Equal educational opportunity and capitalism are oil and water

“The Common Core: Educational Redeemer or Rainmaker?” (Teachers College Record (TCR), 2012) argues that common core advocates profit from its implementation. We should not be surprised. Just like other American institutions, public education is now driven by the buying and selling of goods and services. Some say this is good because capitalistic principles and practices are positive social forces.

But we need to ask how the ideal of equal educational opportunity (EEO) mixes with capitalism. Ten years ago, while teaching a graduate course at a for-profit, family-owned school in Nicaragua, I discovered they are oil and water. My students were the school’s North American, English-speaking  teachers. Their main concern was that programming decisions at their for-profit school were always made with an eye toward profit. I thought to myself, “Of course they are.  Yours would be, too, if you owned the school. Either the family makes a profit, or the school closes.”

These teachers were clinging to the EEO ideal that used to drive North American schools. They wanted the owners to balance profits with outreach to those who needed more educational opportunities. But providing EEO was a luxury the family could not afford. If they sacrificed profit at the wrong time, or for the wrong program, they could go bankrupt (or profit less). Anything that jeopardized profit had to be rejected — even EEO (which Nicaraguans don’t believe in, anyway). But Americans are supposed to believe in EEO. Almost every state has an EEO clause in its constitution.

Research-based and Profit-making

The TCR article gave examples of profiting from the implementation of the common core, but it didn’t describe the roots of this development.  It didn’t explain that the selling of education goods and services got a boost in the 1950s, with the social science improvement experiment. Well-intentioned, male professors of education sought to “professionalize” the feminine field of teaching by making teaching more like medical science. It was a simple analogy — schools would improve through the application of what education researchers found to be “effective,” just like medical treatments improved through the application of what natural scientists found to be effective.

Education professors sought to supplement their salaries with consulting fees and book royalties, like business faculty were doing. College of Business professors conducted studies to explain which strategies and ideas generate greater profits. Education professors wanted the same arrangement, so they conducted education studies to discover which strategies and ideas lead to more learning. After more than 50 years of this approach, we now know it has failed. If it had succeeded, we would have hundreds of examples of schools improving through the application of research findings. Instead, we have none.

Our Current Approach to Improvement

Although the findings of educational research do not improve education, education policy makers continue to assume they do because they are influenced by consultants, publishing houses, internet sites, testing companies, and entrepreneurs, all of which profit from the sale of “research-based” goods and services.

Public education has gone in this direction with the following two results:

  1. Our commitment to EEO has diminished. Striving for this ideal has always depended on the commitment of teachers and the consent of taxpayers. Some public educators are still committed, but economic pressures on the middle class mean less taxpayer consent and more taxpayer resent. The public wants educators held accountable for results, which is a code word for higher test scores. Vendors can’t guarantee results, but they can guarantee “research-based.” You will find it in every vendor’s sales pitch. And educators are complicit. For example, North Carolina students earn scores of 1, 2, 3, and 4 on end-of-grade tests. Because schools are rated on the percentage of 3s and 4s, teachers are directed to work with students with high 2s, neglecting those who scored 1 — the ones most in need of public education.
  2. Sellers of education goods and services have increased their profits. It doesn’t matter that educational opportunities are less equal.  It only matters that powerful people make higher profits. Capitalism cannot abide anything that contradicts the premise that more profit is better than less profit.

EEO and capitalism don’t mix. They are oil and water. Do we want an education system that pursues “research-based” and profits, or one that pursues EEO? We can’t have both. We may never fully achieve EEO; but what does it say about us, when we stop trying?

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#1 The Failed Experiments of American Public Education — Six Virtues of the Educated Person on 03.30.13 at 11:53 pm

[…] what a resolution looks like, if we have no definition of “educated?”  You can read here about why we will continue to pursue the social science paradigm, even though it has failed to […]

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