The Impact of Market Norms on Education. . .

I've been plugging through Barack Obama's recent remarks on education and finding tons of tidbits that are interesting times ten.  

To start with, it's great to hear our president talking about rewarding teachers differently and about the importance of 21st Century skills.  Both are reforms that I believe in and write about all the time (see here and here).

But I'm bothered by one section of his speech.  He wrote:

From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents, it’s the person standing at the front of the classroom…

America’s future depends on its teachers. And so today, I am calling on a new generation of Americans to step forward and serve our country in our classrooms. If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make the most of your talents and dedication; if you want to make your mark with a legacy that will endure – join the teaching profession.

America needs you. We need you in our suburbs. We need you in our small towns. We need you in our inner cities. We need you in classrooms all across our country.

That's just plain beautiful, isn't it?  It's not unlike the high-minded rhetoric that dozens of presidents have pulled out of the ol' uh-oh toolkit during times of domestic trouble.  

But who can blame 'em!  Tapping into American pride never hurts when your trying to tackle social challlenges.  We're a nation of believers and when we feel like we're losing ground to anyone, we're generally willing to bear more weight in order to get 'er done. 

(Mental note:  We really should thank the Puritans for that.) 

There's one problem, though:  Education has gone through a painful transition in the past two decades, from a profession driven by social norms to one driven by market norms.  

Social norms—-as Dan Ariely explains in his book Predictably Irrational—-are the "friendly requests that people make of one another."  In a world governed by social norms, people will do most anything without expectations.  Social norms are built from our sense of service and our willingness to contribute to the communities that we belong to.  

Sounds a lot like education, doesn't it?  

After all, teachers have given freely for generations.  We've always been the very definition of sacrifice, working long hours for poor salaries because we know what we do matters.  Our greatest rewards are toothless smiles from kids and the place of esteem that we hold in the towns where we work.  

In my own career, these kinds of social rewards have meant everything to me.  I've always wanted to be the teacher who worked in one building for 30 years, teaching generations of children and being celebrated by the community when I retired.  I never expected to make millions and never really cared about cash simply because I cared about kids

Appealing to these kinds of social rewards seems to be a part of Barack's plan for solving our nation's teacher quailty problems.  By reaching out and touching the core of Americans, he's trying to attract the kinds of spirited young teachers that we'll need to drive change in classrooms for generations.

The hitch is that schools don't operate under social norms any more.  

Instead, we're operating in the world of market norms, which Ariely describes as "sharp-edged:  wages, prices, rents, interests, and costs-and-benefits.  Such market relationships are not necessarily evil or mean…but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments.  When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for—that's just the way it is."

In education, the transition to market norms has been particularly rocky. 

Society—convinced that our schools are failing in every way—has begun to demand accountability from everyone involved in the teaching-learning transaction.  Testing has replaced trust in most communities and criticism of schools has become far more common than any kind of celebration.  

My first collision with market norms came during a presentation at our school by a district evaluation and research expert who had come to review our end of grade test results with our faculty.  "From the looks of it," he said, "Your sixth grade langage arts staff is decidedly average.  Their students aren't making the same gains as students in seventh or eighth grade.  That would be an area of concern for me."

Then, we met in the library for an all-staff debrief, looking again at our end of grade testing results.  "What do you notice in our numbers?" the moderator of the session asked.  

"Math teachers are carrying reading teachers," table after table reported.  "If it weren't for our math teachers, our school wouldn't be succeeding.  We've got to get more out of our reading teachers."

Ouch.  So much for taking joy from the personal and social growth of my students!  

Now don't get me wrong:  Holding schools—and individual teachers within schools—-accountable for their performance isn't a bad thing.  Taxpayers investing millions in a system of education have the right to set expectations for the organizations that they support.  

But once you introduce market norms to any profession, it is unrealistic to expect pleas based on social norms to be successful.  And once you introduce market norms, you'd better be prepared to compete as an employer.  

Relying on warm and fuzzies ain't going to staff schools in communities wracked by poverty.  Relying on warm and fuzzies ain't going to keep accomplished teachers from leaving the classroom as soon as they figure out just how impossible the job really is.  Relying on warm and fuzzies ain't going to keep teachers from pushing back on irresponsible assumptions about "performance" and "achievement." 

I'm not working for a cause anymore.  I'm working for myself.  And as such, I'm going to demand the kinds of support that I've lived without for far too long.  It's like my boy Dan says  In the world of market norms, "you get what you pay for.  That's just the way it is."

That's the real legacy of our drive towards accountability.  Education has become a business—-not a passion—-and that could be our nation's greatest mistake.  

Good luck with the beautiful speeches, Barack.  

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for ya.

But I think the time for appealing to social norms is long goneThat card disappeared from the deck when we started beating schools over the head with market based demands. 

And sadly, you just can't have it both ways.

11 thoughts on “The Impact of Market Norms on Education. . .

  1. tweenteacher

    Damn, Bill, you are one heck of a writer. I hear what you’re saying in an entirely different light. But I grew up in a family of “market norms” in that my father’s business was all about competition and copyright, and protecting yourself with your abilities, and getting paid for your uniqueness, and for some reason, this seems to not coincide with the philosophies of education. I teach because it makes me feel great to do good, because it’s a service to our future generations, and because it uses all my guns blazin’ to do my job and having my neurons firing at full speed feels great. But I resent a system set up hoping that I’ll work beyond my pay and just feel great enough to do it until I get my little engraved rock under a tree at my school site. I have two women I work with who, after we fought to be paid for curriculum design hours that the school insisted on, turned the green card down because the school was in such hard times. Fair pay and being treated professionally is a battle I will continue to wage, even if the Florence Nightengales around me think that those norms don’t belong in the warm and fuzzy world of education.
    -Heather Wolpert-Gawron

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Nate,
    I enjoyed your extended metaphor here….While there’s lots of similar metaphors that have been used to compare education too markets, yours is nicely polished.
    You should keep working on it because it will help your readers and followers to have a better understanding of why market norms don’t always apply to educational settings.
    Rock on,

  3. Nate Barton

    I got an email from a parent this morning. Not always the best way to start the day, though occasionally there are positive notes. After reading I thought about this blog post, and about business and the classroom. Here is why it doesn’t work for me.
    If we apply a business model to our classroom, then essentially our students become a product. Now I have about 80 “products” coming through my part of the conveyor belt on a given day. Most of these products have multiple investors who are highly focused on the quality and potential future returns, which means that you may have multiple bosses breathing down your back on a given day.
    Additionally, each product is its own separate entity requiring a different process to maintain construction progress towards completion.
    Sometimes we recieve a product that has been minimally completed in their anticipated progression down through the system.
    Quality control factors highly in all expectations, regardless of the variety of products that each individual worker recieves. In fact, though we are simultaneously working on multiple separate products, our expectation within the “company” is that each of our products should be constructed in such a way that they shouldn’t fail.
    I could continue, but I would imagine that you have the picture. It sound like a cold and detached world doesn’t it? At times I fear that this is where we are headed.

  4. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    You said: “In a world governed by social norms, people will do most anything without expectations.”?
    The currency of social/interpersonal transactions may not be money, but a “currency” does exist.
    This is evidenced in your statements as follows: “I’ve always wanted to be the teacher who worked in one building for 30 years, teaching generations of children and being celebrated by the community when I retired.” Your expectations in the transaction reflect a benefit anticipated for the cost expended.
    As you noted, when confronted with negative input from a district analyst , your assessment of the value of the transaction changed, “Ouch. So much for taking joy from the personal and social growth of my students! “
    Your expectation for “compensation” (social recognition and appreciation) went unmet and the bargain/exchange you expected went very sour.
    Viewing norms as costless or valueless fails to recognize the very real (although perhaps intangible) exchanges that occur and produce incentives or deterrents. Relationships can be viewed as accounts with deposits and withdrawals that increase or decrease value.
    If in fact, education has shifted to a market force driven occupation and the trend is toward finding value in teaching monetarily, might we take a look at a list like the one found at and attempt to assign a relative market based compensation system to public school teachers? What would be a rational monetary compensation for public school teachers compared with other occupations? Within the profession, what is the rational compensation for teaching in a high needs school versus another one?
    I really wonder how we solve the question raised by Ms. Sacks’ statement “the catch 22 of imposing a market driven system without paying for it is at the heart of it.” What should we pay and what should we rationally/reasonably expect for what we pay?

  5. KJ

    Wow. When can I buy the book you will be writing? You have summed it up perfectly. Communities want results from their schools like a business- higher test scores being the product, teaching the service- but expect to pay their teachers in “warm fuzzies”, smiles, and verbal compliments of a past generation. I’m sorry, but smiles don’t fill my gas tank and compliments don’t put food on my table… Walk into any store, select an item for purchase, and tell the cashier you’ll be paying in hugs ( or-better yet-the positive effect your having of said item will bring to the community!). Let’s see how that goes! Well said. Well said. Bravo. Bravo!

  6. Sam

    Hi Bill,
    You, and Ariely, are onto something. And I see why you’ve been so pessimistic lately.
    I was thinking of something similar: our system of education is increasingly set up to be a competition. Percentiles are everywhere. Competition among schools, among teachers, among districts, among states. And when there’s a competition, someone’s got to lose. The entire discourse is set up in such a way that we have to have winners and losers. There will always be teachers and students in such a system who are disenchanted, and the President’s attempt to reach them will sound disingenuous.
    At the same time, we’ve got to find hope somewhere. It sucks to feel powerless. Have you found a way to get your power back?

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Ariel wrote:
    For a while I was thinking it was just my age (approaching 30) that made me feel like I can;t keep working this hard just for warm fuzzies and exhaustion in return.
    You got it, Ariel.
    Ed Policymakers are a confused lot. They think that they can count on the warm fuzzies that drove educators for so many years to “lift us up.”
    And in previous generations, that may have worked….but in previous generations, we didn’t have the test score police breathing down our throats!
    Better yet, young and talented women like you didn’t have any other options—-outside of nursing and secretarial school—-so we didn’t have to worry about having a strong candidate pool!
    Now—with women competing in every profession and with education taking a turn towards a market based environment, teachers are starting to realize that there are other—and better—-options for them to pursue.
    No longer is “feeling good” a reason to stay in teaching.
    What’s funny is that policymakers want to push market based norms on us without accepting the additional expectations that go with being an employer in a market based system. They profess mystery at why no one will teach in a high needs school or why turnover rates are so high.
    Shouldn’t be a surprise….We’re just responding to the marketplace!

  8. Bill Ferriter

    Sam asked:
    Do you see any contradiction in supporting merit pay and the loss of social norms?
    Nope. I sure don’t, Sam, because while social norms have pretty much always driven my work, I don’t really have any hope for them in education any longer!
    While I’d love to return to a time where I was working for a cause, Ariely argues that once market norms are introduced to any field, it’s impossible for social norms to be reintroduced.
    It’s a point of no return kinda thing. If you want to be a socially driven organization, that’s what you’ve got to embrace from the beginning because once you start to introduce market based factors, your workers won’t buy your socially driven rhetoric any longer.
    So my support of merit pay comes from a belief—-however sad—-that social norms don’t drive my work any longer.
    And if that’s the case, I may as well make a bit of cash for being good at what I do.
    But that’s what market based norms do to a profession.
    Does this make sense?

  9. Sam

    Great post, Bill. I just posted on the speech as well.
    Three responses:
    1) The Secretary of Ed and the President have made pretty clear that the primary purpose of the American education system is to support the economy. So it seems logical that market norms would filter down to the school level.
    2) Do you see any contradiction in supporting merit pay and the loss of social norms? I see that your ideal model is based on a variety of measures, but it still ultimately appeals to teachers’ desire to be compensated for their work.
    3) Do you think your objections (and mine) amount to what President Obama refers to as the old, ideological arguments? I ask because I wonder if these arguments can be so easily dismissed.

  10. Ariel Sacks

    Wow, Bill. I really found some clarity in this post. For a while I was thinking it was just my age (approaching 30) that made me feel like I can;t keep working this hard just for warm fuzzies and exhaustion in return. But you’re absolutely right. Part of the reason I’m starting to push back–quite involuntarily–is that the system’s expectations of me are shifting, by asking me to prioritize external demands more than the ones I hold inside. None could be more obvious than the demand to teach to the test in place of fostering my students’ creativity or social-emotional development (as you pointed out).
    I have been a huge fan of Obama, but I felt the same way when I heard him appeal to people to improve their country by entering teaching. I kept thinking that at least in NYCm we don’t have much of a problem filling vacancies. We have a big problem keeping teachers in our city’s schools, and the catch 22 of imposing a market driven system without paying for it is at the heart of it.

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