Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Teaching the Wrong Lesson

When I was a teacher, sometimes I could tell that the kids took the wrong lesson away from the class that day. For instance, when trying to explain how being a peace would help the people of ancient Athens focus on things like art and philosophy, I dropped in the old guns versus butter economic model just to illustrate the idea in concrete terms. The result? At the end of the day, kids were trying to convince me that the ancient Greeks traded guns for butter. And nothing could persuade them otherwise. Wrong lesson.

I'm afraid that we're starting to see the wrong lesson take root in the traditional public/charter school competition. The initial idea (as I understand it) is that schools should make themselves as good as possible so they can attract the most students as parents "vote with their feet." The lesson that's apparently being learned? Well, as the New York Times reports today, it's that marketing matters. In retrospect, like the wisdom of using guns versus butter, this result isn't terribly surprising. But it doesn't make it any better.

Check out this quote from the article:
So among their many challenges, some of these principals, who had never given much thought to attracting students, have been spending considerable time toiling over ways to market their schools. They are revamping school logos, encouraging students and teachers to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the new designs. ... A few have worked with professional marketing firms to create sophisticated Web sites and blogs.

Is this really how we want our principals to be spending their time and energy? Revamping logos? Really? No mention of improving the curriculum or recruiting top teachers?

Though I am charter skeptical, I'm not writing this as a knock against charters. I'm not going down the they-started-it road because that really doesn't matter very much at this point. The blame here lies with administrators and pundits who have made the traditional public/charter school issue a manichean black and white struggle in which only one can win. In doing so, they've undermined the very idea that charters were supposed to represent.

The original idea, remember, was that charter schools would be free from some of the usual school expectations and rules to give them freedom to experiment. Then, those ideas that were successful could be replicated in other schools. The idea was supposed to be collaboration, not competition.

But for whatever reasons, we've gone down the road of competition and now we have to deal with the unintended consequence of schools learning the wrong lesson.

P.S. Check back on Friday when I vent my spleen over Newsweek's cover story on firing teachers. Ugh.


Christina said...

While I agree that marketing might not be the right result, competition sure beats a monopoly.

KitchenSink said...

The biggest news to me is that principals are now bringing parents and prospective parents into the schools. In underprivileged neighborhoods, for too long parents have been told to stay OUT!

Diana Senechal said...

I share your concern about the marketing. This means each school must have a sales pitch. It must create hype for itself. This does not help us see what is actually going on in the schools.

Of course this happens anyway to some degree. All schools want to present a good image. But logos, ads, brochures--these are distractions from the schools' work, and they may well distort a school. There are teachers that would not go near a school that overhyped itself. They would sense that the values were skewed. Thus the glossy brochure could actually affect (for the worse) what happened within the walls.