National Public Education

Education and the Commercial Mindset by Samuel E. Abrams


In this 2016 book, Abrams, a former teacher who now is a professor at Teacher’s College in New York, sets out to sort through all the various attempts to run public schools as private businesses in the past 30 years.  As he says at the end of his opening chapter, some business practices work well, and others do not.  He looks at just about every business scheme tried in US public education, starting with Chris Whittle’s “Channel One” TV segment back in the early 90’s (which I remember having to sit through each morning as a young homeroom teacher), and ending with a look at programs in Sweden and Finland.  Although Abrams finds that just about every one of these attempts have had limited, at best, success, he still remains sanguine about the concept.  From my point of view, though, he misses several major points that should have been addressed.

For example, he introduces the book by telling about how he was given the task of programing his school’s schedule one year, and found that a private company could help him do this better than the company used by the board of education.  It seemed that a private business was simply better than a public approach.  He then goes on to talk about Milton Friedman’s argument that parents should have the ability to choose private ways to educate their children, at public expense, and Myron Lieberman’s ideas in Privatization and Educational Choice.  He quotes Lieberman as saying that if a public school can contract with a private custodial service to clean its floors, they also ought to be allowed to do this for instructional services.

The problem is that this view totally ignores the fundamental difference between public and private goods and services.  There is no public benefit from cleaning a floor, but there is from educating a child. That’s why, then, we have public schools, but private cleaning companies. So, yes, you can use a private business to clean floors, or program schedules, or manage an office, but education itself is something quite different.

Ironically, it was Milton Friedman, himself, who spelled this out clearly.  In his chapter on education in Capitalism and Freedom he admits that education has to run by the government, not a private organization, since it always produces a public benefit to the general public, not just to the children and parents in the school, and there is no way to get that general public to pay for that benefit other than through taxes paid to the government.  As he says, the education of a child improves society, not just the child.

This whole idea seems lost on Abrams.  The words “public benefit” do not occur in this book.  He devotes one paragraph to the differences between public and private goods, but seems to think this a minor matter.  In the same way, he ignores the differences between the needs of the general public, who are the primary supporters of the schools, and the needs of the parents of school-age children.  In his view the customer of the public schools is the child and his family, not the general taxpayer, even though there are four times as many of the latter.  The schools are paid for primarily by non-parents.

This means that Abrams has no way to see why these private schemes so often failed.  They were dealing only with a quarter of the funding stream for the entire operation, that of the parents and children.  They forgot, or didn't realize, that the rest of the money was coming from public funding, and that had to mean public oversight concerning such things as equality, and the bureaucracy that goes with the assurance of that equality; concepts that are antithetical to private business.  As such he can only list these failures, not explain them.

This curious blindness to the public nature of public education comes out in the last chapter on the success of the schools in Finland.  Here he seems to admit that a government-run, non-private approach is the best of all.  He specifically mentions that the Finns have rejected all efforts to privatize their schools, and have thrived.  He runs through all the wise things they have done, such as having ex-teachers in almost all their high administrative positions, and replacing mass testing efforts with selective sampling techniques, and serving a good hot lunch to every child, and always going outside for recess.  He clearly puts this chapter at the end because it sums up the right way to run a school system.

Yet he never makes the connection with this success and the fact that this is a fully public, government-run program, not a private one.  He simply tries to show that the Finns do use good “business” techniques in their school system.  What that seems to come down to, then, is that perhaps there is a role for “business” practices in public schools, but only as a handmaid to the fully public nature of the school system.  Yes, the schools can hire private companies to clean the floors, but not to run the schools.

Peter Dodington

October 7, 2017









Problems with Merit Pay for Teachers

In my years of teaching I have seen proposals for merit pay come and go.  It is always tempting to suppose that the intensity and vigor of the business world can somehow be transferred to public education.  And it seems quite logical to try to base merit pay rewards on what is, after all, the point of the whole process: the achievement of the students.  What could be more reasonable than to judge the effectiveness of teachers by looking at the test scores of their students?

Yet there are very good reasons why such proposals are rarely, if ever, adopted.  One is that the “product” in this case is not some new item for our shelves, or a better way of making something, but a child.  Children are not things, or ideas, or a form of wealth; they are humans, like us, who can be harmed as well as helped by our actions.  Once you take the possibility of harming the child into account, you have to let go of the idea of merit pay in education.

Why is it, after all, that private schools, with all their freedom to pay their teachers anything they wish, with no interference from unions or state regulators, won’t touch merit pay?  Isn’t it because parents aren’t paying a small fortune so that their children can be, in essence, used by the teachers for their own personal gain?  Who is going to get these merit pay rewards?  Not the fun-loving math teacher who puts on plays using math symbols.  Won’t it be the most cynical, self-centered teacher who, like some character out of “Glengarry/Glen Ross”, knows just how to manipulate the process for his own gain?  Is this who we want for our child’s teacher?  What, in the most general sense, is he teaching them?

The reality is that we don’t just want our children to get good grades.  We want something much more complicated for them.  We want them to grow up, and learn how to love, and work, and find themselves.  Would we ever hire a Little League coach and pay him according to the success of the team?  Or even a high school coach?  (Yes, we pay coaches of professional teams according to their wins, but that’s because they are working with adults, not children.)  We want something much less definable from these people; something that has to do with their overall relationship to our children.  To pay them for anything else would be dangerous to the child.  Would you pay a babysitter by how quickly she got the kids to sleep?  Not a good idea.  The risk that merit pay might actually harm the children makes it a non-starter for schools.

Another reason merit pay doesn’t make sense is that public schools are not businesses; they are public programs.  As such they are supported by the general public, not an individual who is in need of a product or service.  If you go to the cleaner and he does a bad job, fine, you don’t pay him.  He is in this business to make money, so when he fails at it, it is reasonable to withhold that money.  But public programs are not set up to make money.  They are trying to provide a public service, such as safety, garbage pick-up, transportation, or education, that can be best accomplished through collective action.   The whole point of the public sector is that it works at things that are not easily bought by individuals, such as safe streets, or an educated work force.  It doesn’t make sense, then, to treat it like a private business.

The proponents of merit pay are always talking about how the schools need to be more like a company, where productivity and initiative are rewarded.  A more apt comparison, though, would be with the other public programs already in place, such as the police, firemen, public health nurses, etc.  Do any of these use merit pay?  Should we pay a police officer according to the number of tickets he writes, or criminals he catches?  Or a fireman by the number of fires he puts out?  And if we did, what would be the result?  I can hear an old police sergeant telling his colleagues, “You know, the wrong guys always get that thing.”

They are the wrong guys because they are not working for the goals that the program was set up to accomplish: the community betterment that is at the core of any public program.  We pay firemen and policemen a flat rate because we don’t want them worrying about their own pay and their own benefit.  That’s not the job.  The job is to solve some complex community problems that, by definition, cannot be solved through the private sector.  The last thing we want is to encourage them to act like private businessmen, focused on their own gain, not the community’s.

The real question, then, is why do these merit pay proposals keep coming up in public education but not in other public programs.  The answer is because public education is a broken system in this country, and so draws to itself all sorts of outlandish solutions simply because nothing else seems to work.  What makes it broken is, in my view, the decentralized, state-centered nature of it, but that is a discussion for another time.  For now we just have to agree that merit pay will work neither in education in general, nor in public programs in general, and so has no place in the public schools.

Peter Dodington

January 18, 2012