Gary Rubinstein was in Teach for America. In his words: “I’m a Houston 1991 alum …. Despite writing two books and teaching for thirteen of the past nineteen years, I’m mostly ignored by TFA though I have a lot of ‘suggestions’ for how they can improve.” This post appeared June 7, 2012.
He writes about “corporate reformers,” a favorite phrase used by many who oppose the current “no excuses” agenda of test-based accountability, charter schools, Common Core standards, and using test scores to evaluate and pay teachers. My view differs but I do like what Rubinstein has to say.
When arguing against the corporate reform movement, it is natural to try to figure out what their motivation is. They SAY that they are doing it for ‘the children,’ but sometimes it is hard to believe. If they really cared about the children, why would they insist on implementing reforms that have never worked, even on a small scale? It is hard to fathom.
The education world today is separated into two camps: 1) The corporate reformers and 2) Those who think the corporate reforms will make education worse. I, of course, belong to the second group. The corporate reformers always like to have a unified front. They decide that teacher evaluations should be public and they are all behind it. Then Bill Gates suddenly says they shouldn’t be public, and then they all say that. But within the side I’m on, we do not always agree on everything. We are willing to explore different ideas, with hopes that a discourse will lead to the the best ideas.
One such idea that I waver on is the motives of the reformers. A common criticism held by many of us, is that one goal of the reformers is to privatize education so they can profit off the huge amount of taxpayer money that goes toward education each year. As this movement is funded by some of the richest people in the country, some of them ‘anti-union’, this is certainly a position worth considering. The premise is, then, that the reformers know that the reforms are unlikely to raise achievement, but they have hatched an evil plan to profit off education and break the unions. I think, though, that this is giving the intelligence of the reformers too much respect.
I do agree that the result of all these reforms will lead to a privatization which will profit certain people who are aligned with the reformers, but I don’t think this is consciously, at least, their ‘plan.’
There is a phenomenon in nature known as ‘emergent behavior.’ What this means, basically, is that a group can accomplish something while the individuals in the group were not aware of this. A classic example is the way birds ‘flock.’ The birds are not trying to fly in a ‘V’ pattern with one of them as the leader. Instead, the individual birds are operating at a very simplistic level, following a few very simple rules.
I think, and perhaps I am being too generous here, that the reformers are like this. They are not evil, nor are they geniuses, rather they are good natured simpletons. (Maybe you think this is more of an insult than evil geniuses, but I see it as giving them the benefit of the doubt.) They think they know how to fix the schools. They are influenced, however, by people who would profit from the privatization of the education system. So while the key players really don’t need to spend their time on education — the time they spend on it, they could spend making more money doing whatever it is they do to make all their money — they do it because they believe they are ‘giving back’ to society.
I see this same kind of emergent behavior in Teach For America. The individual staff members, all the way up to Wendy, are good people who truly want to improve the schools. In my 20 years as a ‘member,’ I’ve had all kinds of in person or phone meetings with many of the higher ups. They are always so positive and seem to validate my concerns.
Even the poster child of the corporate reformers, Michelle Rhee, has been pretty nice to me over the years. We worked together in the 1996 institute. I email her from time to time with questions and concerns and she gets back to me almost immediately. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire her time management skills. I think she thinks her organization is rescuing students from incompetent teachers.
Though privatization isn’t their official ‘goal,’ if it turns out to be the best way to help kids, at least in the corporate reformer’s estimation, then it would be a necessary side effect. It isn’t their goal, but it gets accomplished anyway. Like flocking birds or termites making a wood pile, they are just following their instincts, not realizing that they are participating in an emergent behavior that will accomplish the opposite of what they are trying to achieve.