Reforming Businesses, Reforming Schools: Outsourcing as a Fad

Readers over a certain age may recall reforms that cascaded through corporations in each decade since the 1960s. They might recall “zero-based budgeting,” “management by objectives,” “restructuring,” “management by walking about,” and “Quality  Circles.” Sure, I could name more but that is enough.

Opinion leaders beat the drums for each one as they rapidly spread through The Financial Times, Forbes, The Economist, and other media as CEOs wrapped their tongues around the inevitable acronyms surrounding these reforms.  They were immensely popular for a few years, even a decade or more and, you know what’s coming, they faded. They live now as footnotes in doctoral dissertations–the last refuge for a reform.

I want to add another one to that list: “Outsourcing.”

Outsourcing or “offshoring” occurred as a global market for U.S. products matured in post-World War II decades. For most U.S. manufactured products, it made economic sense to have designers, engineers, assembly line workers, and marketing people in close proximity such as making cars in Detroit, Michigan or appliances at General Electric’s facility in Louisville, Kentucky. But as global competitors for cars and appliances arose, U.S. companies had to cut costs to remain competitive. Cutting costs happen when new technologies make production more efficient and when cheaper labor is available. Latin American and Asian countries attracted U.S. companies because labor costs were far lower. Thus, offshoring or designing products in the U.S. and producing them in other countries began. Manufacturing jobs in the U.S. peaked at nearly 20 million in 1979 and fell to just under 12 million by 2010.

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DilbertOutsourcing

But in the last decade, U.S. companies have reopened shuttered factories and built new ones producing appliances and other products stamped “Made in U.S.A.” How come? New technologies have increased on-site productivity in manufacturing while the costs of producing abroad have risen such as higher wages for foreign workers and transportation, and unions have bvecome more amenable to management offers.  For the U.S. bringing designers, engineers, and production together in one place now means higher profits than offshoring. There is now an upsurge in manufacturing jobs, not as great as in the early 20th century but an increase in jobs nonetheless. So add “outsourcing” to the list of fads in business reform. What about school reform in these same decades?

No need to count the faddish reforms that have showered schools.  Readers can make their own lists of which ones have occurred in their lifetimes. Many of which, I should add, have been imported into schools from the private sector. Every single business reform mentioned in the first paragraph have been reincarnated in schools. Ditto for “outsourcing.”

Education dollars are always in short supply, particularly in times of fiscal stress, so the search for efficient ways to operate schools easily piggybacked on the business surge of “outsourcing.” Contracting out  student lunches, bus transportation, and janitorial services have rippled across the nation’s 14,000 school districts since the 1980s, including teaching and learning.

For-profit companies taking over failing public schools in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Highland Park (MI), and other districts is one example. And cyber charter schools and blended schools run by for-profit companies are other examples. Note that no middle-class and upper-middle-class suburbs or exurbs seek out private contractors to run their schools. The phenomenon is localized in poor and minority schools that fail to make academic progress.

While some critics see this outsourcing of public school services as part of a dark design to privatize public schools, others endorse efforts to contract out those support services to save money without sacrificing quality. Moreover, privately-run student lunches, bus transportation, and janitorial work can be easily assessed as to whether or not they are cost effective. But when it comes to the core activities of teaching and learning, that is a much harder Brazil nut to crack.

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Consider other public institutions that have outsourced their core activities such as prisons. Outsourcing prisons to for-profit companies has a checkered history. Nearly 10 percent of all inmates are in privately-operated prisons. Whether the promised efficiencies and saved public dollars have materialized remains contested.

When it comes to outsourcing actual teaching and learning, whether online or in traditional classrooms, similar contested findings make it hard to make the case that private companies save tax dollars and do the job as well as schools.

In the last decade, a slow but perceptible turnaround in manufacturing products in the U.S. has occurred. Offshoring is no longer a panacea for U.S. companies. Another fad gone. Because school fads, many of which have been imported from the private sector, lag behind shifts in business innovations, I would expect that outsourcing teaching and learning (but not school support services) will die a slow death except in those locations where poor children go to school. There, I believe, it will flourish because when you do not know what to do, you experiment, experiment, and then experiment some more.

15 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools

15 responses to “Reforming Businesses, Reforming Schools: Outsourcing as a Fad

  1. Reblogged this on Things I grab, motley collection and commented:
    “But in the last decade, U.S. companies have reopened shuttered factories and built new ones producing appliances and other products stamped “Made in U.S.A.” How come? New technologies have increased on-site productivity in manufacturing while the costs of producing abroad have risen such as higher wages for foreign workers and transportation, and unions have bvecome more amenable to management offers. For the U.S. bringing designers, engineers, and production together in one place now means higher profits than offshoring. There is now an upsurge in manufacturing jobs, not as great as in the early 20th century but an increase in jobs nonetheless. So add “outsourcing” to the list of fads in business reform. What about school reform in these same decades?”

    Remains to be seen if this is a long term effect or yet another blip totally in contradiction with a general trend.

  2. Pingback: Reforming Businesses, Reforming Schools: Outsourcing as a Fad @larrycuban | A New Society, a new education! | Scoop.it

  3. Jeff Bowen

    Outsourcing has a dollar-driven impetus. Its goals can be measured in terms of cost effectiveness. It is a capitalistic phenomenon. Education’s goals are not so easily measured. Teaching and learning have multiple purposes. The school’s societal mission makes the business model seem shallow. Outsourcing education seems like a fool’s mission because schooling means so much more than economic well being. And outsourcing is basically all about money.

    • larrycuban

      I was nodding yes to your comment, Jeff, until I got to the last sentence. Schools are political institutions dependent upon tax dollars; they have to be concerned about efficient use of resources. Outsourcing of school support services, for example, can be judged cost-effective or not. It is outsourcing teaching and learning that is most difficult to judge its worth.

  4. Dear Larry,
    This blog thread reminds me of what Diane Ravitch has currently taken up on her blog page regarding the privatization of education. She makes similar points about how much of the ‘outsourcing’ is predominately centered around low performing urban settings and she’s highly critical of folks like Gates, Broad, and Waltons who are driving much of this type of reform both externally via their foundation efforts, and more subversively at the policy level within the U.S. Dept of Ed (e.g. Race to the Top, ‘personalized learning’, charters). “Subversive” is probably not the right word to use, as the intended intentions are thought to be good for students, families and communities, but the unintended consequences may not play out in schools, classrooms, and communities in the same way. As any proposed “technical solution” always plays out in a complex ecosystem with various individuals with various capacities, much more complex and nuanced than outcomes and goals found in the business and for-profit worlds when we focus on the work of teaching and learning.
    In any case, I don’t foresee these billionaires leaving this philanthropic space anytime soon. Also, the partnerships and sponsorships these foundations are most comfortable with are based on their prior experiences— that are in the for-profit space. So how do we take advantage of this ‘resource’ in benefiting students and teachers; to support and improve on teaching and learning?
    If “outsourcing” is fad that will fade (and return in time), then is the converse to focus more internally (“in-sourcing”)? Building capacity within classrooms and schools?
    I’m at this intersection straddling these worlds and spend much of time influencing decision-makers at all different levels to improve schooling (teaching and learning).
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Tina

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Tina, for the comments on donors and your thoughts about where to turn. I agree that with district budgets constrained, donor dollars will continue to attract willing school boards and superintendents to pursue current reform-driven agendas.

  5. That’s the second time that you have recently referred to the difference between middle class neighbourhood schools and those in poorer areas. I would be interested in reading your views on this topic, if you haven’t already written about it.

  6. My son tried to outsource his homework to his younger sister for a candy… I gave his computer to his sister too… for two weeks :-)

  7. Interesting fears around the idea of outsourcing and the privatization of education. Is it a fad? Or is it a results of a smaller world with larger education companies?
    My question is practical. When a company like TutrorVista’s major shareholder becomes Pearson, is it still outsourcing education when the service is part of Pearson’s range of services for students in the US? And is the use of Pearson products and services in the US considered outsourcing since Pearson is a UK-based company? And do the district leaders know that when they purchase the service?
    Or is Pearson Education acceptable because it generates approximately 60-65%-65% of its sales in North America and has a HQ in New Jearsey and keeps the international division across the pond in the UK where the parent company sits?

    • larrycuban

      I guess you are trying to make a series of points by asking six questions. Please help me out by providing your answers to the questions you ask.

  8. I actually wasn’t making a point. I was asking sincerely, what is outsourcing now? I don’t know what you mean by it since it seems to mean that we should not give “others” educational services for “our” kids.
    But I am not sure who “others” are anymore since multinationals with multiple HQs are sitting in the US and using programs, services, solutions from elswhere (to which they have bought the rights) and selling them to US schools. Does this make it “us selling to us” now?

    I don’t think that the same definitions apply as in the 1940s. I found your blog interesting, but I find it confusing at the same time. Especially given the example of Pearson given their incredible market share in direct core educational services in the US and the tutoring service that was conceived, designed, developed, and run from India, but now owned for the most part by Pearson.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for clarifying what you mean. Just to be clear, I did not mean nor imply that: “it seems to mean that we should not give “others” educational services for “our” kids.”

      Districts in the U.S. have always had a function of “outsourcing” certain services that either they could not provide or services that were of sufficient quality and less expensive when provided by other sources. From lunches to professional development, districts have depended upon others to provide services throughout the 20th century until the present.

      If a district chooses Pearson to provide “direct core educational services” whether district officials knew or did not know of the history of the tutoring service, those officials still have the obligation of determining that those services are more efficient and effective than were they provided by local teachers and staff. I believe your example shows the aggressive penetration of multinational firms into the core functions of teaching and learning, and yes, that would be different than the raft of other support services that districts have historically “outsourced.”

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