School is Back – So This Must Be a Good Time for a Commentary

While reading Dan Ariely’ book, Predictably Irrational and specifically the chapter regarding Social Norms, he made reference to educational achievement (or the lack there of in the United States) and that started me thinking.

Ariely’s thesis is that the problem with our overall failure in public education is that we have moved the relationship between educators (teachers, administrators, parents, students, and communities) from one of a strong social context (think the value proposition of your local charity {baseball league with concerned and talented parents lining up to assist, scouting organizations, churches, etc.}) to one of a marketplace contract.

That all of this “talk” of treating education like a business has created the unintended (negative IMHO) consequence of less true professionalism in education and one more attuned to a factory setting where children are the “product”; the teachers are the hourly paid laborers, and the administration is the plant management, and the community/society is the customer receiving less then full and intended value (on the whole at least). Just think of how many times you have heard a business mouthpiece, without a stitch of comprehension of what it takes to be a real teacher, boast about the problem with education is that it is simply not run like a business. Hogwash. Education (at least in our current public system) isn’t a business and we should stop treating it like it is. Sound bite reporting perpetuates our problems and doesn’t solve them.

I think Arierly is on to something here. Back in the day when my mother was a teacher (late 50’s – early 70’s high school typing, shorthand, and briefhand {do they even teach shorthand anymore?) – she was paid less then alternative careers that paid more. She knew that before she signed on. The hours were long (she didn’t have a study break like they do now. I remember her sitting home at night with buckets of homework to grade (having taught at the JC level for several years – I can attest that grading papers is the sour end of a teacher’s employment contract). I remember her students (at the time they could have been current or former – some having returned from Vietnam thanking her for teaching them how to type because that kept them alive as typists and clerks rarely had to go on night patrols) stopping by our home on weekends or evenings to seek her counsel. She didn’t ask for more money or claim of fame for these efforts, they were part of her covenant with the students, district, and our community. She was a professional and yes she earned less then other jobs – but the intrinsic value of her work was superior to the pay.

Sometime after she retired, the contract changed. More money was heaped upon education, and less education occurred. Arts and humanities were scaled back to focus on the three R’s. And overall results weakened. We added more money and cut services and less and less benefits were received. Our contract changed and changed for the worse. By creating a market driven (payroll based) incentives we are receiving poor results because the goods and services are part of a market (they could be if we allowed vouchers and competition to the local schools but that would be another post and not what this one is about).

In my local school district (North Clackamas, just outside of Portland) the teachers union (I suspect without full representation of the teachers they represent) vetoed a pay freeze (the administration and non-teachers accepted a pay freeze last March) and because of budget issues, 60 teachers will lose their job, class sizes will increase, animosity is increasing, the children will receive less, and the social contract continues to weaken). All of this because today we have dramatic influence from market/labor perspectives rather than one of an important social contract, where teaching is more important then money. Teachers need to earn a fair wage, and it may be too late to change back, but I can guarantee you that more money will never solve the education conundrum that we face. Additionally – using market forces and business ideas will also continue to fall short of their theoretical objectives. Sometimes what we had is superior to what we have.

I wrote this in the hopes that you would think about education at a time so many of our children are returning to schools. Full of hopes and dreams. Full of opportunities and brimming with an infinite ideology of bright futures. It is easy and simple (probably simple minded as well) to criticize the public schools system without thinking about how we arrived at our current position and without thinking about how to adjust our course to achieve our desired outcome.

Dan Ariely didn’t say or write most of the above, these are my extensions of his writings – but I think he is onto something. When you confuse the type of contract you have, you get into trouble. When non-profit entities start acting more “business like” and place profits before purpose – they run afoul of their public trust. For schools it is the same thing.

Maybe we would be better served by reducing the wages of teachers to the relative levels they were when my mom started (inflation adjusted to be sure) and then we’ll find people dedicated to teaching and not money – maybe that matters. We all win when we align the objectives and the values. I think this is worth discussing. What do you think?

My next post will extend this social contract to the professions (legal and accounting) as I will discuss that how they approach their non-profit customers may be negatively impacting both the quality of their services, the value they are providing, and the goodwill they are seeking. Look for the connection during the next few days. Until then, think about the above.

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