The business of education

Hansel and Gretel

The business of education

To be perfectly clear, public school teachers need the unifying protection and collective bargaining of unions, history has proven.

And, to be perfectly clear, history is showing that America’s urban public school district administrators occupy some of the most conflictive public sector positions, balancing the ever-increasing social/emotional/cognitive/physical needs of students and the demands of aging school buildings with their citizens’ tolerance for tax increases.


…to the tired eyes and ears of those taxpayers, the titanic battles between these two power brokers in the public education business — Management and Labor — must seem like petty squabbles. Most especially within our eroded economic context.

During this steamy Chicago summer, after the indecisive winter and spring Battle of Wisconsin, Management and Labor are battling over a new teachers’ contract. To the backdrop of presidential election politics, national eyes and ears are tuned into Chicago’s educational battle. Both sides, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), are well-armed strategically and rhetorically, though neither yet seems inclined to go ballistic.

Will Management, driven by Chicago’s tenacious Mayor, prevail with its version of fiscally responsible, numerically visioned educational variables (including more minutes in school, more students in each classroom, higher scores on tests, further tying teacher ratings to student test scores…)? Or will Labor, herded by its own smart, tough leaders, hold sway with its educational variables (including more pay for more minutes in school, fewer students in each classroom, trying to disconnect student test scores from teacher ratings, and, presumably, greater Management support for healthcare and pension)?

As these things go, after all has been negotiated and signed, both sides will claim victory. And, likely, both will be right. To the right and the left, national opinion leaders will hail the battle as a win for fiscal responsibility (right) or workers’ collective bargaining strength (left), prognosticating how the contract’s outcome will affect Romney’s message with tough-minded conservatives or Obama’s tenuous labor relationship — or is it vice-versa?


…should such a shortsighted agreement occur, taxpayer cynicism will have been warranted: the titanic Management-Labor battle really will have been lots of squabble, squabble. While Management and Labor will have agreed upon requisite educational variables, the response to Chicago’s core educational challenge, student learning, will remain static.

Today, largely because each side has such leverage, Chicago schools’ Management (simmering taxpayers) and Labor (the recent dream-scenario ruling by the arbitrator) sit across the table from one another in the middle of an extraordinary public education opportunity, never before available with the stakes as high.

Today, now, is the perfect time to focus on education’s core challenge, to move beyond squabbling about important-but-undirected-toward-a-clear-goal variables and to create a dynamic response to urban education’s core challenge: student learning!

Even with all the lawyers, consultants, and negotiators around the table, now is the time to take one step back, breathe in, and focus on that which large urban school districts rarely have, contractually: an agreement on the product of their business relationship. “In our contractual business relationship, what is our end product, exactly?”

In other words, at the 8th and 12th grades, what is the skill-level profile of an ideal graduate? What are they aiming toward? What skill-based (not content) ideal 8th and 12th grade graduate profiles could Management and Labor agree to — and how would they work together to achieve them?

Everything (a skill-based curriculum, quality instruction, and meaningful assessment) can then align wisely toward achieving those ideal profiles — for every single child. Labor will have not only expressed agreement, it will have signified cooperation; Management will be able to align its system and school-based leadership and the educational program toward the two ideal graduate profiles. Both sides, as contractual partners, will have cooperated to develop an answer to the most often unasked and therefore unanswered question, “In education, what is our skill-based end product, exactly?”

Why doesn’t this happen?

In response to such a proposal, by no means unique to this blog, across the nation large urban school district Management typically has argued two things: (1) it is their job, alone, to determine the end product and means, i.e., the profile of the ideal high school graduate and the curriculum and assessment to achieve that profile, and (2) they already possess skill-based curriculum and assessment, which in Chicago means curriculum developed toward success on the ISAT (elementary) and ACT/Workkeys (secondary) tests. Further, Management may argue, the national K-12 Common Core curriculum in Language Arts and Math accomplishes exactly what this blog proposes.

Besides America’s developing history of poor standardized testing results, the insufficiency of Management’s reasons lies below, generally:

Figure 1: Early Grades, K-5, Skills Curriculum and Assessment
Figure 2: Middle Grades, 6-9, Skills Curriculum and Assessment
Figure 3: Later Grades, 10-12, Skills Curriculum and Assessment

The curriculum/assessment movement from Figure 1 through Figure 3 shows that early in their education, the curriculum develops a child’s smaller skills (e.g., discrete skills, like basic grammar and computation). This discrete-skill development and assessment is necessary and should continue through 12th grade, but in an increasingly diminished way as higher-order skills (i.e., critical and creative thinking) develop more and more.

Unfortunately, America’s urban school districts aim way too low, letting smaller discrete skills testing, not higher-order critical and creative thinking, determine the endpoints. And, this approach is failing and has for over two decades.

For Management and Labor, a proposal: The ideal high school graduate’s skill-based profile must comprise higher-order critical and creative thinking. Today, across America’s urban school districts, it does not. Make it contractual and build toward it.

The logic goes like this:

“Curriculum is like a Forest of Trees. Understood within this blog’s controlling metaphor, the leaf (tinier and necessary discrete skill — for example, adverbials) is related to the branch (topic — for example, grammar) is related to the tree (subject or discipline — for example, language arts or English) is related to the forest (the interrelation of all subjects or disciplines, much like an ecosystem).

Much of today’s standardized assessment misvalues the Leaf for the Forest. The least learning occurs when discrete skills are taught and assessed without a larger critical and/or creative thinking framework and project/problem for the young mind and heart to engage. Hansel and Gretel, the blog, believes that our society, our public education, and our politics lead a majority of our learners into the discrete and disconnected dark corners of curriculum without celebrating the transcendent light of interconnected, critical and creative humanist thinking. This kind of thinking promotes a cognitive culture that is able to embrace who and where are, in whatever place and time, with dreams and solutions.”

“Why the Title ‘Hansel and Gretel…’?” 

So, without agreed-upon end products the silliness of this education business creates more battles. Kids battle their own boredom, their own isolation from society’s singularly most influential institution, schools; kids battle teachers, counselors, administrators, and the parents/guardians who value school; kids battle kids

¤ ¤ ¤

[Full disclosure: (1) for the last six years, this author has not worked under a labor-management contract;  (2) for fifteen years prior, the author, as a teacher, worked under several labor-management contracts; and (3) for the first five years of the author’s career, he did not work under a labor-management contract.]

One thought on “The business of education

  1. Much rests on the Common Core State Standards assessments, which will go into effect in 2014 – 2015. The prototypes offer some hope that high-quality assessments can serve to drive things in the right direction; students, we are told, will be required to demonstrate proficiency in ways that extend beyond basic understandings and discrete skills. But how will things ultimately play out? Will we wind up heading down the all-too-common path of lowered cutoff scores, test blueprints, etc., which have the effect of reducing even high-quality assessments to another version of low-demand tests associated with discrete skills and low learning expectations?

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