Friday, April 23, 2010

Corporate Education

It's the direction we're heading, like it or not. I for one, decidedly do not, but have been surprised in one of my Spring quarter courses to find that not everybody has the same reservations I do. Indeed, there is a big push - especially in the technology world - to embrace the disruptive and innovative opportunities that a more corporate model of education offers. Our current reading for the aforementioned class, Disrupting Class, by Clayton Christensen, speaks to how technology will revolutionize education, the undying undertone being: technology will turn education corporate. Scary? Big time.

First things first, what exactly does a more corporate model of education look like? Well, for one thing, we're already moving down that track in the language that schools use. Former Chicago Superintendent and current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did not go by "Superintendent" in his previous post. Rather, he was the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of his district. It is hardly a bad things that schools are paying more and better attention to how they spend their money, and to what their results are, but it is also important to ask about what comes along with bringing business to schools.

For one thing, the emphasis we now place on test scores is a vestige of business, which, even in its most dynamic and innovative forms, is always concerned with producing certain usable products for its consumers, whose use can then be measured. It does Apple no good to produce a product if they cannot later tell how and why people are using it, so they do extensive market research, they do intensive user-feedback and bug fixing, and so on. Some business types think that education needs exactly this: we should think of curriculum content as a product, students as consumers, and thus tailor the whole educational experience to the wants and needs of individual students. In many ways, that would be an improvement, but the first difficulty here is how we do our evaluations.

Standardized testing is an effort to scientifically compare students across time, space, and culture. Moreover, it is a mechanism by which we can make policy decisions in education, electing who to fund and who to fire, which students to slap "at-risk" labels or "learning disabled" labels on, and which to call "gifted." In all, assessment is the framework upon which modern education is built, and it is almost certainly not going anywhere soon. The tricky thing is making assessment more dynamic, which would be a step towards fulfilling a more business-y model of education. How can we do that? Is there really a meaningful way to engage students beyond, on some level, their knowledge of content? It's really hard to standardize essays - because good writing is so varied - or to assess thousands of students on their knowledge of the scientific process, because those are performance-based and intensive processes. Even computers, with their amazing, disruptive capabilities cannot replace a human eye for the aesthetic component that comes along with assessing learning.

Apple measures how consumers use the iPhone quantitatively and qualitatively. They need both. In education, we do a little of each, but quantitative measures dominate. As long as content is important to education, quantitative measures will continue to dominate. Or, is that the other way around? As long as it is important to assess, content will be the purpose. Christensen rightly believes that technology is transforming education, but he still understands that transformation as being formal, and not centered around content as such. That is, he does believe that each student will be able to learn a content based on individual preference, but he still sees the purpose of education as the delivery of content. Technology makes it easier to do that, and to assess it, but is that really what we want out of our schools (or computers)?

Why does Christensen value content over, say, thought process, innovation, or critical thinking? Because he is, I believe, stuck in a businessman's world, where outcomes need to be assessable, and where all things can be understood in terms of production, consumption, and exchange. For a long time - and even still to a degree in these sad times where tests dominate the schools - K-12 education in America has been a place where students were at least partially extracted from a capitalist, survival-of-the-fittest world in favor of exposing them to myriad possibilities and thought-patterns, ranging from artistic expressions to advanced mathematics to world history. The why of all of that content was never "because Johnny needs to know who won the war of 1812," but rather because Johnny's quality of life would be higher, his citizenship more robust, and, yes, his contributions to the work-force more meaningful if he knew how to think about a wide variety of topics.

Christensen takes for granted that students, given the choice, will pursue what topics are most interesting and important to them, but that is exactly the trouble. Without the guidance of a teacher, who personally knows and personally interacts with a student, none of us might ever have found our respective callings. Computers can certainly do some of that work, but where is the teacher who encourages you to take a subject even though you don't want to, ultimately to your benefit? How many - to give a concrete example - St. John's graduates would ever take Greek or Music Theory on their own? How many, having taken those courses, regret it? I think the answer to both is almost none.

Education is not a business because students are not consumers. The vision of a public education system has always been to create intelligent, moral citizens. Public education is essential to Democratic government precisely because Democracy is non-disciplinary, non-specialized. It asks its members to be adept at weighing evidence and testimony in any and every subject. It desires citizens conversant with history, with mathematics, with science, with arts, with music, with foreign languages, and so on. More important than the content of any of those subjects, however, Democracy requires citizens who know how to think like historians, mathematicians, scientists, artists, musicians, and linguists. A business model of education is not interested in such a broad ambition as this, and yet this is the very ambition upon which public education in America was founded.

There is a telling analogy in Christensen's book, which I think captures the essence of his argument, and also my reservations. He describes the disruptive technological effect of recorded sound, and how it allowed for high-quality recordings to be distributed far more widely than a visit to a concert hall ever could (whilst leaving the possibility of attending a concert intact). By analogy, he sees education as moving in a similar direction. Great teachers can distribute - through video, or through as yet uninvented technologies - their teaching over a wider network than ever before. Sure, it's not necessarily as good as in person, but its a whole lot better than nothing.

All of that I agree with, but the problem with Christensen's analogy is that he ignores what happened to music with the invention of recorded sound. What was once an art form pursued and distributed primarily for its own sake - Beethoven and Brahms didn't write music because it made them rich - became, with wider distribution, more economized, more capitalized. That's not to say music for the sake of music doesn't exist now, but it can be really hard to tell the difference. More importantly, though, in the everyone-can-access-everything modern music world commercial viability has replaced quality. Christensen tellingly uses Rachmaninoff and Mozart as his exemplars in his analogy, and he's right to say that now more people can listen to Mozart than every could before. But do more people actually choose to? That's another question.

I've shared my thoughts about great music here, and my readers are free to disagree. In education, however, I think we'll all agree that some teaching is better than other teaching. Some classes are more instructive. Some schools do a better job of turning out critical thinkers. The problem with market forces is that there's no reason to believe that they will allow good teachers to succeed. Good online courses won't necessarily do best, rather, the most popular ones will. There's much to be said for the wisdom of the crowd, sure, but I also wonder whether the direction of a student's education ought to follow a path created by someone (or a culture, broadly) who believes that Justin Timberlake is a better musician than John Tavener, Usher better than Scott Joplin.

My biggest concern with applying business to education is the same as my biggest concern when applying business to life: what's the point? Business is built around an internal structure of meaning. Namely, money is meaning. The point is to compete, to get rich, to produce, to consume, and to iterate on that process ad infinitum (until you die or your planet can no longer support you). Nowhere, in that cycle, are you to ask, "Why?" Why breaks the whole thing apart. It is as if, finding the question, "What is the meaning of life?" too unwieldy, we have decided to build a whole structure that makes asking the question impossible. But I think we need to demand, not answers, but the freedom - and there is no other freedom - to ask "Why?"

What is the purpose of education? I demand that you answer me, Mr. Christensen, and with you all the businessmen who would reform education in the image of Toyota, Starbucks, Virgin Records, Southwest Airlines, Apple, and McDonalds. What is the purpose of education?

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