Googling Public Education (Michael J. O'Neal)
Public education in this country could stand a good Googling.
Public schools are a $446-billion-a-year business, collectively surpassing ExxonMobil as the nation’s largest “corporation.” Comparisons between public education and the getting and spending of commerce seem distasteful. But if economics is the science of scarcity, then public schools, operating with finite resources, are subject to the same economic forces as other commercial enterprises, and their function, which they share with corporations, is to provide useful “products” that improve lives. Like corporations that founder, though, they sometimes make products with about as much use as solar-powered flashlights and inflatable dartboards.
If public schools are going to thrive in the 21st century, they need to start thinking more like business and learn a thing or two from flourishing corporations like Google. While other tech companies continue to struggle in the wake of the tech bubble burst, Google’s first quarter revenues this year were up an eye-popping 79 percent, making it one of the nation’s most successful corporations.
Public education could emulate Google, first, by heaving overboard its hidebound, orthodox business model. Google is not the same organization it was when it created Google 1.0, a simple search engine. By listening to customers and nimbly adapting to technological change, the company morphed up to Google 5.0, with Web-based features that make 1.0 look like a digital witching stick. Rumor has it that the company will reinvent itself again with a Google 6.0 (which perhaps will help users search for, and actually find, a cat-odor-removal product that works).
In contrast, the education industry remains mired in an outdated business model. This model is defended by a viper’s nest of vested interests—trade unions, colleges of education, state boards—that resist, indeed attack, efforts at reform and change, including virtual schools, charter schools, voucher programs, and other innovations that would better serve consumers at lower cost. A few years back, an everyday guy named Bob Thompson sold his successful construction business and offered to donate $200 million to his hometown, Detroit, to build 15 innovative charter schools. In the face of poisonous opposition from the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which characterized him as a meddlesome carpetbagger, a bewildered Thompson withdrew the offer. Google, with what one writer has called an “expansive sense of purpose,” would have milked every penny of that $200 million for the benefit of the city’s children.
Then there’s staffing. Getting a job at Google is no mean feat. The company prides itself on hiring brainiacs, then rewarding them based on merit and performance.
In contrast, teachers unions fight merit systems hammer and tongs—but who can blame them when the nation’s colleges of education screen candidates with sieves made of Hula-Hoops? Education majors’ grade point averages are consistently much higher than other students’, even though only 14 percent of education graduates score in the top quartile on SAT or ACT tests, in contrast to 26 percent of graduates in the social sciences, 37 percent in math and science. The states aren’t helping, for the scores teaching candidates need to pass licensing exams are usually so low that almost anyone can pass—though recently, a quarter of Pennsylvania’s math teachers, all state certified, couldn’t pass a math test aimed at a 10th-grade skill level.
Legions of talented teachers do yeoman’s work and do it well. The problem is what to do with tenured incompetents who’ve lost their mojo, or worse. Illinois journalist Scott Reeder found that in Illinois—though one suspects that the problem is nationwide—only one out of every 930 tenured teachers is ever given an unsatisfactory rating, and in 83 percent of the state’s 876 school districts, not a single tenured teacher has received an unsatisfactory rating over the past decade. Over the last 18 years, 93 percent of the state’s districts have never tried to fire a tenured teacher—perhaps because in recent years the cost in legal fees of firing one tenured teacher has averaged $219,504, with half the cases still pending. At Google, rotting fruit like this gets plucked and pitched in a banano-second.
Education 1.0 isn’t going to serve the needs of students and taxpayers in the new millennium. Our kids deserve at least a 2.0, but they’ll get it only when education Googles itself.
Michael J. O’Neal is a columnist for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (where this article originally appeared) and a freelance writer. He lives in Idaho. He may be reached at mjREMOVETHISoneal at turbonet dot com.