February Issue
February 03, 2014

Students are not widgets, schools are not factories

Author: By Beth Goldberg
Source: NYSUT United

Beth GoldbergToday's business and education elite are passionate about the need to reform education. Business and even education leaders like New York State Education Commissioner John King Jr. argue that a data-driven management approach to oversee teacher performance should be used to reform the education system. This approach is both naive and problematic on many levels.

Students are not inanimate outputs like machines or software.

Schools are not factories. Students are living and breathing individuals. Each student comes to the school with a unique personal history and personality which plays an integral role in his/her education process.

After a 20-year career in business, I decided to become a mathematics teacher. I returned to school to obtain a master's degree in adolescent education. I was convinced that my management expertise would be readily transferable to teaching. I had managed an international staff, how hard would it be to manage a classroom of 30 or fewer students?

I quickly learned that teaching students was far more complicated than managing adults. Why, you may ask? Here are three simple reasons I would like to share with the business intelligentsia:

  1. Your employees are paid to listen to you, students are not.
  2. In business, employees are selected based upon a search and interview process. Teachers do not select their students.
  3. In business, an insubordinate employee is fired. An insubordinate student is merely one more challenge for a classroom teacher.

To judge the effectiveness of teachers based upon an annual high-stakes test would be comparable to judging the effectiveness of a business leader based upon one meeting or one memo. A business leader may have an ineffective meeting because of a variety of reasons.

Similarly, students' test scores on a particular day may be influenced by a host of factors, including their home life and social interactions. Today's education policy appears to miss the mark. Vilifying all teachers will not rectify the problems that plague a subset of this country's education system.

The current ineffective policies have been developed by individuals who lack experience teaching and are removed from students.

Nonetheless, I do recognize that there are certainly lessons from business which are applicable to education. Here are a few for the state education commissioner and his colleagues to consider:

  1. Those who are closest to the customer should provide the necessary feedback and market information so sound strategies can be formed. Using business terminology, teachers with years of experience working with students are your best source of market intelligence.
  2. Any large-scale implementation requires a detailed project plan. It must be effectively managed as demonstrated by adhering to published deadlines and commitments. Releasing thousands of pages of curriculum materials for teachers days before teachers need to use the information is unacceptable.
  3. Communicate clearly and effectively to all your customers, colleagues and staff. Listen to their concerns.

When I left the business arena to become a teacher, I naively had no idea of the complexities and challenges faced by teachers each day.

Teaching is one of the most rewarding and challenging endeavors I have undertaken. Even though the career is much more demanding and complicated than I anticipated, the satisfaction I receive from a job well done more than compensates me for the effort I invest in teaching my students.

I hope the numerous problems accompanying the education reforms now underway in New York and across the country will be acknowledged and appropriately addressed before the education system is bankrupt.

Beth Goldberg, a member of the Red Hook Faculty Association, teaches mathematics at Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook in Dutchess County. Before entering the teaching profession eight years ago, Goldberg was a senior executive at JP Morgan Chase where she had global responsibility for a suite of payment services products. She wrote this essay after attending State Education Commissioner King's meeting at Spackenkill High School in Poughkeepsie last year. The meeting was intended to be the first of four such meetings with the public. King canceled the remaining meetings and, after much public outcry, agreed to a revamped format. This essay first appeared on Diane Ravitch's blog in December.