary.

Joel and Beck are right though, we as a society place a great deal of emphasis, time, words and money on education, and despite all these investments, we just can't seem to value it enough nor instill in our children the value of an education.

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