Betsy DeVos, Charter Schools, Education, Teachers — August 11, 2018 at 3:00 pm

Schools aren’t “fast-food franchises,” charter schools aren’t public schools,and education isn’t a business









Recently, our oldest son got his first job–or, more accurately, he got his first 2 jobs: one at a fast-food franchise popular in the Midwest (let’s call it “McBurgerQueen”, or McBQnote: it’s not McDonalds, Burger King, or Dairy Queen), the other at a family-owned Korean-Chinese restaurant in our town (we’ll call this place “Fresh Spring Rolls”, or FSR, after our favorite dish on their menu!). Our son has been working regular shifts at both restaurants on a daily basis, and his reflections on the “training” process at each place have been fascinating to hear about.

  • Upon arriving for his first shift at McBQ, our son and the other new hires were shepherded into an hour-long “orientation meeting”, which was carefully scripted and delivered by a regional manager who had not been involved at all in the hiring process. According to our son, the meeting was “really boring” and had nothing to do with any of the actual tasks he’s been doing since he started actually working at the restaurant–it was mostly focused on company history, regulations, and policies, none of which were presented as having any connection to cooking or serving food, or cleaning tasks.
  • At McBQ, every task is meticulously broken down into sequential steps, and workers are carefully monitored as they “shadow” a (nominally) more experienced employee during the orientation process. Even jobs as mundane as taking out the trash, or greeting customers, required methodical instructions, guidance, and evaluation before employees were permitted to engage in participating in these jobs–leading as a result to massive amounts of “down” time for employees who are “on the clock.”
  • Each McBQ worker is issued a company-provided shirt and hat, and given strict instructions on what kind of slacks, shoes, and sox they may wear to complete the store uniform. One day, our son forgot his blue hat when he left for his shift at McBQ. When he arrived at the restaurant and told his colleague he’d forgotten his hat, he was given a grey version of the same hat, and told to report to his station. As soon as his shift supervisor saw him wearing the grey hat he was admonished that “he had not yet earned the right to wear the grey hat,” and was sent back to find a blue one instead.
  • McBQ employees are periodically issued special “promotional” t-shirts that they are allowed to wear in place of their normal work uniform if they reach certain pre-determined sales goals. While these shirts are intended as “incentives,” our son tells us that the employees don’t have any say in how the shirts are designed, or in setting the store’s goals, so there’s not much “buy-in” from workers to reach the sales numbers that trigger their ability to wear the shirts.
  • McBQ employees are not provided with a meal or given a break during their 4 hour shifts. They are allowed to eat food–stale french fries, old chicken strips–that is past its “sell by” time and can’t be sold to customers.

The work environment at FSR, on the other hand, is markedly different…

  • When he arrived for his first shift at FSR, our son was warmly welcomed by the matriarch of the family-owned establishment, and then immediately “thrown into the fire”. His first job was packaging “to go” orders, where he was joined by a colleague who “showed him the ropes” as they worked together on packing orders of Bibimbop and Kung Pao Chicken. There was no “orientation meeting,” or “company manual”–just lots of questions, smiles, and encouragement.
  • In the first few days our son rotated through many of the jobs that needed to be done at FSR…packing up to-go orders, answering the phone, and working the cash register. During lulls in customer traffic, he observed the chefs in the kitchen, the dishwashers, and the waitstaff as they engaged with customers, picking up hints and tips on how each job was performed. He says he was “never bored,” even when business was slow, and “always learning.”
  • FSR workers are asked to wear “mostly black if possible,” but there is no store-issued apparel. When he showed one afternoon wearing white socks instead of the preferred black ones, the restaurant manager just smiled and told him it was “No big deal–it doesn’t make the food taste any better! Just try to remember next time.”
  • While there are no “promotional giveaways” at FSR, the restaurant pools tips for all of the employees–a strategy that encourages each worker to maintain a positive and cheerful attitude when dealing with customers.
  • During “slow times” at FSR, all workers are invited to share in “family meal,” an assortment of dishes prepared by the cooks expressly for the restaurant’s employees. Our son comes home every night with rave reviews about the traditional Korean and Chinese fare offered up by his colleagues in the kitchen, and regales us with stories about the chef’s “music battles” in the kitchen–dueling styles and genres played at deafening volumes, often accompanied by dancing and cheering.

While he enjoys both jobs, and appreciates each for it’s own sake, it should come as no surprise that he looks forward to his shifts at FSR much more than his work at McBQ. At FSR, he says, he feels like “part of the group,” while the corporate structure at McBQ feels rigid, overly-regimented, and needlessly restrictive. His experiences working at these two restaurants have resulted in an unexpected series of lessons in the differences in working environments between “Wall Street” and “MainStreet”, and has been fascinating to observe as his parents.

At the same time, I’ve been engaged in one of my favorite parts of my job this summer: helping the newest class of graduates from our music teacher education program as they navigate their first job interviews for teaching positions, both in the state and across the country.

One of these recent alums called the other day for advice, after being offered a teaching position at a charter school. After congratulating him on being offered the position, we chatted about the interview process, and how the school district conducted their search.

  • The “search committee” consisted of the charter school’s principal, an alum of the school who had been volunteering to run the music program in the absence of a certified music teacher, and the human resources director. None of these individuals was a certified music teacher, and only one had ever taught in a school before.
  • The only music-specific question my student was asked was whether he played a woodwind or brass instrument–and his answer didn’t seem to actually matter, he said.
  • Instead of being asked to teach a demonstration music lesson or rehearse a group of students, the only thing he was required to do in addition to the interview was to watch a brief video of a multiplication lesson and critique the lesson plan in writing. It seemed clear, he said, that every candidate for a position in the district–regardless of what subject they taught–was required to watch this same multiplication lesson, and offer an evaluation of the class.
  • To be clear, my student took no math education courses as part of his program of study–nor was he required to do so. Asking a music teacher to critique a multiplication lesson is like asking a math teacher to assess a middle school orchestra rehearsal, or like asking a science teacher to evaluate a kindergarten art class. It betrays the misguided belief that “good teaching is good teaching”–an axiom that only makes sense if you’ve never taught anyone anything.

Let’s contrast the charter school’s hiring process with the one I was asked to participate in recently at a local public high school searching for a new music teacher.

  • The search committee was made up of the building principal, the assistant superintendent in charge of personnel, 5 music teachers from the district, and myself. Other consultants were also brought in to observe the teaching demonstrations that were a part of the hiring process for all candidates
  • After reviewing the materials from all of the applicants, the search committee narrowed down the list to two finalists, Each candidate was then invited to come for an interview with the committee, followed by a teaching demonstration with a group of volunteer students from the school’s music program.
  • After each teaching demonstration, the students were asked to comment on the candidates’ performance, and then the committee met to debrief what they had seen. After our deliberations, the committee reached consensus on the top candidate, and the principal was charged with making an offer to the successful candidate.

Although I suspect that this charter school’s leaders are simply following a set of hiring guidelines issued from their charter management company’s “corporate office”, these guidelines make about as much sense as McBurgerQueen’s “orientation meetings,” or the silly “blue hat/grey hat” uniform rules that employees are expected to follow.

While corporate education reformers are obsessed with trying to “scale up” initiatives that they claim are promising, the truth is that schools are not fast-food franchises, and are extraordinarily resistant to such “scaling up” efforts. In fact, the things that are the most distinctive and wonderful about schools–just as with human beings–are not their similarities, but their differences. A school in Detroit shouldn’t look like one in Dearborn, or Ann Arbor. Each public school should be unique, and should do its best to identify and serve the needs of the community in which it is located.

Further, public schools are locally-governed, not “managed” by a corporation that’s not accountable to the citizens of that community. So while Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may believe that schools are nothing more than little business “franchises” that should be run like Uber, the comparisons between schools and ride-sharing companies are not very flattering:

Betsy’s analogy here conveniently ignores the fact that taxi companies are not remotely “like” public schools. Taxi companies are not publicly owned or operated; they are not funded by taxpayer dollars; they are not governed by elected school boards; they are not responsible for “serving” all of a community’s residents. Her analogy also omits the inconvenient truth that ride sharing apps like Uber and Lyft have competed unfairly with taxi companies in many major metropolitan areas by relying upon unqualified and uncertified drivers, and paying those drivers at rates that are much lower than the prevailing wage for cab drivers in that region.

The truth is that schools are not franchises, charter schools are not public schools, and education is not a business. The only thing “public” about charter schools is their funding–and much of that winds up being diverted to the accounts of hedge fund managers and investment bankers–not into classrooms, where it belongs.

A lot is being said about “school choice” in the education policy arena these days. Perhaps the most important “choice” we can make when it comes to our own schools is to insist that these schools be locally-governed and responsive to their communities.

And to resist the efforts to “franchise” our public schools so they become bland, standardized carbon-copies of corporate rigidity, rather than the vibrant centers of community life that seem to frighten our Secretary of Education, her husband, and their comrades in the education reform movement so very much…

Betsy DeVos stressed that Christians need to focus on “greater Kingdom gain” by “changing … the system of education in the country.” 

Dick DeVos echoed that: As the center of the community, “The church … has been displaced by the public school.”