5.3.2015 Questionable Reform

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In the musical My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins, frustrated by the emotional outburst of his protégé Eliza Doolittle, laments in song to Colonel Pickering, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Today, there is a reform movement in education that is singing a similar tune: “Why can’t a school be more like a business?”

This reform movement is known as market-based or market-oriented education. The Douglas County school board, despite a contentious relationship with many teachers and citizens, has embarked on a crusade to bring this business-oriented reform to the Denver area. Jefferson County, having elected three board members who favor market-based education, is poised to follow in Douglas County’s footsteps.

The Jeffco School Board majority — John Newkirk, Julie Williams and Ken Witt — have clearly demonstrated their voting power as they continue to ignore both the voices and questions put forward by not only fellow board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman, but teachers, parents, and community members as well. Their actions make it imperative that the community critically exam the nature of market-based education as these reforms are imposed on Jefferson County Public Schools.

Market-based education is a business model that turns school districts into enterprises, and superintendents into CEOs who manage an array of public and charter schools. A school’s existence and staff hiring is based on market needs and student achievement. Touted as new and innovative for Colorado, MBE is not new to the United States.

While it is too early to see the results of reform in Douglas County Schools, there is a great deal of current research available for citizens to answer the question: “Why can’t a school be more like a business?” Current research shows that the market-centered business model in many schools nationally is not working and is actually detrimental to the education of the students.

An April 2013 report by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, investigates the use of market-oriented education in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C. Citing information provided by the National Assessments of Educational Progress, scores in reform schools have actually “stagnated for low-income and minority students and/or achievements gaps widened.”

These findings were in contrast to “non-reform” urban schools within the same city that actually increased scores and shrank the achievement gap. The findings also demonstrate that those with disabilities lost ground academically under the business model. The NAEP research concludes that improving education for these marginal students has not materialized through a business model. The report suggests that low achievement may be based on inadequate staffing.

Market-based education argues that effective teachers can be secured through market-need hiring, yearly evaluations, and merit pay. The report, however, states that teacher evaluation, relying heavily on test scores, “thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily the bad teachers.” [emphasis ours]

Furthermore, these districts documented a significant loss of experienced teachers to other districts and other careers. Teachers in those districts averaged only six years of experience. Despite the reformers argument that merit pay rewards good, experienced teachers (or dare we say perhaps because of it?), teachers are leaving the business.

Another major component of MBE is a belief that competition between schools will result in better schools. Parents have the ability to leave public schools and take their tax dollars to a choice of charter schools. The Center for Reinvention of Public Education reports that the effectiveness of charter schools remains inconclusive. CRPD states, “they vary widely and are on the whole, no more or less effective than comparable regular public schools.”

What is problematic however, is the revolving nature of charter schools. Following a business model, if the charter is not effective or financially solvent, the school is closed. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers reported in 2012 that the rate of charter school closures has “ballooned by over 255%.”

For example Kingston Charter Academy in North Carolina and the Solomon Charter School in Philadelphia each closed within the first month of the school year. Parents at both schools had two questions: “What happened to the voucher money?” and “Where do we send our kids now?” Jeff Bryant, Director of the Education Opportunity Network in Chapel Hill, NC asks how this “business churning” of charter schools can be called effective education.

Despite all of these known issues, the merits of market-based education are not being debated openly with the Jefferson County School Board majority. They are being imposed.

 Keep fighting, JeffCo!