Tuesday, January 06, 2015

A short lesson in how business models do not apply in public education

Council member Jason Holleman pulled me in on Sunday when he quoted one of the finest expositors of the relationship between public education and democracy, John Dewey, in his Tennessean column. Dewey's may be a hard pill to swallow for the "collaborative culture" in Nashville, which eschews conflict usually by ignoring those who bring it to light. However, it is no less true in genteel Music City: conflict is the gadfly of the critical reflection necessary to growth. Both minimizing and denying conflict, instead of acknowledging it and working towards mutual understanding, instigate nothing. Instead, they lead to hubris, atrophy and neglect as they destroy authentic community.

But I could go on and on about kick-ass Dewey quotes to the point of diversion.

The really important statements by CM Holleman are:

Speaking out is an essential responsibility of democratic leaders. To describe such leadership as “freelancing,” reflects a misunderstanding of the role of elected officials. We work for the people who’ve elected us. If we limit that work to the minutes of official meetings, we abdicate a critical responsibility to protect the public interest.

The Chamber of Commerce’s recent Report Card critiqued such advocacy as being inconsistent with the policy governance model the Board adopted. Respectfully, the Chamber may need a reminder on the nature of democracy and the expectations of elected officials.

Expecting only public praise and private criticism in the name of “policy governance” undermines the essential protections of free speech in general and, more specifically, erodes the relationship between constituents and their elected officials.

CM Holleman is responding to the Chamber's education committee, which accused the Metro Nashville Public School Board of "freelancing" instead of acquiescing to an idea of "unity" contrived from the strictures of their own business models for fixing what they deem as "dysfunction." The fallacy is the unexamined assumption that everything is better if operating like a business ideal. Commentators of many stripes have pointed out that all kinds of societal projects would break apart under the weight of corporate logic.

Here is the specific critique in the Chamber's "report card" to which CM Holleman's op-ed is responding:

Over the past year, it is clear that the Metro school board has struggled to articulate a common vision for the school system. This may be due, in part, to significant turnover on the board. As of August 2014, five of the nine members had served fewer than two years. Even more disruptively, some board members routinely criticize their director of schools through social media and news media articles between official board meetings, creating a perception of dysfunction and lack of leadership. Given these dynamics, we believe the board would be wise to invest more time and resources toward becoming a more cohesive governing body. We recommend that the school board recommit its adherence to policy governance by engaging in ongoing professional development. Engaging an outside trainer on a regular basis to work with the board on updating its policy governance model would ensure all members, regardless of length of tenure, have a thorough understanding of the model. In addition, these ongoing sessions could be designed to help the board accomplish necessary tasks, such as coming to consensus on expectations for their next director of schools.

Before we consider the merits the report card's argument, keep this mind: the Chamber of Commerce is a powerful lobby group that exerts pressure on local government to address their special interests. Methods they have used to collect data used to exert influence in the past were overseen by public relations and marketing firms, not independent researchers. The report itself is funded by sponsors and corporate partners listed on page 2. Whatever detached objectivity the Chamber may claim for its data now has to be qualified by its subjective use of money and power supplying and potentially biasing report results.

Such funding mechanisms for lobbying remind me of how public-private partnerships produce economic impact studies that are generally more reliable for influencing opinions than for discerning the truth.

Now to the merits of the arguments. It is frankly hypocritical for a business group to criticize a government body for a high turnover rate when the former has been shaken by unstable economies. Nashville has been beset by layoffs in recent years at some of the region's largest employers. Many here have witnessed laid off employees asked to leave immediately and escorted out by security guards. What kind of hits are long-term institutional knowledge taking in the private sector right now? Are local corporations not now hiring temporary workers and contracting out projects so that they avoid paying benefits and payroll taxes on full-time employees? Are businesses setting examples of low turnover rates in the first place?

On on that point, the education committee's choice to lob darts with terms like "freelancing" and "disruptively" so pejoratively at dissenting school board members is interesting, given trendy "disruptive innovation" and the hard-core realities of the economic system. The "sharing economy" in vogue now emphasizes "freelance" or contingent workforce, which could be the norm in a few years. So, is freelancing bad or good? One of the co-chairs of he education committee, Jackson Miller (who himself takes to social media to debate privatization of public education), has a background in the tech sector, which has "an appetite for disruptive ideas." So, is "disruption" bad or good?

The Chamber of Commerce's harsher judgments are based on ideas that are not even enduringly real in its own limited world. To speak so unambiguously, so moralistically to public education leaders is disingenuous. And frankly, the Chamber engages annually in its own pet projects (witness charter schools and corporately sponsored "academies") that disrupt and freelance in public education. Pot meet kettle.

But more to CM Holleman's point, the report card reflects an unabashed bias to take the power away from parents, teachers, principals, and voters and leave it to the whims of special interest groups and hired consultants (who stand to economically benefit from the report card's recommendation). Business lobby groups should be one among many voices with influence over the school board. PTOs, neighborhood groups, and community-based organizations, even if they do not have a lock on wealth approaching that of the Chamber, should have equal influence.

However, inviting more stakeholders leads to more dissent and the actual messiness of democracy. As if we have any other legitimate choice. To insist a democratically obligated board should subscribe to some cleanly-projected, top-down, squabble-free, market-based ideal that rarely even exists in the marketplace is partial, unreasonable and plain foolish.

In the spirit of Dewey, public education is supposed to develop children into critically thinking participants in a robust democracy that encompasses dissent as well as obedience. We do Nashville's children a disservice if we pretend--even on their behalf--that democracy is uncomplicated by dissent. What may seem like a good business model (dependence, docility, submissiveness, etc) is not always a good education model.

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