If Only Schools Were More Like Businesses

Every once in awhile, it’s important to inflict pain on yourself. Builds character. Run a marathon. Fast for a day. Do your taxes. Watch a Wayne LaPierre press conference. Or most painful of all, listen to politicians and business people talk about what we need to do to reform education in the United States.

Their message—breakdown the government monopoly on schools by infusing them with business principles. Most importantly, competition. Between teachers, schools, and districts. Highest standardized test scores win. Their unquestioned premise is that the business community has its shit together. The pro-business propaganda is so steady we start to believe it.

Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Lots of schools would close every year. But I guess we could just tell the affected families that “creative destruction” is just a natural, even healthy part of the business cycle. They’ll understand. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And teachers would start relating to students the way my local bankers and insurance agents routinely do, from behind websites, and sometimes via the telephone. Last week I received birthday cards from my bank and my insurance agent. I recycled both cards without opening them. No one at my bank or insurance agency would know me if I walked into their offices. We have no personal relationship, only an economic one. The best teachers know their students individually, and something about their families, their interests, their hopes for the future. But maybe all that effort to connect with students is misguided. Maybe teachers should be more like my banker and insurance agent. Just design some websites where students can get assignments and submit their work and mail out computer generated birthday cards once a year. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And every school would ace every state assessment whatever the form. Because that’s the way my car dealership works. When I take my car in, I’m told they have to get perfect scores on the evaluation they mail to me afterwards. Heaven for bid if they get any “9’s”. It seems like gaming the system to me, but I guess it’s just an advanced form of assessment thinking, everyone getting perfect scores all the time. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Most importantly, the best thing about business people is they’re always accountable for their performance. Regular performance reviews ensure it. That’s what teachers need most of all, more business-like accountability! Or maybe not. Here’s Nassim Taleb blowing that fallacy apart:

Those who have the upside are not necessarily those who incur the downside. For example, bankers and corporate managers get bonuses for “performance,” but not reverse bonuses for negative performance, and they have an incentive to bury risks in the tails of the distribution – in other words, to delay blowups.

Read the history of Wall Street from 2007-2008 for sordid example after example. Five years later, in the U.S., there’s a sure-fire way for business people to avoid accountability. Climb the corporate ladder as high as possible. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

imgres

The Tourism Trap

Talked to an elderly couple at church about their recent adventure in China—Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors. I checked off the same spots during my first trip to China in 1997. And today I looked at a friend’s Facebook pics about a recent trip to China—Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Anyone that stays on the well worn, urban, tourist pathway of Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors, really can’t say they know much about China which is still largely rural and poor. As tourists, we lack creativity, independence, and a sense of adventure. Our collective lack of creativity, independence, and sense of adventure creates tourist traps—must see locations that make people feel like they understand a people and place far more than they really do.

Of course, in the U.S., foreign visitors have their checklists too. Here’s the Top Ten according to Forbes Traveler—1) Times Square; 2) The Las Vegas Strip; 3) D.C. and the National Mall and Monuments; 4) Faneuil Hall Marketplace; 5) Disney World; 6) Disney Land; 7) Fisherman’s Wharf/Golden Gate Bridge; 8) Niagara Falls; 9) Great Smoky Mountains; and 10) my birthplace NavyPier Chicago. If you’re an American citizen, what kind of feel would a foreign visitor get for your community if they went from one “Top Ten” site to another?

How does a sense of obligation to see standard tourist sites form, that if I’m traveling to Country A, B, or C, I have to see X, Y, and Z? Is it a fear that someone might ask upon returning, “Did you see the Great Wall? Did you see Times Square?” Are we defenseless in the midst of the iconic sites incessant, sophisticated, billion dollar marketing campaigns?

My most memorable travel experiences have been off the beaten trail. In China, a bicycle was indispensable to experiencing more of daily life. When abroad, I’ve learned the more still I sit, the more I listen and observe, the more I learn about different forms of daily life.  Lo and behold, many people live markedly differently than me and their unique ways of life work well for them. Once I learned what’s “normal” is culturally defined, I not only learned to appreciate foreign cultures, but cultural diversity in the U.S. as well.

International school visits have always been enlightening. The different architecture, curricula, teaching methods, teacher-student interactions, extracurricular activities, and feel in foreign schools always provides wonderful insights into the larger culture.

Think about a foreign tourist to the U.S. that spends a few days at the Grand Canyon and a week on the Vegas Strip. And another that spends ten days visiting private and public elementary and secondary schools in urban, suburban, and rural communities. Which would learn more about life in the United States?

What other, “off the radar” experiences—besides school visits, a farmers’ market visit, riding city busses, a homestay or two, attending religious services, a hospital visit, watching a youth sports tournament, visiting a courthouse and sitting in on a trial, attending a summer concert in a park—would you recommend to a foreign visitor who wanted to not just recreate, but learn as much as possible about life in the U.S.?

Here’s a travel challenge from Roman Krznaric, the author of the book I’m currently reading, The Wonderbox. This from a chapter titled “Empathy”:

The idea of empathy has distinct moral overtones and is often associated with ‘being good’. But experiential empathy should be really regarded as an unusual and stimulating form of travel. George Orwell would tell us to forget spending our next holiday at an exotic resort or visiting museums. It is far more interesting to expand our minds by taking journeys into other people’s lives—and allowing them to see ours. Rather than asking ourselves, ‘Where can I go next?’, the question on our lips should be, ‘Whose shoes can I stand in next?’