The Business of Education

Education has, since the early 1700s, been a fundamental right for all citizens of this country. We have always recognized education as necessary for the development of good citizenship, stable society and a secure country. Today, those virtues have given way to the concepts of accountability and fiscal responsibility. Will these new parameters serve the nation and larger society better in the coming decades?In earlier articles, I looked back at the beginnings of education in America, and the impact it has had on the nation’s development. From the creation of the first school systems to the spread of college education through summer programs by college professors, an early system for leveraging the limited number of colleges, which lead to the first junior colleges in this country, we have worked to make education available to the largest number of people. After World War II, a series of reports on the need for technological education spurred the growth of science and engineering programs opened the doors of universities to new classes of students to meet the need of the new technological world.Today, we look at accountability as the first of two central goals that will shape our education systems in the future. We need to hold teachers accountable, so the programs will deliver quality education to students? I ask this as a question because teachers do not, for the most part shape programs; administrators do. Yet, each administrator gets a contract for services, which must often be bought out before that person can be held accountable. Teachers on the other hand are little more than at-will employees, terminable for any reason, including political hubris.I acknowledge that tenure exists for a select group of college professors, a form of contract comparable to being an administrator. It is the exception rather than the rule. How can there be accountability if we hold only the teachers to a strict level of accountability and not the administration that create the programs? Even in for-profit education systems this holds true. If programs fail to perform all parties, teachers and administrators as well need to feel the sting of accountability. In a truly capitalist system, all parties would be on the same footing; produce or leave.Capitalism requires competition by all parties in order to show they are worthy to, or should survive. The true model of capitalism is a froth in which constant testing occurs. There are no exceptions, and only winners are allowed to continue the struggle. But everyone struggles. The current structure where some are excluded from the struggle is not a true business model, nor is it true capitalism. Only by putting everyone into the froth will we have a correct business model, and true accountability.The second pillar of the current business model is fiscal responsibility. Education systems must be held to account for the public dollars they spend. This is a fair measure of success applied poorly. We often hear the American Education system compared to other advanced nations, with less than a favorable outcome. By some measure, our system is in the thirtieth percentile when compared to other nations. Our students in grades K-12 are often placed in the fiftieth percentile, while we spend several times the amount of money on each student as other higher ranked countries. The question rings in the air; what are we paying for??The answer to this is complex, and I do not wish to diminish that complexity by being overly simplistic here. Yet, trying to compare students from different cultures, political systems and geographies is at best art, rather than science. Each time I hear the analysis of how expensive our system is by comparison to others, I ask so what. We ask so much more of our system than other countries. The average American student enters a competitive environment like no other. They live in a country that is the global leader in scientific research. From genetics to Nano- technology to advanced control systems this country is the undisputed leader. In Financial systems, from banking to the stock market, America leads the world.In Aerospace and Space systems, NASA is still the front runner. Medical treatment and research in this country has no equal. The American military is the dominant military on the planet. In the field of energy development and exploration, American Oil companies are without peer. The American school child cost more, because we demand so much more of them. If you buy a million dollar car to drive to work, you should not be upset when your neighbor pulls up beside you in his Hyundai to go to the same place. Despite all the claims of failure, the American success is still the gold standard for the world.That comes from people educated in the schools of this country. It is true there are problems, but that is a result of the increased complexity of an evolving technological society. That other nations are catching up to us in some areas is a complement to our success and the success of the educational system that got us here. Any and all systems must evolve, change, and face new challenges if the system is to survive. This process of adjustment is not always smooth and it does not come without cost. Just because your new and expensive car will occasionally need an oil change or tires is no reason to declare it obsolete. These adjustments will cause you to slip a position or two in the race, but you can still catch up and win, although it may still be costly.The true business model if applied to the education system will work, but it must be applied and evaluated fairly. The measure of accountability should fall on all participants, as the capitalism requires. If we want to live in the froth of true capitalism, then we must play by those rules. Everyone competes on the same basis. We must also stop making false comparisons between a dynamic, but mature system and younger less dynamic systems. The purpose of setting an example is to encourage others to follow it.We should not be disappointed, or displeased when others follow the example to success, sometimes at our expense. After all that was the reason we put the example there. Cost comparison should not be a part of evaluating differing educational systems, unless we are willing to acknowledge the comparison may be terminally flawed if we do not make allowances for the differences in achievements of older systems versus the younger systems and relative differences in complexity of the systems.America leads the world, not just by word, but in practice. The example we imposes on ourselves is a severe burden on our systems and a necessary burden for those that will lead. Neither I nor anyone else can promise the success or failure of so complex a system, but the goal is certainly worthy. The American education system moves a world, not just a nation forward, and I for one hope it continues to do so. However, we must make accountability on an equal basis for all parties in education, and recognize the large goals of the American system must be judged by different standards than those of other countries.