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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Franchises, farmers markets, schools

Farmers' Market by NatalieMaynor

Farmers’ Market by NatalieMaynor

This spring, our local farmers market inadvertently awarded space to a national chain.

Our schools, however, lease themselves to vendors all the time. Well, actually schools don’t lease themselves – they, in fact, pay to be occupied by vendors. Money budgeted for curriculum, interventions, and testing seldom stays inside a division, school system, or state. Instead, schools award national and multi-national educational publishing companies contracts to take over the work of curriculum development, instruction, and assessment inside our schools. As this practice continues, I become increasingly worried that slashing teachers’ salaries and benefits will become a justifiable cost-saving measure. Why not pay “teachers” an hourly wage for delivering a service? Doesn’t merit pay amount to a commission for “selling” the right answers? For retailing products bought wholesale by the division? Teaching will not be a knowledge-economy profession generating new intellectual property amongst teachers or students if it becomes defined by overly-specific, policy-driven standards that bind teachers and kids to testing requirements for pay and/or promotion.

After reading about our famers market snafu, I’m thinking of the problem this way:

Let’s say we don’t get rid of schools. Let’s say that despite the advent of the flipped classroom and maker spaces and homeschooling and unschooling, schools persist.

What kind of schools do we want? And will we want standards for them?

If we do want schools and standards, do we want franchises or farmers markets?

Do we want schools that all prepare and deliver the same “teaching” and “learning” the same way to each and every child (episodic teacher improv aside), or do we want schools that admit local teachers who offer kids more idiosyncratic, homemade teaching and learning?

We can see franchise schools all around us – including both traditional, public schools and corporate charter schools. They run like franchise restaurants with clear hierarchies and expectations of behaviors – including learning behaviors. Those who don’t comply are punished by exclusion from spaces of compliance.

We can sometimes catch glimpses of farmers market schools – schools at which both teachers and students have the autonomy to engage in a more meaningful economy of negotiation about teaching and learning. At these schools, even when standards are present, the curriculum, instruction, and assessment are developed and shared locally according to local interests, needs, and skills.

At franchise schools, the academic and behavioral standards exist as a kind of pre-deterministic rubric by which to judge and include or exclude kids. The standards are ridiculously myopic in their focus and often amount to trivia. They are tantamount to instructions for a laborer (a term inclusive of both teachers and students) making the same cheeseburger a thousand times a day. There is certainly dignity in labor, and it is certainly admirable to serve others. However, given the problems of child labor, and given our invention of the American childhood, and given the kind of weird systemic intolerance we’ve developed for kids who act like children, and given our national rhetoric about college- and career-readiness – and given kids’ inherent affinities for learning – schools should probably not resemble assembly lines or factory floors where learning comes to be “processed.”

At farmers market schools, the academic and behavior standards exist to promote teaching and learning in safe, customizable, and meaningful ways. They are tantamount to a set of ingredients bought fresh and prepared or packaged safely in myriad ways according to the talents of the producer and the wants and needs of the customer. And sometimes the cook isn’t a cook, but a soap-maker or florist or print-artist setting up a stall at the market because people want more than food and want to support a broader economy that includes more than just food.

By which kind of standard do we want to live our lives as citizens, learners, and people? By the set of standards that tells us what to take from each piece of paper we’re given, or by the set that asks us to make something with each set of ingredients we’re given? Do we want to live inside franchise communities or farmers market ones, and what are we willing to do for our children and schools to ensure the viability of our choices and those we leave to the next generation?

As we think about where to buy our stuff and where to find our entertainment, we should thinks about where we go for our learning. Our schools – as a system of public education – are not farmers markets yet. They are poorly negotiated franchises – unprofitable licensees really – who profit educational publishing and software companies (which are largely one and the same) at the expense of tax-payers, parents, and children who should rightfully expect knowledge-economy work from teachers paid to be the stewards of the knowledge-economy.

Our schools should be knowledge-economy farmers markets that compete with the vendors and transparently benefit their communities; let the vendors open their own franchises. Their relationships with schools are parasitic, not symbiotic, ones.

About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


10 thoughts on “Franchises, farmers markets, schools

  1. Chad – This is such a thoughtful piece. I love the way you push readers to envision what schools should be and look like, their purpose. I always feel inspired after reading about your visions and ideas–they really resonate with me as a teacher and as a parent of Virginia public school students.

    One thing, however, I have hard time with is envisioning schools/education as just another marketplace, or as an economy. I know it’s a useful structure and analogy and it does lend (to me, at least) a novel way of looking at education. And it certainly mirrors the way many reformers and decisions makers seem to be viewing education. This, for example, is right on:

    “At franchise schools, the academic and behavioral standards exist as a kind of pre-deterministic rubric by which to judge and include or exclude kids. The standards are ridiculously myopic in their focus and often amount to trivia. They are tantamount to instructions for a laborer (a term inclusive of both teachers and students) making the same cheeseburger a thousand times a day.)”

    But I wonder if education doesn’t deserve a model unto itself? Can’t students just be, well, students and not “customers”? Can’t schools just be schools or centers of education and not “knowledge markets.” Can we move beyond seeing them through an economic/market-based lens to seeing them through a broader, richer education lens?

    Posted by Rachel Levy | May 8, 2012, 9:52 am
    • Rachel – thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      I agree with you – school – or whatever we can foster as universally-accessible learning – doesn’t need to have a capitalistic economic slant. I think when I use negotiation, I mean it in the sense of the teacher asking how he or she can support what the learner wants to accomplish. I would love for school to be a gift economy in which people still give and receive, but the giving and receiving aren’t bound to a quid pro quo model.

      Regardless, I’m kind of cognitively engaged with organizational hospice at the moment, gearing up, as I am, to start thinking about next year inside a school in light of what we’ve accomplished this year as a class community and in response to what I have failed to do in terms of my goals. As Brent noted in my last post, this sounds like school-justification.

      Here’s to the simultaneous development of the new model and hospice for those of us stuck in the old!


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 8, 2012, 10:11 am
  2. Thinking about franchise vs. farmers market education and your posting, Chad:

    1. I hope not all charter schools are not franchise schools or even corporation schools. In fact, the discussion group I am associated with sees our charter STEM concept as every bit a farmers market school as you outline the two options.

    2. Of course, all education has to have some structure – in terms of standards or learning objectives or whatever the phrase of choice is. The extension of that notion to any franchise type of thinking is to me at least so counter to effective learning. I am baffled by the use of lesson plans, quite frankly. Sure, a general plan for the day is important; but my university experience tells me that any adherence to that plan would lead to frustration for students and would blunt any effective learning. I cannot believe it would be any different in K-12.

    3. It strikes me that one of many reasons for home schooling is avoiding the franchise nature of far too many schools (if it’s the fifth Tuesday of the third marking period in third grade, we must be considering the natural habitat of penguins …). It also seems to me that the farmers market public school version of home schooling would include flipped classroom pedagogy for core knowledge and PBL for expanded effective learning.

    4. As a dedicated consumer of farmers markets, there is an excitement and satisfaction for my family and me to weave the variety of items available any visit into exciting meals (as contrasted with taking recipes from books and purchasing the needed – routinely available – items in the super markets). I’m not a fan of thinking of students as consumers BUT seeing them as creative chefs building on fundamentals is an exciting vision for education.

    Posted by John Bennett | May 8, 2012, 12:06 pm
    • Right – I should have been clearer about the shared role of creator that encompasses the work of teachers and students. Thanks, John!

      I know of plenty non-franchise charter schools, but few corporate non-franchise ones – where should I be looking?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 8, 2012, 12:22 pm
  3. I’m not sure exactly what you are meaning using “corporate charter” in your posting, Chad. I thought you were referring to the fact that charters are not part of public school systems and that they have a business structure for the financial side. If that’s the case, then I believe all the charters in Connecticut fit this definition. But that’s not an issue for me. Do I have your notion of corporate correct?

    Regardless, my comment was with regard to “farmers market” or “non-franchise” charter schools. As I said, our NEST (NorthEast STem) discussion group will be anything but franchise and thus I don’t want any requirement that it be franchise.

    Posted by John Bennett | May 8, 2012, 3:36 pm
    • John, thanks for the prompt to clarify –

      I see a difference between charters run by national charter management organizations (corporations and/or non-profits) and charters run by local signatories. Our school, for example, is supported by a local non-profit that its local co-founders oversee, and we remain a public school. The conversion-charter high school in our division (which started life as a school/program before pursuing a charter) likewise remains a public school inside the division. Depending on the state – or commonwealth – and its laws, charters can be managed in a variety of ways. Most of the corporate charters I have seen tend to be franchise schools while most of the locally organized charter schools I have seen tend to be farmers market schools – or “heirloom schools” as was suggested on Twitter.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 8, 2012, 8:30 pm
      • Chad, the charters in Connecticut may be incorporated, I don’t know. BUT they are local I’m sure. The state provides pretty some support. In the current reform discussions, there are assertions of corporations taking over struggling schools as charters; but I haven’t seen any smoking gun as the expression goes. What I have seen is expectation of facilitating effective learning.

        Posted by John Bennett | May 8, 2012, 9:12 pm
        • Charter or not, huzzah for public schools that are more farmers-market-like than franchise-like. Being a native Nutmegger, I try to parse the latest CT edu-news through the sparring voices of Dropout Nation and School Finance 101 (in VA and NJ respectively). I’m very grateful you have shared the view from where you are, as well!

          All the best,

          Posted by Chad Sansing | May 9, 2012, 5:29 am
  4. Pretty significant education reform bill passed by legislature ast night and sent to governor for signature.

    Posted by John Bennett | May 9, 2012, 8:40 am
  5. Chad, many thanks for your thought-provoking post.

    I am all for regional and/or local markets involving production and exchange of what is needed and/or wanted here and there. At some point I will get to Woodard’s thoughts on regionalized American Nations, but think that regional nations are actually underpinned by many sub-nations.

    I see a most difficult obstacle on the path toward creating, building or tailoring such markets. It is the We-ness of American nationalism. It seems ‘Un’, or at least ‘Non-American’ to suggest a particular people at a given locale might want or need different things from ‘the rest of us Good Americans’. That obstacle, however, pales in comparison to that of individuality which arises when one or more individuals dare say, “Please sir, I want some more”, demanding that they be dealt with on an individual basis…

    …and that, I believe, is exactly what ‘we’ need…

    I wish you the best in dealing with the quagmire you seem to be wading through.


    Posted by Brent Snavely | May 14, 2012, 8:01 am

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