Today’s NYTimes features an article on how Texas A&M plans to save mega-bucks by outsourcing food service and janitorial services. As a public school administrator I can identify with the the quandary the administrators face: they are not in the business of managing a large restaurant enterprise or in the business of maintaining acres of land and facilities (though arguably if they offer programs in hotel management and agriculture they could develop learning experiences that might help offset some of the high costs).
My personal experience is that outsourcing food services has been almost always a “win”. In the districts I led where we outsourced we were able to expand choices— including healthy choices— for students while lowering our operating costs by virtue of the bulk purchasing that was available to food service groups. Like Texas A&M, we were able to retain the existing work force at their current wage levels for a pre-determined time level. The only aspect that gave me some level of concern was that the new hires were often paid less and the “frozen wages” often diminished if the veteran staff stayed on. On a mega-scale, then, I was contributing to the wage suppression that I’ve written about as a negative elsewhere.
My personal experience in outsourcing custodial services has universally been poor. When the services were outsourced, the for-profit organizations cut corners in cleaning, hired staff members who lacked the pride in the facilities that the “old guard” had, and required us to institute inflexible guidelines for building use that resulted in complications with PTAs, community groups, and school organizations. This was despite the initial support or indifference to the “new” program that was going to save lots of money.
Finally, unlike the Texas A&M plan, our savings did not get redirected to new programs or expansion of existing programs: they were inevitably used to “save the taxpayers” money. The result, in the case of the facilities management, was ultimately NO savings and new headaches… and in the case of Food Services marginal savings and no change whatsoever to our efforts to improve our major mission of providing a quality education to students.
The ASCD Blog posted a link to an article by Tim Brady titled “What Will the Ed Tech Revolution Look Like?” that, in my judgment, provided an accurate description of what the ed tech revolution will look like if public education evolves. The article forecasts an optimistic— perhaps overly optimistic— view of the future of education technology in three five year chunks. For each five year block of time Brady describes how technology will affect education at home and in schools. In Brady’s view, in the next five years we will slowly change our perception of the place of technology in our classrooms, due, in large measure to this fact:
According to National Center for Education Information, a full 30% of public teachers are now under the age of 30. This percentage has doubled over the last five years. Why does this matter? Every teacher under 30 years old entered secondary school after Netscape. Like pre and post-TV generations, the pre- and post-Netscape generations think and act differently. They assume that the web is a part of their daily lives and integrate it into their daily routines without giving it much of a thought.
Meanwhile, at home, parents are becoming aware of freeware like the Khan academy, making the computer “seen as a device for learning inextricably tied to a child’s education.”
In the second five year chunk, Brady predicts that purchasing of technology tools will happen from the bottom up, guided by feedback teachers receive from assessments linked to the common core and from their peers who make use of open source freeware. At home parents “…will be empowered to evaluate their child’s progress” with widely available online assessments linked to the common core. Page forecasts that engaged and informed parents will interact with teachers in the same fashion as engaged and informed parents interact with their physician.
In the third phase, Page foresees the abandonment of the factory school model and the advent of a structure much like the Network School.
After a decade more of fiscal pressure at school and many of the changes discussed above, we will finally see widespread changes to our public school model. Schools will move toward one of a handful of models that better support the needs of individual students and reflect the fiscal realities of today.
More specifically, public schools will look to save money by moving away from their traditional age-based and grade-based system (i.e. the “factory model”) toward one based on mastery. Kids will be able to test out of certain classes by proving competency. High schools, and maybe even middle schools, will begin to operate less like factories and more like colleges.
Brady concludes his essay with this:
Most disappointing to me in this projection is the long timeframe likely required to see substantial change. Fifteen years is an entire generation of students! It is difficult to accept the idea that change will take that long while we are failing so many students. But there is no silver bullet for fixing our K-12 system….
Most exciting to me in this revolution is the movement away from the factory model of education and towards something more individually customized to each student and more cost efficient. Technology helps make this possible. We will fail fewer students because they will be more engaged, and we will lose fewer teachers to frustration. And that is an investment worth making.
I believe that Brady’s forecast is accurate for affluent schools and for engaged parents who want their children to get the most out of their education. The schools serving children in poverty— typically urban and high poverty suburban, small city, and remote rural districts– and the schools serving parents who are disengaged will face serious challenges. Schools and homes without resources now will face challenges in the future because they do not have a baseline for technology in their budgets today. Moreover, some schools and homes are located in parts of the country where internet access is limited. Given that neither political party views the provision of broadband into all communities and private homes as an urgent need and given that profit seeking telecom providers see no payback in providing internet access to remote rural areas, it is unlikely that all schools and/or homes will have the infrastructure needed to receive the benefits Brady forecasts in his article. Even more complicated is the need to get disengaged parents to use the wealth of information available to them in the way Brady predicts. Parents who don’t look at report cards are unlikely to see the availability of rich online data as a valuable resource… and far too many parents don’t look at or care about their child’s report card. Engaging the disengaged parent and student will be the challenge for teachers more so than learning how to use technological tools… and that is where the art of teaching comes into play.
I sincerely hope that the future Brady sees comes to pass. But I also hope that technology optimists like Brady realize that not all parents are like the patients his wife serves as a physician and not all students attend the kinds of schools where technology is abundant…. and hope that those funding education recognize the need to close the funding gaps that preclude schools serving children in poverty from having the same access to technology as affluent school districts.