Business-inspired School Reform: Has the Wave Crested?

I saw this cartoon and burst out laughing.

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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.

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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.

 

 

13 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

13 responses to “Business-inspired School Reform: Has the Wave Crested?

  1. Ann Staley

    Yep. Pretty funny!

    Ann

    Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen. —Robert Bresson

  2. Pingback: Waves and fields in ed reform | bloghaunter

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for writing a commentary on this post on your blog, Brian. I think your explanation of the two forces that will constrain any re-emergence of a “progressive” coalition is helpful. I should have used word, “market,” as you have.

  3. As usual Thanks, Larry I remain curious however at why even YOU avoid mentioning Democracy as an issue for schools. It’s implicit in your argument but why do so many of my favorite educators avoid mentioning it explicitly It’s surely at risk most everywhere these days Deb

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    >

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Deb, it is implicit in my argument. Thanks for making the point that I should be more explicit, and yes, it is at more risk–less in schools, I believe, than in the larger society. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    We are in the midst of a curriculum-discussion ourselves in Belgium and I do wonder in what way this paragraph will be correct in our country: “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.”

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for blogging the post, Pedro. I do not know whether the U.S. with its cyclical reforms–which I can document–is like other nations. If I had another lifetime I would do cross-national studies to see whether the U.S. is exceptional or not. Have there been cycles of reform in Belgian education?

      • That’s a good question. The cycle of reforms is quite clearly present in the Netherlands imho, and also in Flanders I can see elements of the cycle, but more on the policy level than in the daily practice.

      • larrycuban

        The distinction between policy talk and policy implementation that you make is often forgotten by both advocates and antagonists of a national reform.

  5. Pingback: Business-inspired School Reform: Has the Wave C...

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