McDonald’s is having problems. Sales have been slumping for two years and they are approaching saturation levels for franchises with an average 4.6 McDonald’s per U.S. county so expansion is not going to save the ubiquitous franchise.

Wait, you say, I thought we were going to talk about ESEA. Why are you opening with comments about how poorly McDonald’s is doing? What does that have to do with public education and federal funding of public education? Let me explain.

McDonalds’ was feeling the pinch of niche competitors, chains like Five Guys and Chipotle Grill. They were losing customers to businesses that offered things that were not on McDonald’s menus. The solution was to expand McDonald’s menu, adding more breakfast items, wraps, smoothies and now a coffee bar.  Their menu went from 75 items seven years ago, to over 145 in 2013. But in trying to be everything to every one, they started failing at their original mission which was, as anyone who has gone through Ray Kroc training as I did many years ago knows, to serve consistently good food fast, at a cost the family can afford in a clean environment.

The problem of menu bloat means a slowing of service. It provides greater opportunity to vary the quality of the item produced because the preparers don’t make each item as often, or they are forced to use equipment maximized for the preparation of other food to prepare the new item. It also means a rise in prices as you invest in new equipment to make the new products,  begin to lose economies of scale and provide products which just cost more to make.  McDonald’s is getting far afield of their original purpose for being and it is causing them real problems.

The original purpose of ESEA was to provide supplemental support to local schools who served the neediest students and who would benefit most from a little extra money to provide the extra services that those students needed. With the introduction of NCLB (courtesy of George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy) the mission of ESEA changed from supplying direct federal aid to poorer districts, to punishment and sanctions and the conversion of all schools into test-prep factories aimed at supplying the workforce. The latest attempts at an ESEA rewrite seemed to continue the expansion of the menu with calls for district plans, oversight boards, teacher prep program requirements and ratings, more testing in every single grade.

All the problems McDonald’s is having have been creeping in to our public education system as well.

It is getting slower as teachers must take time to collect data and report on their progress instead of teaching their students. They had to be retrained to grade according to a rubric which, while offering consistency, often tells less about a student’s abilities in its attempt to provide uniformity of practice. The uniformity is necessary to be able to fill in the fields in the SLDS. Principals and administrators now must observe each teacher between 7-10 times per year as part of the teacher evaluation program and each observation has a whole check list of specifics to look for that may or may not lead to better instruction like visual supports (translation – posters on the wall). This requirement can slow down the time it takes for principals to get to address problems as they struggle to keep up with the day to day duties now.

It is getting more expensive as schools must hire an array of administrative staff to: collect and enter data into the SLDS, review federal guidelines from numerous departments (e.g. USDA Smart Snack) to ensure district compliance, handle the increased paperwork required from the state and feds. Administrators are being asked to sign pledges to purchase and use more technology in the school system. Not only does that add capital costs, but proper use of technology should also be accompanied by training of personnel to use it to achieve maximum  benefit. In addition, the need for ancillary services to meet requirements of other federal legislation like IDEA and the McKinney Vinto Act means hiring staff with training beyond that of classroom instruction like counselors, social workers, medical personnel.

It is helping its targeted customer less as it tries to be everything to everybody: special needs (not only physical but cognitive as well,) ELL, gifted, technical/trade prep, college prep, etc. And they are attempting to guarantee 100% satisfaction with the product even after the customer leaves the store where environmental conditions beyond the school’s control  can greatly affect the product quality. Title I money is frequently used to supplement other programs that schools are required to implement rather than going to providing highly qualified teachers specifically for the neediest students.

General Motors faced this problem and ended up selling off its Saturn and Pontiac divisions as part of a plan to get back to the original mission. McDonald’s is looking to simplify its menu and evaluate its promotions (e.g. McRib) to keep only the most effective ones. The same sort of analysis needs to be done on public education and ESEA.

The newest version of the ESEA, now called the Every Child Achieves Act by the Senate, is trying to get a grip on the menu, but still can’t seem to resist the urge to offer a wide variety of compliance measures. Their bill is 400 pages long.  This is from Sen. Lamar Alexander’s website describing that the bill does.

What the Every Child Achieves Act does:

  • Strengthens state and local control: The bill recognizes that states, working with school districts, teachers, and others, have the responsibility for creating accountability systems to ensure all students are learning and prepared for success. These accountability systems will be state-designed but must meet minimum federal parameters, including ensuring all students and subgroups of students are included in the accountability system, disaggregating student achievement data, and establishing challenging academic standards for all students. The federal government is prohibited from determining or approving state standards.
  • Maintains important information for parents, teachers, and communities: The bill maintains the federally required two tests in reading and math per child per year in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, as well as science tests given three times between grades 3 and 12. These important measures of student achievement ensure that parents know how their children are performing and help teachers support students who are struggling to meet state standards. A pilot program will allow states additional flexibility to experiment with innovative assessment systems within states. The bill also maintains annual reporting of disaggregated data of groups of children, which provides valuable information about whether all students are achieving, including low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners.
  • Ends federal test-based accountability: The bill ends the federal test-based accountability system of No Child Left Behind, restoring to states the responsibility for determining how to use federally required tests for accountability purposes. States must include these tests in their accountability systems, but will be able to determine the weight of those tests in their systems. States will also be required to include graduation rates, a measure of postsecondary and workforce readiness, English proficiency for English learners. States will also be permitted to include other measures of student and school performance in their accountability systems in order to provide teachers, parents, and other stakeholders with a more accurate determination of school performance.
  • Maintains important protections for federal taxpayer dollars: The bill maintains important fiscal protections of federal dollars, including maintenance of effort requirements, which help ensure that federal dollars supplement state and local education dollars, with additional flexibility for school districts in meeting those requirements.
  • Helps states fix the lowest-performing schools: The bill includes federal grants to states and school districts to help improve low performing schools that are identified by the state accountability systems. School districts will be responsible for designing evidence-based interventions for low performing schools, with technical assistance from the states, and the federal government is prohibited from mandating, prescribing, or defining the specific steps school districts and states must take to improve those schools.

The Network For Public Education had a list of recommendations for Congress to consider in its attempt to revamp ESEA. You will see that most of them are an attempt to get ESEA and the federal government back to its original mission of providing supplemental support for education of the neediest students.

Restore the original purpose of the ESEA

  • equity for poor children and the schools they attend
  • schools need more money for smaller classes, social workers, nurses, and librarians, not more testing.

Designate federal aid for reducing class size, for intensive tutoring by certified teachers and for other interventions that are known to be effective

  • Do not allow portability of Title I funds
  • Do not allow a reduction in the use of Title II funds for class size reduction

Keep highly trained well-prepared teachers in the classroom

  • Elevate the status of the teaching profession
  • Do not use student test scores to reward or punish teachers

Eliminate the testing and accountability portions of the law and leave decisions about when and how often to test to states and districts

  • Testing every child every year in grades 3-8 and 11 is an enormous waste of money and instructional time
  • No high performing nation tests every child every year
  • Teachers should write their own tests; they know what they taught and what their students should have learned
  • Use normed standardized tests only for diagnostic purposes, to help students

Rely on the federal testing program – the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – to provide an audit of every state’s progress.

  • NAEP data are disaggregated by race, gender, ethnicity, language and disability status
  • NAEP tracks achievement gaps between blacks and whites and Hispanics and whites
  • NAEP Tests samples of students, and tells us whatever we need to know


Will we be stuck with menu bloat or can we get back to a streamlined efficient cost controlled system that addresses the needs of a particular customer base?  Given that Congress bailed out companies who didn’t manage this process well themselves, because they believed the large existing network of franchises was “too big to fail,” I am skeptical that they will be any better at trimming the requirements for the giant public school system. However, with lots of public voices reminding them from the trenches that the service is too slow and is becoming too expensive for the average family, maybe we can have some effect.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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