In Part I of this series, I laid out my argument for why privatization will lead to the formation of large private school companies and franchise like we see in Korea. In Part II, I explained how big school companies will kill innovation in education and create a tiered education system. This week I’ll explain why these corporatized schools will overly focus on tests to the detriment of students’ educations and how parents controlling the purse strings of a school will result in them harming their own child’s education.
Privatization and Test Scores
Some privatization fans might concede that large schools will be one of the results of encouraging parents to walk away from public schools. However, they will cling to the notion that the free market will force schools to compete and, thereby, innovate. But this is where business practices come in because it is cheaper and easier to use the selection effect (only allowing in the best students) or teach to the test, play with the numbers, dumb down tests and placate parents than it is to implement a new system of education. And this brings us to the next problem with following the Korean example: test results being treated like quarterly reports.
Every education expert I have ever encountered has agreed that standardized tests are not the best measure of a student’s actual abilities. These kinds of tests only require rote memorization, which might work well in the short term for some subjects like science and math (two areas Korea excels at), but the tests do not work well for testing critical thinking or for subjects where there is more than one way to answer something like with language. This is to say nothing of the personal and social development that is also an important part of a young student’s education. Education, sadly, is not an easily quantifiable thing, despite what policymakers and business people might want you to think. However, the efforts to hold public schools in America accountable for their output like a business has already seen a huge increase in the number of tests students must take and the value placed on them, because in order to run education like a business there has to be something to quantifiable to measure and track.
The problem with this, however, is that some students are bad test takers, some aren’t good at memorizing information, and while others are great at it, neither ability is directly related to a student’s genuine understanding of the information or material they are being tested on. In Korea, ESL academies focus, to the exclusion of everything else, on preparing students for standardized tests. Without getting overly specific, I will just mention a few examples of how preparing for tests undermines the students’ ability to properly learn English. The students focus on learning useless vocabulary that is significantly out of their level to try to score higher on writing tests while ignoring more basic words they are much more likely to encounter and use. They focus too much on every aspect of grammar instead of learning the fundamentals of English, like how to use articles ( a, an and the) correctly, and they take test after test, usually multiple choice ones, and never get real feedback on their mistakes, only the correct bubble they should have circled in. Schools in Korea do this because –short term – it is a company’s best chance to get good test scores. To put it in economic terms, the upfront cost of giving the students a fundamentally sound English education would require them to take a short term hit on test scores. While, in the long run, providing the fundamental education would pay off more in terms of both giving students a better education and better test results, experience shows that current standard business practices focus almost entirely on short term payoffs, and the more competitive the marketplace is, the more schools will be pressured to show good test scores right away.
The increasing reliance on standardized tests has been derided by many education experts mostly because, like in Korea, schools start to worry more about the test than they do on providing students with an actual education. However, an increasing use of these tests goes hand-in-hand with privatizing schools. In a privatized school system, schools will need to be able to prove their school is better than another to attract customers…I mean students. And they will want to rely on test results to objectively prove their school is better. Furthermore, taxpayers and parents will want accountability for these private schools (be they large or small) and will insist on standardized tests as a way of holding schools accountable. It is also very conceivable governments will set minimum scores for private schools to be eligible to receive taxpayer money. Desiring high scores in order to compete, it is easy to imagine a world in which a private school, even more so than public schools do now, focus exclusively on “teaching to the test” by having students constantly prepare for tests while ignoring all other aspects of thorough education. After all, it is much easier to advertise good test scores than it is to advertise critical thinking development.
Regardless of how a school performs on the test, the end result will be the creation of a lot of students who only know how to take standardized tests. Very few schools will be willing to risk lower test scores to provide a more robust education that actually develop students’ analytical and critical thinking skills because the consequences of reporting a decline in test scores will be treated like reporting a decline in productivity. Parents and investors alike will flee a school that does not report good test scores, regardless of the soundness of the education actually being offered because the only thing that will matter in a privatized school system will be the quantifiable results of tests. What is already an over-utilized and significantly inaccurate measure of students’ abilities will become an all-important business tool to measure performance and set prices.
Given the significantly increased importance test scores will play in a privatized educational market, it is not hard to imagine any one of a number of business-like scandals that might take place as teachers, fearing for their jobs and businessmen concerned about the well-being of their bottom line, will be put in situations where their finical security will rest entirely on the test scores of their students. In this scenario, it isn’t hard to imagine many schools and teachers deciding to, to borrow a phrase from HBO’s The Wire, “juke the numbers” (or whatever else it might take to help their students do a little better on the test and to keep their jobs). Outbreaks of systematic cheating have already occurred in public schools where teachers and principals, when faced with losing their jobs because they cannot meet unrealistic testing goals given their students’ abilities, have chosen to manipulate test results.
Parents Will Become Part of the Problem
Many will argue that none of what has happened in Korea will be allowed to happen in America and some will base that claim on the idea that parents will not allow it. Again, Korea’s example not only shows that parents will allow this to happen, they will actually be the driving force for much of what will go wrong in privatized education. As much as businessmen trying to applying business practices to education will silence to voices of education experts, well-intentioned parents having control over which school to give their allotment of taxpayer money too will only serve to amplify the need to run education like a business and to further silence experts.
The parenting style of Korea can be likened to that of Tiger Moms. There are many stay-at-home mothers who focus exclusively on their children’s education and parents are very involved, as is demonstrated by the fact that so many families here send their children to multiple private afterschool academies to supplement the free public schooling their children receive. Much of the praise President Obama has lauded on Korea has been in regards to how highly valued education is there and how engaged parents are in making sure their children receive as much education as possible.
There is no doubt that parents, both in Korea and in America, will have their child’s best interest at heart with any educational decision they make. Unfortunately, this is not the same as doing what is in the best interest of their child. Just like many might question the wisdom of the Tiger Mom child-rearing method, none would question the parents’ intent to do what they think is best for their child. Parents in Korea have been empowered by the fact that they control the purse strings of schools and are easily able to dictate school policy at private schools. Time after time the answer to what is best for the students’ education is answered with, “what will the parents want?” and “what will the parents think?”
Countless times, as a text book writer, developer and editor, I’ve seen good ideas for improving our educational materials that were formulated by education experts tossed out because parents did not see the benefit or purpose of it. Similarly, pointless and time wasting materials were added to curriculum because parents like them. Some of these concessions have been cynical like making a book appear bigger without adding any real content so the parents think they are getting more for their money. Other changes have been for the purpose of placating parents like adding more vocabulary instead of focusing on basic grammar because parents want to hear their children say big words, even if they’ll never have a chance to use them in a real-life conversation. To put it succinctly, because parents are the customers in privatized schooling, education must bow to their whims.
Still, there is another side to parents being treated as customers and being in charge of the money a school receives: bad and unethical business practices meant to trick and manipulate parents. Schools run like businesses and with a business mindset will try to play to the parents’ desire to give their children the best. One example of a corrupt business practices here in Korea are the instruction many teachers receive about how to grade students. I have heard countless teachers who work for hagwons (Korean private schools) talk about how grades are used to hide students who are performing well and those who are doing poorly. Why? For profit, of course.
If a student consistently does very well then their parents will want them moved to an advanced class, the class might cost the school more, or, even worse, the parents might pull their child out to take them to a better, more challenging school. After all, if a student is really gifted, they might be able to go to one of the upper tier schools on scholarship. Similarly, the parents of poor performing students will either want extra help for their students, which might cost the school or will blame the school for their child’s poor grades (a modern phenomena) and change schools until they find one that will give their child the grades they want. The solution many Korean schools have come up with is that no one passes with the highest marks and no one fails. While I cannot provide any written documents announcing this as an official policy, there is no shortage of hagwon teachers who can attest to having been instructed to manipulate grades so the school can manipulate parents.
While I can see this happening in America, what I think is even more likely, given America’s more “industrious nature,” (and hatred of regulations) are schools setting up an afterschool program for struggling students where they can get some extra help at a nominal cost and then having schools instruct teachers to fail students to fill the program. Lots of little scams like this could easily be set up to the point education, that once was free, costs parents hundreds in little fees here and there similar to the way banks tack on small extra charges here and there to pad their profits. Outlandish you say? Well, just look at some of the schemes businesses have recently been caught doing in America. With potentially hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, can anyone really guarantee that only well-intentioned people with a passion for providing good education will get involved in the educational market? Or is it more likely that, like in Korea, a lot of people with no background in education and no previous interest in it will see money to be made and enter the market with the primary interest of making a profit Wolf of Wall Street-style?
The people who have been advocating for the privatization of public schools have not been honest with themselves or with the public. They would have us believe that we can utilize every positive element of business to improve education while keeping every negative aspect of business out. However, there can be no question that with billions of dollars at stake, bad actors and reprehensible business practices will become involved in our education system. As Korea has shown, small private schools will become large corporations, innovation will cease, and millions that could have gone toward education will go to advertising, administrative fees and other investments wholly unrelated to learning. Preparing students for tests will become the sole focus of schools since test scores are the easiest things well-intentioned but ill-informed parents can understand when deciding where to send their kids to school. And many of these same parents will be manipulated, mislead and lied to all for the sake of someone trying to maximize enrollment and thereby their profits. So just remember, the next time a business scandal breaks out and we find out a company has been cooking the books for months to hide the fact its products were defective, the next time those “products” might be your kids.