Economists Ate My School – Why Defining Teaching as a Transaction is Destroying Our Society

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Teaching is one of the most misunderstood interactions in the world.



Some people see it as a mere transaction, a job: you do this, I’ll pay you that.



The input is your salary. The output is learning.


These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores. The higher the salary, the more valued the teacher. The higher the test scores, the better the job she has done.



But that’s not all.


If the whole is defined in terms of buying and selling, each individual interaction can be, too.



It makes society nothing but a boss and the teacher nothing but an employee. The student is a mere thing that is passively acted on – molded like clay into whatever shape the bosses deem appropriate.


In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant. We determine what they will become, where they will fit into the burgeoning economy. And any sense of curiosity or creativity is merely an expedient to make children into the machinery of industry and drive the gross domestic product higher to benefit our stock portfolios and lower corporate taxes.


And since this education system is merely a business agreement, it must obey the rules of an ironclad contract. And since we’re trying to seek our own advantage here, it’s incumbent on us to contain our workforce as much as possible. This cannot be a negotiation among equals. We must keep each individual cog – each teacher – separate so that they can’t unionize together in common causeand equal our power. We must bend and subject them to our will so that we pay the absolute minimum and they’re forced to give the absolute maximum.



That’s just good business sense. It’s the best way to establish this relationship.



Moreover, since we see education in terms of pure capital – human financial units flowing through a systemic framework – the same rules that govern business will govern our schools.



We can pit one student against another, one school against another, one district against another, one race, one gender – anything quantifiable can and should be placed in competition. Because that’s how you maximize outputs.



We can initiate hostile takeovers, engage in vulture capitalism where the loser schools are stripped of resources and to the victor go the spoils.



But who is the victor?



It’s getting confusing here. Do we give the plunder to the students at the schools with the highest outcomes? That’s illogical. After all, this whole process isn’t about what’s best for the students, per se. It’s about the system of profit and loss. So any profit squeezed from the defeated should go to the winners – the investor class who put forward the capital to start this whole process.



But that’s not how public school is organized. There are rules and regulations you have to follow – outdated legislation that doesn’t define the process in terms of economics.



We have to redefine those laws, rewrite them so that our goals are aligned. So we can enshrine virtues like choice and disruption over anything as old fashioned and pedestrian as the good of the child.



Thus we invent charter schools – institutions funded with tax dollars but not necessarily subjected to any other regulations – not run by elected school boards, not accountable to the public for how they spend that money or educate the children under their authority. They are subject only to the rules of the free market. The invisible hand guides all.



Thus we invent school vouchers – take that tax money and give it directly to the customer – the parents – to spend however they wish. If they squander it or are fooled by unscrupulous school systems and education purveyors, that is their fault. And, in fact, we will ensure that there are multiple pitfalls, deathtraps, blind alleys and snake oil salesmen in their way. Because competition maximizes profits.



Caveat emptor is the only rule.



Because, you see, the hidden premise in all this nonsense is that you are not the boss.



The community is not in control of this system – the business world is. Everyday people who might be parents or taxpayers or voters or concerned citizens – at best we are just consumers. It’s not our role to do anything but choose the simple, watered down options presented to us. If we try to exercise our rights through collective action – including our right to vote – that’s unfair and will be met with the rule of capital as speech until we’re drowned in it – in fact, drowned out.



This is how many people today envision teaching.



This is what has become of our schools.



This is what is being done to our children.



It’s obvious in the ways our laws are structured, the ways the media covers our schools and the ways our students are mistreated.



And it is mistreatment.



Because teaching is none of those things.



Teaching is not a transaction. It is relational.



Teaching is not about inputs and outputs. It’s about curiosity and knowledge.



It shouldn’t be governed by market forces that dehumanize all those involved into mere widgets to be manipulated in a systemic framework. Teaching should be governed by empathy, art and science.



The driving force behind any education system must be what’s best for the child. And that “best” ultimately must be defined by parents and children.



The goal of education can never be to prepare kids for a career. It must be to eradicate ignorance, to quench curiosity, to aid self-expression and guide students toward becoming whatever it is they want to become.



Measuring learning outcomes by standardized test scores can never achieve this goal. That’s like trying to monetize a rainbow or putting the ocean in a cage.


School privatization can never achieve this goal. That’s like treating human beings like cash, like thinking the rules of football can govern architecture.



And treating teachers like worker drones can never achieve this goal. You can’t entrust a whole class of people with the most precious thing you have – your children – and then treat them like dirt.



Teaching is hard to define.



It is messy and unruly and doesn’t fit into many of our society’s preconceptions.


But it is optimism made real.



It is an investment in the future. A mark of value and love.


It is the most vital and important thing a society can do.



And we’re messing it up – big time.



Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!



38 thoughts on “Economists Ate My School – Why Defining Teaching as a Transaction is Destroying Our Society

  1. Although I totally agree with what you say about what teaching is, what’s missing is the intentionality behind getting reform wrong. I explain that at and in my book Why We Elected a Dangerous Con Man: White Chalk Crime- the fraud in our schools that is destroying our democracy. It’s not about Trump. It’s about our undereducated society due to our corrupt schools.


    • I hear you, Karen. Though I agree, it’s harder to prove intentionality than gross error. I have written about this elsewhere, but in some ways it doesn’t matter. Stop the destruction THEN put the architects of the carnage on trial. We still need to stop the blood gushing from the wound and save the patient. Thanks for commenting.


      • Can’t stop the destruction without first exposing it. I’ve been working on that for over two decades. Harder than exposing the priest abuse situation! If my book goes viral – long shot in the times of Kardashian awe- it will be easy to prove the intentionality. From the fact there exists a test that actually measures teacher skill that they do not use to the documentation of crimes throughout my book, it is proven that our schools are fronts for crime. I take this in a direction no one else does. However, I do comment about what real teaching Is in total agreement with you. My point is they get rid of the real teachers the same way they got rid of Marie Yovonavitch since we are in their way.


      • Yes, Steven. Education in the US is in the ER now. Stop! Save the patient before you sit down at the legislative table to discuss a way to save the patient. How did we get here? It’s all about education.


  2. The Karmic Piper is right at this moment coming due for the United States. And the schools are part of it, as is health care, and other rights that every other developed nation on Earth has basically properly prioritized as what they are, not what some might hope them to be.
    When charter schools hit (1991) the writing could not be clearer. The United States model is a sick, I mean REALLY sick model and it cannot hide from it’s craven anti-human lizard soul any further. The Trump bankrupt dictator with evil morals is a fitting hand holder for all this. What many of us were sitting through anticipating in the latter twentieth century to ultimately happen is now occurring at warp speed and even the most well intentioned folks are in future shock. It is all happening now. Right now.


  3. “These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores.”

    The former is calculable but not necessarily measurable unless money is the only valuable aspect. The latter is not measurable at all. What is the agreed upon standard unit of measurement of “academic outcomes”? Standardized test scores are not measurements, as again what is the agreed upon standard unit of measurement used? Hint for the two questions: There is none, therefore there can be no measuring.

    We hurt our cause when we continue to misuse language and bastardize the meanings of words like measure. Plays right into the hands of the edudeformers.


    • Duane, we mostly agree but not on the meaning of these words. First, calculation is a kind of measurement. It’s defined as ” to determine (the amount or number of something).” Measurement is defined as “ascertain the size, amount, or degree of (something).” You may be thinking of value which is something else entirely. Second, academic outcomes can be measured though only approximately. No one is completely unaware whether learning has or has not taken place. And that is a kind of measure. It’s a matter of degree – a lack of mechanical precision that learning does not allow. I don’t think using these terms in this way gives the disrupters anything to with. However, being dogmatic in our formulations may do so. Let’s agree to agree. See what I did there?


  4. “In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant.”

    I see what you did there.

    You’re setting up a false dichotomy between “doing what your employer wants” and “doing what your students want and need.” Like many teachers, you’re claiming the mantle of “supporting kids” and claiming that the administration is not interested in results.

    But that false dichotomy is quite literally the problem here, and is also why people are leery of giving too much power to teachers.

    You cannot arrogate this decision to yourself, because quite frankly, “what the students need” and “what teachers, individually, want” are often (thought not always) at odds. If you acknowledged this issue then you might incline people to trust you nonetheless, but if you pretend it isn’t there, you show your colors up front.

    As perhaps the most pertinent example, students want (in a larger sense) great teachers, not experienced ones. That means they want
    a) to have all teachers constantly assessed for teaching quality;
    b) to have below-average teachers rapidly replaced; and
    c) to have better (or potentially-better) teachers rapidly hired; and
    d) to have a pay structure which rewards teaching quality, rather than teacher longevity.

    Teacher’s unions are universally opposed to this. In fact, almost every teacher I have ever met opposes this.

    You can continue if you’d like: students want the ability to form their own charter schools; unions don’t. Students would almost certainly benefit from longer school hours or school years; teachers don’t want this. Students would almost certainly benefit from a prioritization of subject matter competence over pedagogical skills–for example, a M.A. in English or an M.S. in Biology are completely different from an M.A. in Education–and teachers, many of whom only have Education degrees, oppose this.

    Try again.


    • Parent, you seem very far removed from the reality of public school – and logic. Who knows more about what students need – someone who is in the classroom with them every day or someone in the administrative offices? To stretch the metaphor, who knows more about fighting a fire, someone fighting the blaze or someone in an office somewhere across town? Who makes better decisions how to fight a battle, the soldiers in the thick of it or some general back home trying to win political points? This is not controversial. It’s logic.

      Moreover, “parent,” have you ever met a real live child? They don’t want their teachers to be evaluated on their test scores. They don’t want teachers fired at administrative whim. They don’t want longer school hours. Students SUPPORT their teachers and their teachers right to unionize. We see them out on the picket lines with us. Their parents support us. And – here’s where you really revealed yourself to be a plant – kids don’t want to form charter schools. LOL! That one really cracked me up, “parent”!

      Oh! Wow! The disrupters are getting desperate!


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