Public education is now transitioning from a system of educating citizens to a market for profit.  “Venture capitalists and for-profit firms are salivating over the exploding $788.7 billion market in K-12 education,” says one news report. Public education is increasingly viewed as a “market”, and with any market comes the potential for firm profit. For example, the Los Angeles School District made news by signing a contract with Apple for over $1 billion to give each student an iPad. With such large sums of money at stake, firms are engaging with schools (both K-12 and higher education) like never before.

The purpose of public education in its most basic form is to improve the well-being of society via increased knowledge. It is not assumed that the desires among individuals and communities always align, and there may be healthy tensions such as individual wants versus public needs, economic progress versus environmental well-being, etc. The only reason for a group of citizens to organize and pay for a public good such as education is that it is worthwhile for them to do so. When the US began to organize public education in the late 1700s, President John Adams stated, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.” Hence, the primary purpose of public education is the improve the well-being of its students and the overall community at a reasonable cost.

Conversely, the purpose of a firm is to make a profit. While businesses often produce goods and services that are beneficial to individuals and societies, they often do not. When business is involved in a government subsidized/produced good such as public education, objectives can become blurred. For example, would giving each child in the LA School District an iPad actually improve the students’ or community well-being? There is no conclusive research to answer this question, yet the District was initially willing to spend over $1 billion to find out.

Public education serves multiple needs for individuals and communities, and there is bound to be controversy and tension with any arrangement. Yet the current state of public education seems to have moved beyond tension to dysfunction in some cases. Many people feel public education has gone off-track and no longer serves individuals and communities. The reasons for this, I believe, are primarily economic and deserve further exploration.

Profit is at odds with the beneficial purposes of public education in a number of key areas: textbooks, technology, test scores, and standards.

1) Textbooks versus Local Materials

Research shows students are more likely to learn when they can connect it to their own day-to-day concrete experiences (Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. ) As far back as Dewey, the role of experience and local place in education has been of primary importance. This idea of place-based education has been thoroughly studied in a variety of settings and has been shown to increase educational outcomes. By using Dave Cormier’s model of “community as curriculum,” students can utilize local experiences and artifacts to foster learning.

Instead, what students get for learning materials are generic textbooks. Textbooks are meant to have as large an audience as possible in order to gain the most potential sales. Stripped of all local context, textbooks present concepts in abstract ways for mass audiences. Therefore, instead of students learning concepts via their local communities and environments, they learn about abstract theories that are disconnected from their everyday life.

While textbooks may have started out as an aid to summarize knowledge, they are often now the centerpiece of the course. Yet, programs that connect academic learning to everyday life have shown the ability to improve student motivation and other outcomes. Instructors not using any textbook at all can be highly successful as well. Therefore, to say that a textbook is absolutely essential, or that is necessarily superior to local experience, is incorrect.

2) Technology versus Human Interaction

The case for computer-based learning seems simple: students can learn on their own via a computer program, at their own pace, all without much help from the teacher. Hence, it would seem that schools could cut costs and increase outcomes by employing more technology. What’s missing from this equation is all the academic and non-academic benefits from human interaction.

Recent research shows that human reasoning may have evolved in a group context. As such, placing students in isolated computer environments cuts them off from a vital source of reasoning development: other people. This could lead to the development of narrow academic skills, but the inability to reason in more general contexts.

The non-academic benefits of student-teacher and student-student interaction are large and well-studied. There is also the recognition by firms that many employees are lacking the “soft skills” necessary for success in organizations. Obviously, such interpersonal skills cannot be learned in a vacuum, and such skills should be developed in schools.

3) Use of Test Scores versus Portfolios/Public Exhibitions

Never before has so much public attention been paid to test scores. What may be forgotten is that test scores are only a proxy measure for something much harder to measure: performance of an authentic activity. For example, passing a written driving exam is different than actually driving a car.  Passing an English exam is different than writing an essay. Yet in many people’s minds, test scores have morphed into the “real thing” and should thus be pursued at all costs.

Testing is now big business, with the K-12 testing market reaching nearly $2 billion per year. Part of the previously mentioned iPad deal involved using the iPads for required state tests. The Common Core presents an almost national K-12 market for testing and test prep services. In higher education, there are a growing number of testing packages and services available from a variety of services, often intertwined with the textbooks.

Alternatives to test scores include portfolios, public exhibitions, service-learning, and place-based learning. Though these alternatives are known and backed by research, they often fall to the wayside for a couple of reasons. First, they involve human judgement and seemingly suffer from a lack of objectivity. Second, they increase the grading load for teachers as compared to machine-graded (multiple-choice) assignments.

To the first point, even though test scores seem objective on the surface they truly are not. The subjective part is done behind the scenes by the teacher in selecting which questions are on the exam, selecting the difficulty level, wording the questions in different ways, etc. Even standards-based learning does not eliminate subjectivity, because a standard itself is subjectively selected and can be interpreted in different ways.

The second point is real and represents a true cost of providing public education — assessing student work via human judgement takes time. In a healthy democratic environment, the different aspects of this could be discussed: how much student work should be assessed, how much teacher time should be devoted to such assessment, and so on. In the modern school environment, much of this is swept under the rug. Outcomes can be measured by test scores in a “cheap” and efficient manner.

4) Unrealistic Standards

One way to create an opportunity for firms is to create the appearance of a deficiency. With many states adopting Common Core or similar testing regimes, testing standards have been raised up to virtually unobtainable levels. For example, approximately 60% of students in Maryland did not pass the latest Common Core exams. With evidence of such “failure”, there is a market created for outside help in terms of better books, better computer programs, personalized learning, etc., to help raise test scores. For another example, when the GED test shifted from a non-profit organization to the for-profit Pearson publishing, passing rates dropped by 90%.

The current push for standards-based reform also ignores the mounting evidence that test score outcomes are heavily influenced by genetics. For example, a recent study in the UK showed that over half of the variation in mathematics score is due to heritability. This can be especially true in elementary school where a new study showed the differences in basic subjects are largely determined by genetics.

By ignoring the fact that children differ in substantial ways, the setting of a high universal standard for all guarantees failure for some or potentially many. This creates a new market for firms to help students who are “falling behind”. Though many of these new products or services may sound promising, there is often a fading of benefits over time, as pre-existing differences among children are fairly stable.

In summary, these examples illustrate how market forces and profit-chasing by firms can lead to sub-optimal outcomes for public education. Market forces are pushing public education towards an abstract and often computer-based environment. Bland assessment measures are being pursued in the name of efficiency. Standards-based learning also guarantees failure for some, since it ignores natural differences in ability among children.

When you take away all these profit-aligned educational interventions, what sort of education are you left with? A more humane one, to start. The focus becomes on interaction, both between teacher and student, and among students themselves. Curriculum would be tied to place and everyday life, not standards beamed in from a far-away governing body. For example, Principal Dana McCauley turned around a struggling elementary school by integrating the local community and environment into the curriculum. This small, rural school was eventually recognized as the highest-rated elementary school in the state of Maryland.

Individual differences would be recognized and accepted. Assessment would be not a “race to the top”, but a recognition of where a student is versus his or her potential. Assessment would become democratic in nature, with different perspectives taken into account.

Think about perhaps the most natural environment for teaching — the interaction between a parent and his or her child. The focus is clearly not on profit, as this seems almost absurd to mention. The focus would be on helping a child learn something that so that he or she can function more effectively in the world. A parent would expect a child to perform at levels related to their age and actual ability, not to some arbitrary standard. Feedback from other adults and children would also be received and evaluated.

Public education is supposed to be for the benefit of the citizens and paid for by the citizens. By injecting the profit motive and creating a market, the public then loses ownership of the system. Recently in Philadelphia, parents overwhelmingly voted to maintain public schools in their district but were simply overruled by the superintendent who enrolled the children in charter schools. Instead of learning to be citizens in a democratic society, students will learn to be educational consumers.

Though the true purpose of public education is clear — to provide benefits to individuals and communities — education is now becoming more aligned with the purposes of firms; all of which may lead to richer companies but poorer (in an educational sense) communities. By pointing out this ongoing change, my hope is that schools can regain their footing and focus on their essential mission of serving communities, not firms.