Thinking about “Corporate Reform”: Reflections on Language

Critics of the contemporary school reform agenda of test-based accountability, evaluating and paying teachers on the basis of test scores, more charter schools, and Common Core Standards point to the stakeholders in the civic, philanthropic, and business led coalition (e.g., Walton, Gates, and Broad foundations, hedge fund managers, mayors who have taken over city schools, testing companies) that have linked education and the economy since the 1980s. These critics argue that this reform agenda seeks to turn schools into market-driven organizations where consumer choice reigns and teaching and learning are commodities to be packaged and delivered. Critics call such policies “corporate school reform,” a phrase unintended as a compliment.

Examples of what critics say:

From veteran teacher and writer Stanley Karp:

“[T]he testing regime … is the main engine of corporate reform to extend the narrow standardization of curricula and scripted classroom practice that we’ve seen under No Child Left Behind, and to drill down even further into the fabric of schooling to transform the teaching profession and create a less experienced, less secure, less stable and less expensive professional staff….

A larger corporate reform goal, in addition to changing the way schools and classrooms function, is reflected in the attacks on collective bargaining and teacher unions and in the permanent crisis of school funding across the country.  These policies undermine public education and facilitate its replacement by a market-based system that would do for schooling what the market has done for health care, housing, and employment: produce fabulous profits and opportunities for a few and unequal outcomes and access for the many….”

From educational historian, blogger, and critic, Diane Ravitch:

“The corporate reformers have done a good job of persuading the media that our public schools are failing because they are overrun by bad teachers, and these bad teachers have lifetime tenure because of their powerful unions. “

I have tried to avoid such terms because, in my opinion, they imply  absolute certainty about reformers’ motives, smell of conspiratorial decision-making, and ignore the unvarnished embrace of market-driven capitalism and business practices that has swept across all U.S. institutions, including schools, in the past quarter-century.  I am allergic to such implications, smells, and neglect of what runs through the entire society. My allergy is based on the following points:

*While the current generation of civic and business leaders, donors, and elected federal officials–policy elites– believe in the crucial importance of schooling spurring economic growth and believe in market forces advancing equal opportunity and democracy, such similarities in beliefs do not a conspiracy make.

*Policy elites have varied, not uniform, motives (e.g., create competitive markets among schools, increase equal opportunity for poor and minority children and youth, expand parental choice, enlarge individual liberty). These varied and contradictory values make cabals difficult to sustain, much less take united action.

*Policy elites drawn from overlapping but distinct spheres of influence (e.g., CEOs, donors, elected officials, think tank writers, etc.) vary in their aims and strategies. They are seldom organized enough to maintain secrecy, control the flow of information, and follow through with decisions. But they can and do move in a certain direction even if at times they stumble.

*Policy elites are pragmatic decision-makers. Policies evolve out of practical decisions often made under political and economic conditions that require  action to advance an overall agenda (e.g., abandon small schools as a reform strategy and embrace pay-for-performance plans).

How do I know this? Much of this comes from direct but limited experience with policy elites and research. It is no secret that since the collapse of the Soviet Union market-based ideas have swept across U.S. institutions.  Ideas, language, and practices drawn from the private sector have seeped into  military planning and operations, government agencies, health care institutions, and churches. The notion that everything can be bought and sold is pervasive. School leaders are hardly alone in importing business practices, seeing education as a commodity, and adopting the vocabulary of markets.

I also have learned about policy elites and their variations from direct experience.

Once upon a time I was a dyed-in-the-wool school reformer in the Washington, D.C. schools in the 1960s. I met and worked with national and local policy elites of the day in developing new models for training teachers, creating curriculum for urban youth, and tying together community and schools. What struck me in the years I worked in schools and with these opinion-shapers were their intensely-held beliefs about reducing social inequalities and doing what was best for children and youth, internal struggles over both the ends and means, and constant tripping over one another in getting things done.

Then I became a district superintendent in the 1970s and early 1980s. As an educational decision-maker, the school board and I were determined to improve the district schools. As superintendent in the metropolitan Washington (D.C.) educational community, I attended many business and social meetings where I saw political policy elites make decisions. By this time the elite members I had known years earlier had been replaced by another generation. Again, I was a marginal player but I watched what transpired. Those two experiences in the Washington, D.C. area, left a strong impression on me about how smart, influential, and pragmatic individuals with similar beliefs converge and diverge as issues arise and evaporate.

Now, I am currently on the board of trustees, half of whom are entrepreneurs and high-tech executives in start-up companies, for a four-school charter school network in the San Francisco Bay area. They (I include myself) are clearly dedicated to the mission of getting 1500 low-income minority students into college. My colleagues on the board use their business experience to raise money, monitor budgets, find efficiencies, and expand innovations. Again, I am struck by the intensity of the beliefs, the mix of motives, and variation among these very smart and committed reformers.

I raise these points to make clear that I avoid such phrases as “corporate reformers” because they suggest far more coherence and concerted action than occurs in the real world of politics and policymaking.  I do understand how critics can see profit-driven conspiracies to destroy public schools in the words and actions of  well-heeled donors, federal officials, and test company executives who attack unions and praise the release of data on ineffective teachers. But my experiences and research see no conspiracies to destroy public schools or bash teachers but differences in political beliefs, values, and language over the direction public schools should take  in an ever-changing global economy, one in which business and government have been and are continually entangled in making decisions.

Consider vouchers. When political conservatives embraced government-paid vouchers for parents to use in choosing schools in the 1980s–they were initially proposed by political liberals decades earlier–each time they put vouchers on state and local ballots then and since, voters turned the measures down. Even with a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing vouchers to be used for religious schools (2002), there is little public support for them.

Because I see much variation within policy elites and a weak capacity to work closely together for long periods of time, I see much room for insurgent school reformers—teachers, administrators, academics, parents, and policymakers to chart different directions for school improvement. The  “Save Our Schools” movement of those opposed to current agenda of school reform, especially the dominance of standardized testing offer alternative ways of conceptualizing reform (an_education_manifesto-blog).

I also see that these “corporate reformers” have achieved some important and, to my way of thinking, worthwhile changes in the rhetoric and policy of school improvement. I take those changes up in Part 2.


Filed under Reforming schools

26 responses to “Thinking about “Corporate Reform”: Reflections on Language

  1. Pingback: Thinking about “Corporate Reform”: Reflections on Language by @LarryCuban | A New Society, a new education! |

  2. Pingback: Thinking about “Corporate Reform”: Reflections on Language by @LarryCuban « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  3. Mary Ann Reilly

    So is your point that one should not ascribe behaviors of some to all? Is that different from recognizing patterns? In speaking about language as you do in this post, I wonder with what language you can critique a charter school movement given your affiliation? Thinking about Habermas and the need for a metalanguage.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting. I like the suggestive questions you ask but wish you would elaborate to make the questions clearer.

  4. Iaviator

    I agree that a belief in free markets is being applied to every aspect of public policy but other than accelerating the gulf between the classes and looting and leveraging the public treasury, am not seeing much in the way of public benefit in education, health care or national defense. Maybe Part 2 will shed light…

  5. Sandy

    Hope your Part 2 elucidates your point – this post seems so far removed from your previous writings. I’m kinda feeling you’ve just gone over to the dark side.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Sandy,
      Skepticism is in my DNA. Ideological beliefs need examination. If you call that the “dark side,” so be it.

  6. I can absolutely concur with you Larry in your description of the pragmatic, generally civil way, the various elements and individuals all positively interested in school improvement interact. I would offer this additional point about the most vociferous critics of corporate school reform.

    One of the things I noticed when I moved from schooling to business was how differently I was treated by teachers when my work took me back into schools. There was an assumption that as a businessman, I not only knew nothing at all about education, but that in some “natural” way I was an opponent. I think this is a worrying characteristic of the teacher training industry, which I encountered when I worked with a lot of higher educational staff who had been teaching teachers for years, with Teach First. The message that teaching as a career is somehow a selfless, socially responsible choice, as opposed to the business world, which is a selfish, anti-social option, is almost endemic in the industry.

    Add that to the reality, that a lot of teachers have no ethical problem using their role as a political tool to influence children, and some of the vehemence showed by the anti-reformers becomes less opaque. Here are two prime examples from the UK. One of the key voices in the latter group just happens to be married to ex UK prime minister Tony Blair’s leading spin doctor. That sounds a little more like “the dark side” to me.

  7. Pingback: ‘corporate’ v. ‘neoliberal’ « Learning: Theory, Policy, Practice

  8. Pingback: Is There a Corporate School Reform Movement? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  9. Joanna Best

    Isn’t it also about the change in the work force that is teachers and the places that train them to be able to hold that title and position? Those two entities are changing and so the vernacular calls for change as well, but the change hasn’t settled out yet with language that is comfortable for everyone. I see that the colleges of education at many universities have possibly not kept up with the rapid changes of competition for who becomes a teacher. For example, those who graduate from top tier schools and study subjects other than education, but decide they want to be teachers find themselves back in school competing against folks they likely far exceeded in high school performance (a different breed of student, if you will). As more women graduate from top tier schools where they might not have been able to study several decades ago, they come out expecting jobs other than being teachers (as many women once became because the options were fewer), but because teaching is a respectable and captivating line of work many decide to pursue it anyway. So do they then go back to university programs that put them in a pool of students they have already far exceeded in academic performance so they can get the job training (because the selection for who entered the teacher training programs right after high school lacked the applicants who were headed to top tier schools to study subjects other than education) or do they use an alternative program (like the ones pushed by so-called reformers)? On the one hand I can see just humbling one’s self and going back (i.e. graduated from a top tier, very expensive school and then went back to a college of ed at a university one never would have considered the first time around because she (or he) felt it was not challenging enough). On the other hand you can understand not wanting to go through that expense on top of an already fine education. This is why programs like Teach for America appeal to graduates of top tier schools who did not study education as undergrads. There is a chasm between highly motivated students who study academic subjects other than education and then want to become teachers and those who sign up to study education to become a teacher right out of high school (or so it seems). The chasm might have more to do with expectations than reality, but it is obviously an issue. It’s kind of like the academically gifted among teachers–these are the ones pushing for some changes. And that feels like a slap in the face to those who have decided to go to colleges of ed as undergrads to become teachers (and who may very likely have been in the top of their class in high school). I get it. I get both sides. It has to do with expectations. What is the graduate of a top tier school who did not study education expecting to learn from a traditional teacher training program? Is it possible that there is a breadth of knowledge to be exposed to, if not depth? Or have the traditional colleges of education fallen behind? It seems to me that states should be considering what they can do to attract graduates of top tier schools to be teachers and work with them on staying in the field and also on recruiting these teachers themselves, rather than having a company (like Teach for America) do it for them, especially if traditional colleges of ed are not attracting them (that is, if the state finds it is a problem to have a company do it for them—and from much outcry around the country it seems like it is among the list of problems seen by those who do not consider themselves corporate reformers). I think Wendy Kopp (who graduated from a top tier school and then decided to be a teacher but did not want to go back to a traditional college of ed because of the timeliness of getting a job) has just created a company that fills a gap that the states were not tending to. So if it’s a problem for a state, then they need to create an environment to compete with it. All I know is educators allow for compacting, acceleration, testing out, modifications etc. in instruction for academically gifted students in public school K-12. But we seem to let that idea go as applied to teacher training once everyone is out trying to become teachers and have, up until the movement many call corporate reform, not really addressed it. Or maybe those who pursue an alternate path before teacher training are assuming they have nothing to learn from traditional education training programs when they do and that they have the wrong set of expectations–perhaps they could become the leaders within their training programs rather than circumventing them all together. But again, it comes down to spending more money to be educated as a teacher after you have just spent a lot of money to just become an educated person among high achieving students. The corporate reform movement is calling for states to address these questions in education and in teacher training and some are rushing to answers to quickly. I think it is a reflection of the growing pains of the profession of education and the change in flux for where women are going after high school. And that is what is going on for both sides of the equation. The profession has gone through growing pains before. It will be interesting to see the shape these growing pains lead to and the language that finally feels comfortable to most.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Joanna, for taking the time to wonder about the state of university-based teacher education as it has been and is challenged by alternative programs to becoming teachers like Teach for America. Although your comments did not go in the direction of claiming that TFA recruits are better than, equal to, or worse than graduates of university-based programs, I find such claims and counter-claims diversionary and unhelpful when it comes to figuring out how to attract, grow, and keep effective teachers in those schools where students face constant turnover among their classroom teachers.

      • Joanna Best

        Exactly. Student loan forgiveness would be a step in the right direction, I think. I think there’s a lot states could do to help retain good people by helping them with their student debt, particularly if they go to a top tier school (which tend to be expensive–i.e. after four years of teaching every year you serve the state in its public schools, the state grants you x% in loan reduction of your student loans). I am sending that idea to our representatives in Raleigh and hoping to help get involved in fostering that type thing. There are things that can be done for sure–teaching fellows programs; ties to local industry (companies sponsor the education of a teacher who will then teach in the public school of the area where the students of their employees attend school); creative reuse centers where the businesses of the community give useful excess (cardstock, elastic, things to use for the arts and sciences) that broaden the availability of resources to teachers so they dip into their own pockets less; recognition for achievement in other ways besides tests that are tied to pay checks. I think there are a lot of very different aspects that are going on in the conversation for school reform. Incentives for teacher retention is one area of focus that I like thinking about. And wondering about, as you say. 😉

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for taking time to comment, Joanna. Nice ideas.

  10. Pingback: Remainders: Rebutting the idea that “corporate reform” isn’t real | GothamSchools

  11. Michael Fiorillo

    Larry, it’s a big leap from using the term “corporate education reform” (which I would modify to “so-called school reform”) to maintaining that those who use the term are claiming a grand conspiracy. In fact, it’s a straw man argument that trivializes opposition to the hostile takeover of public education.

    What we have with so-called school reform is not a ruling class conspiracy, but a ruling class consensus that schools should be dominated by market forces, which is is informed by the worldview, habits of mind and interests of that class.

    I don’t doubt that the elites you’ve encountered honestly believe that what they propose is in the best interests of children (although there’s also plenty of evidence of straight-out power grabbing and looting taking place), but the inarguable fact that their policies coincide almost 100% with their economic interests makes their claims of altruism transact at a very high discount.

  12. What we have is a capitalist reform movement. We don’t like to use the word “capitalist” because it smacks of Marxism, something we have never known well in America.

    The idea that mentioning the “corporate reform agenda” suggests a conspiracy is a sort of straw man. The term is short-hand. It has its shortcomings, but that’s what we’ve got.

  13. Pingback: ‘Corporate reformers’ are public school allies — Joanne Jacobs

  14. Hello Professor Cuban!! I hope you are well! This is such a thoughtful piece (thanks to Ken Libby bringing my attention to it). I wrote something on this issue recently on my blog: Seems like everyone wants to polarize the debates/issues for simplicity’s sake; it’s not helpful.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Kelly,
      So nice to hear from you and read your post on “school reformers” and Finland. Thanks for commenting and doing your recent film.

  15. Pingback: Bill Gates Is Not The Devil. | The Line

  16. Pingback: empathyeducates – Monolith, Myopic, and Misery; Is There A “Corporate Education Reform” Movement?

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