"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Community Involvement in Public Schools

It takes a village to raise a child. Does it also take the entire community to educate the young? True. Brigada Eskwela, as described in this blog, provides pictures of hope and optimism. I wrote in that article:
"The sense of where reforms should come from is quite clear. And the photos demonstrating how much a community cares for its schools is a testament that improvements in basic education can begin from the ground. Flexibility is important as it allows for the community to build on its existing good practices and innovation. Herein lies the importance of keeping the national curriculum for schools as lean as possible, offering only a general set of guidelines for schools to follow. Such empowers the teachers in each classroom, each principal in each school, to develop in greater specifics a school-based curriculum. The community can only take ownership of its schools with responsibility. And responsibility can not be cultivated in a culture marked with policies and orders always handed down from a central authority. Decisions regarding the curriculum must take place inside the school and not from a far-away office within the national government if a "Schools First" initiative is desired. Communities are capable of taking the challenge, but the challenge must not end with just supporting the facilities for education. Communities must likewise be empowered to take part in the actual education of its members. Through these, there is reason for optimism."
In more than one way, "Brigada Eskwela" engages the community.  This is the good side of "privatizing" public schools. It is a genuine partnership since the members of the community are likewise stakeholders. Most of these are the parents of the children who attend school and their work is purely voluntary. "Privatizing" public schools, however, can take a different route. Though uplifting education may still be a driving force, there are other motivations and reasons for the private sector to participate. Education historian and New York University Professor Diane Ravitch views privatization of public schools as "opening up public education as a prime marketplace where entrepreneurs can pursue new business opportunities and make money." Ravitch recently raised this concern as the United States moves forward toward developing a common core across all states. Establishment of common standards and tests enables a large scaling of learning materials, which is particularly lucrative in the eyes of business.

Huffington Post recently published an article: "Privatizing Public Schools: Big Firms Eyeing Profits from US K-12 Market".  Investors are apparently excited with the opportunities coming their way with the introduction of new standards for US public schools. Before, each school district in the US pretty much decided the curriculum content. Then, each state came up with their own standards. With a common core across all states, "investors are signaling optimism that a golden moment has arrived.... The goal: an education revolution in which public schools outsource to private vendors such critical tasks as teaching math, educating disabled students, even writing report cards."


Business can be good for public schools. It comes with a sense of efficiency in terms of cutting costs. However, business with its focus on making profits can undermine the real purpose of education:
"This is a new frontier," Ravitch said. "The private equity guys and the hedge fund guys are circling public education." 
Some of the products and services offered by private vendors may well be good for kids and schools, Ravitch said. But she has no confidence in their overall quality because "the bottom line is that they're seeking profit first." 
Vendors looking for a toehold in public schools often donate generously to local politicians and spend big on marketing, so even companies with dismal academic results can rack up contracts and rake in tax dollars, Ravitch said. 
"They're taking education, which ought to be in a different sphere where we're constantly concerned about raising quality, and they're applying a business metric: How do we cut costs?" Ravitch said.
It is useful to note what US investors currently see as promising areas of business in public school education. One is the use of information communication and technology, specifically the development of software which can do some of the tasks that teachers do. Unlike in the Philippines, teachers in the US demand a much substantial salary. Replacing teachers with computer programs will therefore reduce significantly labor costs. Here is a quote from the founder of Princeton Review: "How do we use technology so that we require fewer highly qualified teachers?"  Highly qualified teachers not only demand high salaries, but also expensive and time-intensive preparations and training in higher education.

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There are several online learning platforms now available in the US, each one providing automated services on writing and grading quizzes, giving feedback to students, and generating report cards. DreamBox Learning, one of the players in this new arena of electronic classrooms, takes a step further by providing software that can analyze a student's current standing or abilities to tailor specifically questions in math to drill the student. If teachers are the biggest contributor to the costs of public school education, why not? And if the lack of qualified teachers impedes progress in public schools then software maybe the solution. Compared to Finland, this approach is exactly the opposite. United States does not score anywhere near Finland's in international tests. This is the bottom line in education, quite different from the point of view of business. Business looks primarily at cost efficiency. Public school education must remain focused on quality.

Building classrooms remains attractive. There are ways to cut costs and make profit in construction. They can even overprice:


Salceda says classrooms in DepEd plan overpriced

The cost of classrooms to be built by private contractors under a public-private partnership program (PPP) of the Department of Education (DepEd) is double that of the cost pegged by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), according to Albay Gov. Joey Salceda....http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/242727/salceda-says-classrooms-in-deped-plan-overpriced 

But as soon as classrooms are built, the business stops there. The curriculum, on the other hand, offers so much more. Learning materials, assessment tools, and electronic platforms can be gifts that keep on giving....

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