Response to Kirp’s “Teaching Is Not a Business”

David L. Kirp’s “Teaching Is Not a Business” from today’s NYTimes makes common-sense arguments that we’ve all heard before about the ways in which business strategies have failed to improve America’s ailing education system. He doesn’t like market-driven solutions (merit pay, closing failing schools) nor does he like online or technology-driven solutions. Basically, he argues for more teacher training and more nurturing schools that support the whole child.

I’m a teacher, so I’m supposed to applaud this point of view, but I can’t give Kirp a full-throated cheer. He wants to keep teachers in classrooms and build their skills and experience, but he is against merit pay. To Kirp paying high performers more is too much like bonuses paid out in the for-profit business world, and he doesn’t think teaching equals business. Very well, but I’ve seen talented young teachers leave the profession because they could earn a lot more if they changed fields, and they didn’t feel well rewarded in a system that pays veteran teachers more simply because they are older. Human capital will go where it is rewarded, and although my fellow teachers are idealists who aren’t in education to get rich, they can only watch low-performing colleagues get paid more than them for so long.

Kirp begins his last paragraph with, “While technology can be put to good use by talented teachers, they, and not the futurists, must take the lead.” What if the teachers are the futurists? In the Connected Educator movement, it is the classroom teachers who are eager to adopt new technology, and they eagerly envision a future in which tech helps us all achieve better outcomes. How does Kirp suppose that teachers will lead technological change if they are not “futurists”? Teachers are all futurists: we are in the human potential business.

I suppose I’m always irritated by ed-reform articles that make business the bad guy. We spend billions of dollars a year on education. Schools have budgets, employees, bosses, etc. These things sure look like the elements of a business to me. Deciding that some aspects of business are okay for schools (the kind of continuous improvement strategies that Kirp embraces) and others are not (merit pay) is arbitrary. Since his opinion piece presents little data, it is just another subjective screed. It succeeded in getting my mind working on a Sunday morning, but I don’t think it has advanced the discussion.


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