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Breaking Down the “5 Step Conservative Plan to ‘Save’ Education”

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In the progressive online publication Nation of Change, Paul Buchheit wrote The 5-Step Conservative Plan to "Save Education, which is a "conservative summary, liberally interpreted, of the five steps necessary to save education in the U.S." His interpretation of the conservative stance on education is interesting but lacks any serious critique of the limitation of the other side’s plan as he sees it. Here is a closer look at Buchheit’s interpretation of what conservatives want to do to "save education" and counter proposals for each of the five steps that would not only save education, but also make it more equitable and help to create a better society.

1. Think of Children as Our Most Important Product
The first conservative concept put forward by Buchheit is for a heavy dependence on and investment in charter schools. He writes, "success stories like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and the SEED School show that the concept works if motivated students are chosen, if underperforming students are counseled toward alternative schools, and if expense is not spared to show the potential rewards for those innovating the process. Just as we test and re-test a product to ready it for market, so our children can benefit from industry-like quality control" (18 June, 2012).

Certainly any school would be successful if it could skim off the most motivated and academically gifted individuals and focus specifically on educating them. Two points need to be made in response to this idea.

  • First, education should be designed to inspire and motivate all students, and
  • Second, tracking less motivated individuals into a separate system harms not only them, but also their peers.

There is value in having students teach and learn from each other, and those who may not be academically motivated in some areas, may be able to help their peers in others. Separating students based on their academic ability does not work as a justification for charter schools, but rather should be one of the main arguments against them.

Buchheit then discusses the ways in which charter school models must be scalable in order to be efficient and profitable. But is efficiency really the end goal of education? Echoing a theme that recurs regularly in Education Unbound, the goal of education is innovation and creative thinking, which is the antithesis of efficiency and mass-production education. Scaling charter models for the masses is a flawed concept that cannot be applied universally while providing also providing a quality education to all students.

Finally, the idea that students are a product of the system is a fatal flaw. The notion of materials and products in education is a holdover from the industrial age that should be resisted at every level. The future of education should be based on a technology-enabled individualized approach that allows all students to become entrepreneurial innovators who can contribute to the economic system in new ways.

2. Put a High Price on the Value of Education
According to Buchheit, "If people don’t pay for a product, they won’t value it as highly. So we need to incentivize education. We need to make it an individual responsibility. Higher education provides a start, for tuition now covers a much higher percentage of instructional costs that have remained about the same for 25 years" (18 June, 2012).

The sentiment here that education needs to be valued as one of the highest priorities in society is well founded. That value is, according to Buchheit, tied directly to the cost of the product. The more people are forced to pay for education, the more they will value it. The real issue however is that it needs to be valued at the societal level as well as by the individual. Using the same concept outlined by Buchheit, if society pays for a product then it will value it more. Working from this premise, the idea that costs should be cut from education is foolish – we should support education at the highest level to make it more valuable to society as a whole. Making funding a priority means that all members of society will invest in education and value it.

While continuing to address the issue of educational costs and value, Buchheit examines the idea that education is not just an investment in the future, but that it is an expense that needs to be managed and regulated by the free market. This notion is problematic because it sets up an expectation for right now results when education by its very nature is an accumulated experience that cannot be adequately judged for its value by the quick snapshot of standardized tests.

3. Cut Costs
According to Buchheit, as in business, the primary focus of educational policy and administration should be on increasing efficiency and cutting expenses regardless of the human costs (18 June, 2012).

It is important to note that teaching is not a business, but is a social service that benefits every member of society. With a few exceptions, businesses are not created to benefit the masses, favoring instead the bottom line and profit, often at the expense of the masses. Seldom do you find businesses offering their products and services at the lowest possible price so that the most people can enjoy them. That is not how capitalism works. Education, in contrast is intended to reach everyone so that a more educated population can better contribute to the economy and making the entire society more profitable.  

Finally, Buchheit claims that course offerings should be limited to the most cost effective programs to the detriment of more expensive areas such as engineering and nursing which "may prove too expensive to sustain as long-term programs, even with an increase in student demand" (18 June, 2012).

Given this intense focus on cutting programmatic offerings, where would people learn to become engineers or nurses? No suggestion is given by the author, but perhaps in dustry itself could be partly responsible for absorbing some of the costs associated with training individuals to work in their fields. The real problem with this idea is that there might be a trend towards cutting programs that train individuals in fields where there is no corporate benefit in training individuals such as social work or even education itself. The recent push for STEM education and the overall societal need for technically skilled students who can step into industry would also be harmed by this idea.

4. Rely on Competent Business Leaders
Buchheit proposes a new era of corporate-trained leaders for education in this section. "Impressive is the list of notables who, despite their lack of educational experience, possess the enterprising spirit of capitalism that blazes the charter path. So dedicated are these pioneers that a dependency on credentials seems almost unnecessary" (18 June, 2012).

This idea, however, only works if the basic assumption that education can be run as a business is true. There is a long-standing misconception in society that teachers are not professionals in their field. The notion that business persons could step in and run a classroom, school, or district is analogous to the assumption that a physicist or environmental engineer could step in and run a corporation. Those in business would be just as offended by this concept as trained professional educators and administrators are at Buchheit’s proposal. Each of these areas has a distinct background field of knowledge that requires years of study and application to master.

The difference with education is that everyone has gone through the system at some point in their lives so they assume that they are experts. Imagine if Joe the plumber thought he could fix a cavity because he has had the procedure performed on himself countless times. No one wants a plumber turned dentist with no actual dental training working on their teeth. Why then would it be ok for a business person turned educator with no educational background to run a school?

5. Keep It Simple
While Buchheit begins this section by referring to the right and ability of students to use vouchers to attend religiously affiliated schools, he quickly swings the notion to greatly expanding schooling options by allowing individual communities to form, manage, and fund their own educational institutions.

"Nothing could be simpler and more straightforward than the words of founding father John Adams, who said: "There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves. Free enterprise will ensure that such schools exist, at the expense of the people, and with the incentive of profit driving the entrepreneurs who take advantage of this growing American opportunity" (18 June, 2012).

While this model works in terms of allowing those who know the educational needs of their children to have a say in making decisions regarding their schooling, there are two flaws with this plan:

  • First, it assumes that every "one mile square" will be made up of homogeneous groups with the same educational needs. This is not true, particularly in densely populated areas.
  • The second issue with this concept is that, if tightly defined geographic areas are responsible for funding their own schools, there will necessarily be incredible funding differences between schools serving different populations.

If the idea of Gerrymandering was troubling in the early days of American public education because of the propensity to have school districts intentionally drawn to exclude or include specific groups, a proposal such as this one would only intensify that problem.

Imagining a Progressive Solution
While the original Buchheit piece was a progressive characterization of the main conservative points in a plan to dramatically re-imagine the American education system, it accurately portrays much of the bluster that fills the current media. What all five of these steps have in common is a reliance on individual accountability, charter schools, and vastly divergent funding for schools.

Any solutions for redesigning the education system should begin with creating an equitable system which provides an outstanding education for all students regardless of their social circumstances. New models for education should be based on the knowledge and experience of those best qualified to guide the change – Educators. Fortunately we have a large group of professionally trained educators in this country looking for just such an opportunity to have a meaningful say in what education should be.

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