No Sale

This week started with professional development: an inservice for the teachers in my charter district, designed to help us improve our ability to teach students by using assessment results (read: “test scores”) to inform our instruction – data-driven instruction was the eduspeak buzzterm used.

But though we teachers made up the majority of the audience, we weren’t actually the target demographic. You could tell from the handouts, and the PowerPoint presentation. Because one of the slides looked like this:

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Now, I’m generally pretty forgiving about typos, honestly. I’ve been a writer for a long time, and I have made my share of mistakes; I like to think that those mistakes do not represent my intelligence nor my writing ability, and I like to think that my audience doesn’t think less of me for them. In pursuit of that ideal, I try not to freak out about other people’s mistakes.

But come on. Tranining? When you’re going to present to a room full of teachers? Who are, generally speaking, the nitpickiest, judgmentalest, eye-rollingest crowd (Other than our students, of course.) that you will ever speak in front of? And to make matters worse, that wasn’t the only typo. Names used in examples changed – Courtney became Cortney, Redick became Riddick. (And because teachers are never allowed to make the filthy jokes that come to our minds as often as anyone else’s – you wouldn’t believe how hard it is for me to hold back the “Yo mama” type responses that constantly flash through my brain while I am talking to my students, not to mention the That’s what she said cracks I think up all the time – the name Redick, pronounced Re-Dick, was the source of many suppressed giggles at my table. Yeah, that’s right – we’re goddamn professionals. Just like your mom.), and Buddy left to find a new “hoe.” (Also the source of some giggles.) Most bothersome for me personally was this first question about Macbeth:

Fruitless, indeed.

Fruitless, indeed.

You’d think it was all the typos in the quotation, wouldn’t you? Nope. (But also, yup.) See, the four options given in our handout for the first question there – “What does it mean that Macbeth has a ‘fruitless crown’?” – were something like A) He will be an unsuccessful ruler, B) He will die soon, C) The country will not thrive under him, D) He will not have the crown for long. My problem? NONE OF THOSE OPTIONS IS THE CORRECT ANSWER. The “fruitless crown” is a reference to Macbeth’s vision, which predicts that his children (“No sin of mine” in a lovely Freudian slip that I wish Macbeth actually used) will not follow him on the throne, that the crown will revert to Banquo’s descendants, and go down through Banquo’s line (Which, supposedly, Shakespeare included as a bit of flattery for the new king, James I, who was descended from the historical Banquo and would have enjoyed seeing his family revealed as the legitimate rulers of Scotland) rather than Macbeth’s line. That’s why his crown will be “fruitless,” because he will have no fruit – you know, “Be fruitful and multiply,” which is from some famous book or other – to pass the crown on to. And though I know this because I know the play, it is also pretty damned apparent from the quotation they used in the question itself – though apparently, not apparent enough to the two dudes who came to teach all the English teachers how to teach English, and the math teachers how to teach math.

But you see, this failure to prepare their presentation in such a way that it might actually please teachers – it didn’t matter. Because while we were the bulk of the audience, we were not the actual target demographic.

Because teachers aren’t in charge of the money. We can’t order repeat presentations, or follow-up conferences; we can’t order books or computer programs or mailing lists produced by those yutzes who couldn’t even spell “training” or format fractions correctly (One of the other questions featured two answers that looked like this: 512/3. Because they couldn’t make their program say 51⅔. Which took me about a minute and a half to figure out, even though I’ve never done it before.). Administrators do that. Administrators control the purse strings at schools, and so this presentation, like most that I have seen, was largely a sales pitch aimed at administrators.

And it hit the mark. After the presentation Monday, the teachers at my school will be setting aside some of our planning time in order to implement the proposals outlined in the sales pitch – which also included a rather transparent statement to the effect that a school that wants to foster this culture of data-driven instruction needs to do it over a long period of time, and will need guidance of some sort (“LIKE MAYBE TWO GUYS WHO MAKE A LIVING OFF OF THIS IDEA, AND WHO ARE AVAILABLE AS CONSULTANTS” screamed the subtext). We will also have a new committee to suggest protocols so that can let the data drive our instruction more readily. The committee idea is amusing (and exasperating) particularly because my admin’s proposed name for it, the “Good to Great” committee, came from Monday’s presentation – but it came from the “case study” that was used to start the discussion, in which a principal tried to implement a data-driven culture, and did it wrong. Did everything wrong. Failed to get the teachers to agree, had to use threats to force the issue, didn’t actually use the suggestions from those few teachers who were involved, did most of the work herself, and got mediocre results because of all this. Apparently my admin saw this as inspiring, and so we will be emulating – that. Though not the part where she paid her teachers to create curriculum over the summer, instead of taking away some of their work time during the school year. I intend to imitate the teacher in that case study who complained about putting test prep into her curriculum in place of her “friendship unit.” Because I can’t give up my Friendship Unit. (That’s what she said.) The committee is also amusing (and exasperating) because on Wednesday, my admin, when proposing the committee, asked for volunteers; by Friday there had been only one volunteer. So the request was repeated. I can’t believe the administration thinks that teachers will volunteer for a committee like this. I really can’t believe that one of us actually did.

My point with all of this is that marketing and sales is a very different kettle of fish from education. Salesmen tailor their pitch towards their one specific goal – sales. Everything serves that, and anything that doesn’t serve that is wasted effort. So time spent on correcting your typos and bad answer-options is wasted time: because correct grammar doesn’t sell presentations. Catchy slogans and fun graphics sell presentations. Clips from the Brad Pitt movie Moneyball, in which a single hardass administrator – played by Brad Pitt, whom some people also find to be attractive – saves a poor and poorly run organization simply through the strength and clarity of his vision: those sell presentations. These guys sold presentations, and the system that goes with them. They made their quota.

Education, on the other hand, has as its goal the improvement of the entire society, and all of the people in it. We can argue about what would best do that – I’d argue that it would be lots of books and reading, where other people might think computers had a role (Probably it’s both) – but that is the goal: improvement of society as a whole. Because of that, educators strive to reach their entire audience. I don’t agree with the actual proposals in the No Child Left Behind law, but it’s hard to argue with the name, or the moral that name represents. Education is the clearest path to equality and equal opportunity for all people; it is the great leveler of an unbalanced society. Though I don’t believe that all of my students learn everything I teach, my goal is always to teach every single one of them as much as I possibly can. This is why education goes on for so many years, and has so many different forms and systems: because that is the best way to reach the maximum number of people with the maximum amount of information. Sales pitches are short and simple, and repeated ad nauseam: because you don’t need to reach every person listening. You just need to reach enough to sell your product. You just need to reach your target audience. That’s it.

And yet despite these fundamental differences, somehow the consumer model has crept into educational philosophy over the last thirty years or so. Now we seem to be under the impression that our schools are commercial endeavors: that we are selling a product, rather than providing a service necessary to the proper functioning of our society, and therefore our goal should be to please our customers – rather than to do what is best for everyone. This detracts from the effectiveness of education, because it leads to resources going to make schools more shiny, rather than more effective: we buy new computers rather than new books, and new sports equipment rather than lab equipment; because those are the things that impress our customers. We listen to complaints from our customers, and adjust our practices to please them, rather than doing what is most likely to achieve our goals and improve our society. And so when someone objects to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we remove the book from our curriculum. Not because the book harms our society: simply because our clients don’t like it. We are reaching the point now where books are vanishing entirely from the curriculum: because our students find them too long and boring and hard to focus on; and therefore they are removed. Because anything that doesn’t help sell the product is wasted effort.

But education is not sales. What is the product we are selling, exactly? It isn’t education. Is it attendance? Conformity? Diplomas? Great expanses of time reduced to pleasant emptiness, without effort, without stress? What?

Just as important: who are we selling it to? This is a question that I don’t think anyone has a definite answer for. Sometimes schools cater to the desires of students – my school has a dress code, for example, which three years ago was extremely strict: uniform polo shirts in school colors, khaki pants or skirts, and black shoes. That was all that was allowed. Now, students are still required to wear a uniform shirt – but they may also wear shirts that come from an extracurricular program connected to the school, so if a club or a sports team makes t-shirts for its members, that t-shirt becomes acceptable under the dress code. And now students can wear jackets over their shirts, as well, and shorts, and black pants of any style, and blue jeans, and any shoes they wish. And they get free dress days as rewards for good behavior, and for high test scores, and for good grades, and on their birthdays. The dress code has grown so relaxed simply because the students don’t like it, and fight against it, and the school doesn’t want to fight them.

After all, they’re our customers. Right?

But they’re not: because the students don’t make the decision about where they go to school. Their parents do. And so the school bends over backwards to please the parents. Teachers are expected to make time to meet with parents regardless of what else we have to do. Any dispute – over grades, over policies – is inevitably decided in favor of the parents. We had one parent complain about the weight of a child’s bookbag, and now all teachers are required to list and coordinate with each other the materials and supplies they ask students to carry, so they don’t have to carry too much weight. We had one parent complain about too many big projects being due at the same time, and now we have to coordinate our schedules with each other so that we stagger our due dates. Doesn’t matter that teachers complained – several teachers, several times, in both instances – that these things are a waste of time, that any student who has a problem with too much weight or too many projects due at once could come talk to a teacher individually and have the problem immediately solved; the parent complaints made the decision. Because they’re the customers.

I would argue that the reason for the push towards greater accountability and readily interpreted data – test scores and letter grades, rather than the old style report cards that described one’s “social skills” as “satisfactory” – is largely so that parents can decide if this school is a “good” one for their children to attend. My school, because it is part of a charter program, represents one of several options that parents in the area can choose; so we have open houses that try to draw new students to attend our school. At those open houses, we talk about the school’s past performance in easily digestible chunks: these are the test scores of our students; this is the total dollar value of the scholarships won by our students; this is the percentage of our students who go on to higher education (in these readily-marketable areas). But we don’t talk about what students actually study, what they learn, what they do. The parents do not meet and get to know the teachers, see if we are competent, see if we are personable. That would be wasted time and wasted effort: affable, erudite teachers don’t sell schools. Test scores do. And the various promises of constant and detailed communication, about every facet of school, to parents: we have all of our assignments online, and all of our teachers available through e-mail, and an auto-dialer that calls all of the parents with any school news (Remember when we used to get up early and watch the news to see if there was a snow day? Not any more.), and an online database of behavior that sends parents e-mails whenever their child is punished or rewarded, by any teacher, for any reason. Those sell the school, because parents want to know how their child is doing; and so those are the priority. But nobody asks how long I’ve been teaching, or how much education I have, what experience, what knowledge. Nobody cares. That doesn’t sell the school to the parents, and so it doesn’t matter. Thus, my performance evaluation is largely based on the test scores earned by my students. And also on the results of a survey given to parents and students about how much they enjoy my class, and how well I communicate with parents.

Oh yes – and the open houses feature a PowerPoint presentation. With many slogans and graphics. No clip from Moneyball, though. We should work on that.

When the goal of the organization becomes sales, then inevitably, the resources are dedicated to identifying what will sell and who will buy, and then providing that product to that consumer. Everything else falls away. Capitalist endeavors have only one purpose, no matter how our politicians crow about capitalism being the engine of innovation and the key to a perfect society: that one purpose is profit. Maybe Bill Gates uses his profits to benefit society; but that isn’t why he built and ran Microsoft.

Education is not a product. Students are not consumers nor customers of education; nor are parents; nor is society. Education builds society, it is not consumed by anyone. Teachers are not salespeople. Schools cannot be effectively run like a business. The presentation I saw on Monday is the antithesis of good education: there was nothing in it that could benefit anyone other than the two guys who were selling it and hoping to make money from it; indeed, there were a number of things in it that were essentially harmful. Money was spent on that presentation that was not spent on materials or staff or facilities. The teachers who were required to attend lost time that could have been spent preparing actual education for actual students: we could have been making our society better, instead of being tranined. And my brain was, I think, actually damaged by reading sentences like this:

Screenshot (4)

I don’t buy it.

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