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.