I saw this cartoon and burst out laughing.
The cartoonist takes airline frequent flier practices that sort out passengers for best-to-worst seating and applied it to school busing. The New Yorker cartoonist’s pen gives satisfaction to critics of business-influenced school reform, by poking at the unrelenting “privatization” of public schooling over the past three decades.
Although no critic of such reforms that I have read or heard has suggested this practice, those who criticize the charter school movement, expanded parental choice, the standards/testing/accountability movement, and evaluating teachers using student test scores have pointed to hedge fund managers, philanthropists who made their money in business, corporate CEOs, Business Roundtable executives and Chambers of Commerce knee-deep in these initiatives. Critics see such support for these reforms as strong evidence of “privatization.”
Both critics and champions of these reforms, however, seldom mention the decades-long commercial penetration of schooling in everything from ads displayed on high school gymnasia and football fields, or curriculum materials supplied by corporations, or deals with soda companies in vending machines–and on and on. And don’t forget ads on school buses.
Researchers have documented the spread of this sort of business influence for decades. This nexus between commerce and public schooling has a long history and is not a recent phenomenon. As early as the 1890s, business leaders have lobbied for vocational education and succeeded in adding such courses of study to public schools. Since then, reformers have turned to using successful business practices in schools time and again (e.g., Malcolm Baldrige Quality Awards to schools).
“Educationalizing” national problems from racial segregation to national defense to economic growth has been a definite pattern in the history of school reform. But is the current instance business-minded reform tying schooling to economic prowess fading in U.S. public schools?
There are some signs that it is. With the slow-motion retreat from the punitive No Child Left Behind law in the U.S. Congress reauthorizing the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), increasing evidence that National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores have leveled off and even fallen, a growing “opt-out” movement of parents objecting to standardized tests, and increasing public awareness of non-school factors strongly influencing students’ academic performance, talk about “privatization” is slowly waning as policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and parents see that simple-minded applications of business “best practices” fail to deal with core issues in schooling U.S. children (see N-gram mentions of “privatization” peaking in 2003). And so has the failed adoption of business-inspired practices such as determining teacher effectiveness on the basis of student test scores.
Yet there are signs that counter such evidence of waning interest in business-inspired reforms. Charter school annual growth continues at a six percent rate; 43 states now allow charter schools (see here). In some urban districts, more than half of public school students attend charter schools (e.g., New Orleans, Detroit) and others are approaching that (e.g., Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Ohio). Widespread adoption of charter schools have left what appears to be a permanent footprint in U.S. schools.
Moreover, while growing popular resentment to testing is clearly in evidence, and the number of annual tests will probably decrease, ending annual standardized testing is not about to happen simply because quantitative school outcome measures are essential accountability tools in any $600-plus billion industry, public or private . And standardized test scores are an inexpensive way to measure school output, as top business leaders might say.
Signs and counter-signs, feathers in the wind, do not encourage certainty over whether these reforms are continuing to flow or ebb. While I am unsure whether business-inspired reform has passed its peak, unadorned enthusiasm for such changes has clearly diminished. So what’s on the horizon for the next school reform?
School reform has been cyclical—rising support for changes that conserve the best of current teacher-centered practices and restore confidence in authority giving way over time to rising support for ways to cultivate new knowledge and skills that prepare the “whole” student for an unknown future while releasing their individual potential–for well over a century. These cycles occur because public schools are political institutions highly vulnerable to national policymakers who “educationalize” social problems. Given that knowledge, I do see an emerging “progressive” coalition aimed at resurrecting the “whole child” as the target for school reform on the cusp of being ready for prime time. Growing clamor for installing “social-emotional” curriculum in schools, less testing, and more online instruction, “personalized” learning, and integrating technology into daily lessons suggest the outline of another effort to re-focus attention on more than test scores in judging school success.
The nature of political and popular school reform is that it occurs in fragmented, incremental steps often in a zig-zag and jagged, not linear, fashion. Then, after awhile, it is noticed, reported on, and becomes “real.” I believe that is what is occurring now.
The New Yorker cartoon is one of those feathers in the wind.