An Education Mini-Festo

I was thinking about my recent post about cultural conflicts within higher ed while I read about the Chicago teachers’ strike and listened to the latest This American Life podcast about education.

I had some thoughts.


Here’s one of our most important social questions:

What does it take for at-risk kids to succeed in school?

Testing? Amazing teachers? Longer school days? More science and math? Less arts? Charter schools?

(Well, air conditioning in the summer wouldn’t hurt. (Seriously? They couldn’t get a commitment to install A/C in classrooms? Has Rahm Emmanuel ever tried to think outside in the Chicago summer?))

Will our answers to that question depend on party?

This post is an attempt to pull together disparate ideas about achievement and politics and corporate culture and education into one mini-festo answering these questions.

It’s mini because I’m no Donna Haraway.


The premise of much (Democratic) education reform is that we can use the lessons of business—quantify, benchmark, assess, fire—to improve our school system. Treating our teachers more like employees of a megacorp.

Another premise, more prominent in higher ed but trickling down to lower grades, is to let the digital revolution disrupt staid old industries.

Even the business guy who invented disruption isn’t that into it anymore. Not all industries need to be disrupted.

Education is not a telephone. It’s not a tube of toothpaste. It’s not a typewriter.

When we purchase education (through taxes or tuition), we are not unwrapping it, consuming it, and then moving on to something else.

Education is not a commodity.

Learning is messy: It takes a long time. It requires doing nothing. It demands complication, failure, repetition.

It won’t happen unless people talk to each other, see pictures, write things out, fumble about explanations, share ideas, and get it all wrong.

It is not efficient. And we cannot make education more efficient, no matter how awesome the Internet is.

Now, I would love to see some aspects of corporate culture penetrate higher ed. For example, many universities I’ve seen could use some corporate HR rules about transparent promotion, sexual harassment, and diversity.

Also, carefully quantified assessment of teachers can help schools and teachers improve. But.


Kids who experience chronic trauma, including violence, malnutrition, and deep instability, have different brains than kids who don’t. This American Life dramatized this quite clearly: when children experience ongoing trauma, their stress responses take over their brains. Higher-level cognitive functions shut down. Impulse control plummets. Physical activity and energy skyrocket.

As the radio scientists put it, a kid may be trying to sit quietly in English class, but his brain thinks an angry bear is chasing him. He’s got to stop thinking and start running and hitting.

Kids who grew up this way can still succeed, but they need the kinds of interventions teachers cannot provide: a meaningful attachment to someone close, preferably family but some aren’t that lucky, and a host of non-cognitive skills like persistence, impulse control, and conflict mediation.

The student in both Paul Tough’s book and Ira Glass’s podcast, Kewauna Lerma, went from a D student to an A- student between sophomore and senior years of high school. Did a well-evaluated teacher help her? Maybe.

But what really helped her was an intervention by her mother and grandmother (attachment) and help from a program that taught her social and cultural skills (learned grit).

As a first-year college student, Kewauna believes she must work twice as hard as other students, but she learned tricks. Tricks that ALL COLLEGE KIDS should be doing.

She sits in the front row to establish personal contact with her teachers. She keeps their office hours on her schedule. And she visits them during office hours to ask for help and get them to know her. No matter what. I wish all my students had done that.


I believe in education reform, but I am skeptical of those reforms that treat education as a commodity, or that view the industry as something similar to a consumer packaged goods or music industries. Even a CD, produced lovingly by a team of artists, is more of a commodity than an education.

Our strategies for reform must pay attention to scientific research about student achievement.

We must stop blaming teachers for the insidious effects of poverty.

We must keep funding interventions that treat poverty itself, and not the symptoms of poverty, like poor school achievement.

We must treat education as the messy, complicated, inefficient process it is. And we must keep it that way.

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7 thoughts on “An Education Mini-Festo

  1. Well said! I’d add another point. Somewhere along the line, aspiring to excellence and upholding expectations seemed to get lost, or at least diluted. I think this slippage applies to the education machine, parents and students who each point fingers at one another. How about a post on this aspect? Would love your thoughts 🙂

    • Elizabeth says:

      One idea behind so much testing was that this notion of “standards” would help students want to achieve those goals. I don’t know if that works out without a solid underpinning of support from family/friends, which would include positive role models (plus, at minimum, decent health care, nutrition, and a safe home environment). Plus, one cultural effect of so much testing is that the other aspects of learning get lost—both because teachers lack the time and because when the whole school needs good test results to survive, that’s the kind of learning they foster.

      I wonder if the testing mindset leads to more mutual recrimination and less ambition/aspiration for students. Acing a test is just not the same kind of goal as learning for its own sake. And for tests, it’s all about the numbers, leading to a more petty conversation about student achievement.

      What do you think?

  2. Matthew says:

    It would be nice for those who want to bring the business model into the classroom to also take a moment and notice that the business model isn’t doing so great right now. Once business has learned how to provide a sufficient number of jobs, cover people’s health care, and offer a steady retirement to hard workers — then, maybe, we can let it into the halls of learning.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Ah, pro-business people would say that it’s not the business world’s jobs to create full employment. And anti-government people would say it’s not government’s either. Human potential is limited by such interventions. Romney/Paul agree on this, as do many of their supporters.

      Personally, I don’t think business should be covering people’s health care. I think that’s a historical anomaly that we are stuck with, because that’s now our infrastructure. But it shouldn’t be tied to our jobs. And employers shouldn’t be bound to that expense, which can make or break a small business. But if not the employment system, then gummint. And we know how politically palatable that would be. But that’s a bit of a tangent.

      I wouldn’t be completely anti-business here: I am for hire, after all. But I do think that quantified metrics for student and teacher success, which come from the business models of efficiency, are inimical to the learning process.

      Raising test scores is just not the same professional goal as raising $25K in revenues. Or whatever other metrics we like in the business world.

  3. […] obviously have some ideological difficulty with turning a UC degree into a consumer good. This attitude made teaching increasingly difficult […]

  4. […] Mostly, though, I want to remind my readers (many of whom have already heard this from me): […]

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