Misreading Customer Satisfaction, Compromise in Education Reform

I am sick for the second time in about a month—and I am rarely sick, having accumulated a rather robust immune system over almost thirty years of teaching.

While sick, however, my rational self wilts under the weight of just wanting to be well. The first time I was sick a few weeks ago, I rode out the symptoms for over a week before seeing a doctor, and then taking a round of antibiotics. Then, a couple days ago, sickness crept back into my head (along with discovering that my daughter has the flu).

So in this context that many are experiencing during the cold and flu season, let me ask an important question: How do we characterize the tension between the medical profession and patients in terms of the dispensing of medications such as antibiotics?

And let me pose another question: What does that have to do with education reform?

I know that antibiotics should not be taken (and do not work) when I have a virus, and I also know that a growing body of research shows that even when a person has a sinus infection, antibiotics seem to be ineffective.

But I also know that as a patient (thus, customer), even a knowledgable patient, if I go to the doctor and am told to drop by the pharmacy on the way home and grab some over-the-counter meds to ease the symtoms until the sickness "runs its course" (don't we hate those words), I am not a happy camper.

Even though the doctor is right.

Misreading Customer Satisfaction, Compromise

In education, as with medical care, focusing on customer satisfaction and compromise is a prescription for failure.

First, let's consider customer satisfaction.

In mid-November, I attended and spoke at a conference where I talked, after my presentation, at length with a graduate student who is also a parent. This graduate student is an African American with a young child attending struggling schools in a major urban area of the U.S. She admitted to me that she initially was attracted, like many African American parents, to the siren's call of charter schools and other avenues of parental choice as the only options for saving children from a historically underperforming urban public school system.

Yet, after this parent entered her graduate program and came to examine the evidence on school outcomes and current reform policies such as the rise of charter schools, she reconsidered her initial trust in charter schools, but now finds herself at odds with many parents living lives very similar to hers.

We talked at length about how she could help enlightened those parents and somehow change misguided policy in her areas schools.

This discussion for me was a powerful and complicated confronting of just how complex the education reform debate is, despite the simplistic characterizations often presented by politicians, the media, and pundits, and despite calls for compromise from all along the spectrum of ideologies.

Parents in urban schools where poverty, race, native language, and special needs tend to overburden public schools are rightfully unsatisfied customers. Like sick patients, these parents deserve something different. (Yet, we must not grab different for different's sake; consider this examination of how misleading reports on charter school effectiveness can be, and then how hard this is to navigate for the average parent.)

But also like sick patients, these parents are likely not well prepared to understand either the problems facing their schools or the solutions that would best alleviate those problems.

Consider this from 1973 [1]:

"Abstract- On the basis of publications supporting the hypothesis that student ratings of educators depend largely on personality variables and not educational content, the authors programmed an actor to teach charismatically and non substantively on a topic about which he knew nothing. The authors hypothesized that given a sufficiently impressive lecture paradigm, even experienced educators participating in a new learning experience can be seduced into feeling satisfied that they have learned despite irrelevant, conflicting, and meaningless content conveyed by the lecturer. The hypothesis was supported when 55 subjects responded favorably at the significant level to an eight-item questionnaire concerning their attitudes toward the lecture. The study serves as an example to educators that their effectiveness must be evaluated beyond the satisfaction with which students view them and raises the possibility of training actors to give 'legitimate' lectures as an innovative approach toward effective education. The authors conclude by emphasizing that student satisfaction with learning may represent little more than the illusion of having learned."

Patients as customers may leave a doctors office with the "illusion of having been treated" if the doctor inappropriately prescribes antibiotics for a virus—just as the subjects above suffered the "illusion of having learned."

Customer satisfaction misrepresents a situation that requires a level of expertise not represented by the customers.

And this leads to the folly of compromise.

In education reform, the tension over what is wrong with public education and what are the best ways to reform education is often portrayed inaccurately: reformers v. anti-reformers, reformers v. defenders of the status quo, naïve optimists v. radical pessimists.

Along with these mischaracterizations often comes a call from less contention, more compromise. These sides need to find common ground, the narrative goes.

Yet, as with focusing erroneously on customer satisfaction, compromise is a failed paradigm when one side represents expertise and evidence-based arguments while the other side speaks without experience, expertise, or evidence.

In other words, "right" plus "wrong" can equal only "wrong."

The medical profession compromising with their customers over prescribing antibiotics is failing the field of medicine.

Thus, when we turn back to the education reform debate, we must first accurately identify the "sides"—and that means we must make some harsh characterizations.

The side with power (political and financial) and thus the loudest voice is the side without credibility—including Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a long list of politicians, appointees, corporate leaders, and special interest advocates who have little or no experience or expertise as educators or scholars. (I have labeled this group "No Excuses" Reformers.)

The side forced to respond to the side with power (and thus often marginalized as "anti-reformers," "defenders of the status quo," or nay-sayers with no solutions behind their complaints) includes primarily classroom and life-long teachers and education scholars and researchers. (I have labeled this group Social Context Reformers.)

Between these two groups, there can be no compromise and the allure of customer satisfaction must be tempered significantly.

That isn't a pretty conclusion, and it is likely to make many people feel as we often have walking out of the doctor's office with only the recommendation to drop by Rite-Aid and buy some Robitussin in one hand and a big fat bill in the other.

It's a hard pill to swallow, but in some situations, good people who are well-intentioned are simply wrong, and in those cases, when right compromises with wrong, wrong wins.

Medical doctors are most effective when they combine a careful diagnosis of the illness with their expertise in the best avenues for recovery.

Education reform is currently trapped in a century-long paradigm of never clearly defining the problems and then never supporting the educators themselves as the agents of how best to address both the problems and implement the solutions that match those problems.

Charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, VAM, Common Core State Standards, new high-stakes tests, and Duncan's announcement to focus on principals will not accomplish any sort of positive educational reform because they are like prescribing an antibiotic for a virus. They are all shoddy medicine.

[1] Via Alfie Kohn and Stephen Krashen:

Donald H. Naftulin, M.D., John E. Ware, Jr., and Frank A. Donnelly
Journal of Medical Education, vol. 48, July 1973, p. 630-635

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate? (Springer,...