It’ll be a few years before we know how well we’ve done in choosing Joel Boyd as our new school superintendent. Judging by the district he came from, and the people on his transition team, he seems to belong to the new generation of school reformers—a bold class of data-driven leaders who use good business practices to transform school systems into sleek, well-run learning machines.
I can understand why our school board chose him. Like the Post Office and David Hasselhoff, our public education system is, in many ways, outdated and underperforming. A recent Atlantic article by former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein makes a compelling case for drawing practices and values from the innovative business world (where we excel as a nation) and applying them to our bureaucratic schools (where we test just above, um, Liechtenstein). Bill Gates thinks it’s a great idea. So does Obama.
Education historian Diane Ravitch begs to differ. Her bestselling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System demonstrates how “corporate reform” practices, which invariably force schools to focus on quick and measurable results, reduce curricula to reading and ‘rithmetic; alienate students, families and staff; and breed embarrassing rashes of adult cheating and score inflation—including in Klein’s New York.
Ravitch points out that many of these reformers have little or no experience teaching real children in real classrooms, which may be why they often confuse high test scores with good education. They fail to understand that a public school’s “bottom line”—to use the language of corporate reformers—is not short-term gain on reading and math tests, but a complex process of human and community growth. Academic skill development is part of this growth, but so are untestable elements like critical thinking, self-respect, creativity, inspiration and hope.
This is not to say that the private sector has nothing to offer the public education system. Schools may not need the high-priced textbook tablets, the state-of-the-art data plotting software or the humiliating employee performance plans. But they could use a hand helping young people learn.
Last winter, I visited a business in Eureka, California, called Blue Ox Millworks. The place is well-known—something of a living Williamsburg—where master craftsman Eric Hollenbeck and his small staff use antique machinery to create high-end woodworks.
For the past 12 years, Hollenbeck has been offering the Humboldt County Office of Education some much-appreciated assistance by turning Blue Ox into a “school outside of school” for kids who have been expelled from the regular classroom. Twice a week, 24 teenagers show up at the business and, guided by Hollenbeck and his staff, learn how to lathe wood, solder jewelry, throw pots, print books and, above all, appreciate the value of work they can be proud of.
Hollenbeck’s a pipe-smoking high school dropout—about as unteacherly as they come. He couldn’t care less about the academic credits or new-fangled ideas like Attention Deficit Disorder. (“I put their fingers an inch away from an electric bandsaw,” he told me, “and suddenly they’re paying attention just fine.”) But he’s the perfect man to reach these particular kids, and the district’s wise enough to help him do it.
Blue Ox is a unique business, and Hollenbeck is a particularly charismatic man. But his business-as-school model is replicable. Thousands of businesses worldwide host students from the innovative Big Picture Learning schools, where two days of “real world” learning is built into the school week. Here in Santa Fe, dozens have worked in mentorship programs like the one started by Paquita Hernandez at Monte del Sol.
Perhaps the trend of the future, then, is not to make our schools more business-like, as the corporate reformers insist, but to make our businesses more school-like. Forward-thinking businesses are already figuring out how to expand their bottom line to include the three p’s of profit, people and planet. Coached by educators, they could include a fourth p—pedagogy—and take a stand for the idea that educating the next generation is not a teacher’s job, or a superintendent’s challenge, but a responsibility and privilege that belongs to us all.
A graduate of SFPS and former Santa Fe educator, Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research different learning models and further public conversation about what “school” could someday be. He blogs at schoolreformed.wordpress.com.