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.