Challenging Corporate School Reform and 10 Hopeful Signs of Resistance

On Oct. 1, 650 people attended the 4th annual Northwest Teachers for Social Justice conference in Seattle.  Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp gave a well-received talk on “Challenging Corporate Ed Reform.” He ended on an uplifting note with ” 10 hopeful, tangible signs of organizing resistance and alternatives to the corporate reform agenda.”    The following is an excerpt from that presentation.  

You can read the entire speech here, or better yet, watch it:

Speech excerpt:

“Corporate education reform” refers to a specific set of policy proposals currently driving education policy at the state and federal level.  These proposals include:

  • increased test-based evaluation of students, teachers, and schools of education.
  • elimination or weakening of tenure and seniority rights.
  • an end to pay for experience or advanced degrees.
  • closing schools deemed low performing and their replacement by publicly funded, but privately run charters.
  • replacing  governance by local school boards with various forms of mayoral and state takeover or private management.
  • vouchers and tax credit subsidies for private school tuition.
  • increases in class size, sometimes tied to the firing of 5-10% of the teaching staff.
  • implementation of common core standards and something called “college and career readiness” as a standard for high school graduation.

These proposals are being promoted by reams of foundation reports, well-funded think tanks, a proliferation of astroturf political groups, and canned legislation from the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC).

Together these strategies use the testing regime that is the main engine of corporate reform to extend the narrow standardization of curricula and scripted classroom practice that we’ve seen under NCLB, 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.  Where NCLB used test scores to impose sanctions on schools and sometimes students (e.g., grade retention, diploma denial), test-based sanctions are increasingly targeted at teachers.

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.

The same corporate elites and politicians who accept no accountability for having created the most unequal distribution of wealth in the history of the planet—and an economy that threatens the health and well-being of hundreds of millions—want to hold teachers accountable for their students’ test scores.  They even want to use similar instruments to do it.

Standardized tests have been disguising class and race privilege as merit for decades. They’ve become the credit default swaps of the education world.  Few people understand how either really works.  Both encourage a focus on short-term gains over long-term goals.  And both drive bad behavior on the part of those in charge.  Yet these deeply flawed tests have become the primary policy instruments used to shrink public space, impose sanctions on teachers and close or punish schools. And if the corporate reformers have their way, their schemes to evaluate teachers and the schools of education they came from on the basis of yet another new generation of standardized tests, it will make the testing plague unleashed by NCLB pale by comparison.

Let’s look for a minute at what corporate reformers have actually achieved when it comes to addressing the real problems of public education:

First, they over-reached and chose the wrong target.  They didn’t go after funding inequity, poverty, reform faddism, consultant profiteering, massive teacher turnover, politicized bureaucratic management, or the overuse and misuse of testing.

Instead, they went after collective bargaining, teacher tenure, and seniority.  And they went after the universal public and democratic character of public schools.

Look again at the proposals the corporate reformers have made prominent features of school reform efforts in every state: rapid expansion of charters, closing low performing schools, more testing, elimination of tenure and seniority for teachers, and test-based teacher evaluation.  If every one of these policies were fully implemented in every state tomorrow, it would do absolutely nothing to close academic achievement gaps, increase high school graduation rates, or expand access to college.  There is no evidence tying any of these proposals to better outcomes for large numbers of kids over time.  The greatest gains in reducing gaps in achievement and opportunity have been made during periods when concentrated poverty has been dispersed through efforts at integration, or during economic growth for the black middle class and other communities, or where significant new investments in school funding have occurred.

Or take the issue of poverty.  Most teachers agree that poverty is no excuse for lousy schooling; much of our work is about proving that the potential of our students and communities can be fulfilled when their needs are met and the reality of their lives is reflected in our schools and classrooms.  But in the current reform debates, saying poverty isn’t an excuse has become an excuse for ignoring poverty.

Corporate reform plans being put forward do nothing to reduce the concentrations of 70/80/90% poverty that remain the central problem in urban education.  Instead, educational inequality has become the entry point for disruptive reform that increases instability throughout the system and creates new forms of collateral damage in our most vulnerable communities.

The “disruptive reform” that corporate reformers claim is necessary to shake up the status quo is increasing pressure on 5,000 schools serving the poorest communities at a time of unprecedented economic crisis and budget cutting.  The latest waiver bailout for NCLB announced recently by Sec. Duncan would actually ratchet up that pressure.  While it rolls back NCLB’s absurd adequate yearly progress system just as it was about to self-destruct, the new guidelines require states that apply for waivers to identify up to 15% of their schools with the lowest scores for unproven “turnaround” interventions, “charterization,” or closing.

Teachers and schools, who in many cases are day to day the strongest advocates and most stable support system struggling youth have, are instead being scapegoated for a society that is failing our children.  At the same time, corporate reformers are giving parents triggers to blow up the schools they have, but little say and no guarantees about what will replace them.

The only thing corporate ed reform policies have done successfully is bring the anti-labor politics of class warfare to public schools. By overreaching, demonizing teachers and unions, and sharply polarizing the education debate, corporate reform has undermined serious efforts to improve schools.  It’s narrowed the common ground and eroded the broad public support a universal system of public education needs to survive.

For example, there is actually a lot of common ground on the need to improve teacher support and evaluation.  There’s widespread agreement among educators, parents, and administrators on the following suggestions for improvement:

  • better preparation and evaluation before new teachers get tenure (or leave the profession, as 50% do within 5 years).
  • reasonable, timely procedures for resolving tenure hearings when they are initiated.
  • a credible intervention process to remediate and if necessary remove ineffective teachers, tenured and non-tenured.

Good models for each of these ideas exist, many with strong teacher union support, but overreaching by corporate reformers has detached the issue of teacher quality from the conditions that produce it.  Their experiments are staffing our most challenging schools with novices or Teach for America temps on their way to other careers.  Corporate reform plans are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into data systems and tests designed to replace collaborative professional culture and experienced instructional leadership with a kind of psychometric astrology.  These data-driven formulas lack both statistical credibility and a basic understanding of the human motivations and relationships that make good schooling possible.  Instead of “elevating the profession,” corporate reform is downsizing and micromanaging it.

Right now, my home state of New Jersey is getting ready to implement a so-called “growth model” developed in Colorado, where they are now giving first graders multiple choice questions about Picasso paintings and using the results to decide the compensation level and job security of teachers.

This is not “accountability.”  It’s a high-tech form of Taylorism, industrial era management-by-stop-watch-and-efficiency-expert-with-a-now-computerized clipboard.  It’s what happens when people who’ve never taught in classrooms organize/control them.

One of the most dishonest framings that’s become a favorite of the corporate crowd is to counterpose the interests of “adults” vs. the “children.”  This rhetoric righteously pits the interests of teachers and their unions against those of children, and there are certainly times when those interests diverge and when teachers’ unions have not defended the interests of the families and communities we serve.  But this same rhetoric never questions the adult motives of the hedge fund privateers, consultants, private foundations, pundits, or politicians who are suddenly the champions of the poor.  Only in the US corporate media culture could a campaign of billionaires to privatize and dismantle what’s probably the most inclusive democratic institution we have left be dressed up as a selfless campaign for civil rights.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the corporate reform movement is the way it has attached its agenda to the urgent needs of poor communities of color who have been badly served by the current system.  The corporate reformers have successfully used deeply rooted inequalities in our society to construct a misleading narrative of failure and introduce market reform into public education.  But because they’ve also overreached and promised results and choices they cannot deliver, we need to turn their accountability rhetoric back on them.  We need to demand evidence that their market reform policies produce better outcomes for the majority of kids, and when they can’t, we need to use the absence of that evidence to press for the limitation or reversal of the “disruptive reforms” they seek.  And when their policies fail in one place, we need to share those results in their next target.

It’s important to remember that corporate reform rests on fundamentally false premises.  Corporate reformers do not represent the interests of poor communities of color or, for that matter, working or middle class communities.  And test-based reform, which is now the status quo in public education and has been for sometime, has been a colossal failure on its own test-score terms.

And because reality still counts—despite the bizarre Wizard of Oz-like character of our media and political systems—corporate reform rests on a very weak foundation of false claims and failed policies.  For all its deep pockets and political influence, it’s a movement that has absolutely no way to deliver on its promises of better education for all, and particularly for our poorest and most vulnerable schools and communities.

So let me end by offering a quick survey of 10 hopeful, tangible signs of organizing resistance and alternatives to the corporate reform agenda.  In no particular order:

  1. I’ve already mentioned Parents Across America which has linked experienced parent activists from Seattle to Chicago to New Orleans to New York, Florida and elsewhere into a growing parent voice for better policies. The landscape is different is every city, but there is no more crucial work than building an alliance between parents and teachers to defend and improve public education. Even a small group of activists representing teachers, parents, and progressive academics can have a big influence on local reform debates if they work together. If you haven’t connected to PAA already, do it.
  2. The outpouring of critical response to Waiting for Superman last fall was when a lot of teachers discovered they were not alone. Rethinking Schools’ NOT Waiting for Superman campaign drew tens of thousands of supportive responses and has created an archive of information and resources for countering corporate reform that’s still growing. In NYC, the GEM produced a documentary response to the film entitled The Inconvenient Truths Behind Waiting for Superman that’s served as a rallying point for organizing and discussion across the country.
  3. The two large teacher unions, the AFT & the NEA, have had mostly weak and defensive responses to the policy attacks of the past few years. But they are being pressed by both their members and by reality to develop more effective responses. This includes on the ground efforts at reform and the election of activist teacher leaders like Karen Lewis in Chicago and Bob Peterson in Milwaukee. Years of failing to effectively mobilize their membership or develop effective responses to school failure in poor communities have taken a big toll on the ability of our unions to lead the charge in defending public ed. But their role remains crucial and activists have begun to rebuild that power on the basis of new politics and new coalitions with the communities schools serve.
  4. The heroic Wisconsin rebellion. More than a month of sustained large scale protests and organizing that’s still targeting a recall effort for Gov. Scott Walker. Check out One for the latest.
  5. In Ohio, outrage over another antilabor bill, SB#5 helped over generate 1.3 million signatures to put a referendum on the ballot and the measure may be repealed this November by popular vote.
  6. There’s a growing national movement  of parents and students to opt out of standardized testing. This effort has the potential to mobilize large numbers of parents and students in the fight against the testing plague. Check out or Testing is Not Teaching.
  7. The growth of locally-based teacher activist groups. There are now active Teachers for Social Justice groups with various names in Chicago, SF, Milwaukee, Portland, NYC (where there are multiple groups), St. Louis, Atlanta, and NJ to name just the ones I can remember. If there’s one in your town, join it. If not start one.
  8. Education for Liberation is a national network of educators, youth and community activists, led by people of color, doing great work on school to prison pipeline, youth organizing, and other social justice issues. Their conference in Providence this summer was probably the biggest and most dynamic yet.
  9. The Save Our Schools march and conference last July reflected both the growth and the as yet unfulfilled potential of a national teachers voice in defense of public education and the teaching profession. Interestingly, the SOS project did not begin with radical political activists, but with impeccably well-credentialed national board certified teachers, who attempted to engage the Obama administration to discuss it’s education policies and who were stunned by the arrogance and ignorance of the response. A project that began with Anthony Cody’s Teachers Letters to Obama found itself pushed by the aggressive acceleration of corporate reform into a more political and activist response. The media offensive of last fall around WfS and the state by state battles last winter and Spring convinced many that a national mobilization was sorely needed. The well-credentialed, experienced teachers at the center of the project were able to attract a significant number of well-known, respected advocates for public education who threw their support behind the effort, including Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Linda Darling-Hammond, Pedro Noguera, Angela Valenzuela, Nancy-Carlsson Paige and others. Actor Matt Damon added media visibility and celebrity star power and Parents Across America broadened the project’s base and outreach, as did savvy use of social media.  The event had an impact far beyond the 8000 people who turned out for the rally, and while it remains to be seen whether SOS will be able to harvest what it started and sustain a national network, local and state groups are building on the grassroots energy that SOS helped set in motion.
  10. And finally there’s my own home base Rethinking Schools, which has somewhat miraculously survived to this year celebrate its 25th anniversary as a voice for activist educators. Rethinking Schools has always tried to connect efforts to create classrooms that are places of hope and humanity with larger struggles for racial and social justice. It made me a better teacher in the classroom and a better activist outside it. I don’t think it’s ever been more important to fight on both fronts and I thank you for letting me be part of that effort today.

This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.