Challenging Corporate Ed Reform

And 10 Hopeful Signs of Resistance

By Stan Karp

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

This is a revised version of a speech given at the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference in Seattle, October 2011.

Corporate school reformers like to call themselves just “reformers” and counterpose themselves to the “status quo.” And there’s no doubt that the corporate/foundation crowd has successfully captured the media label as “education reformers.” If you support testing, charters, merit pay, the elimination of tenure and seniority, and control of school policy by corporate managers, you’re a “reformer.” If you support increased school funding, collective bargaining, less standardized testing, and control of school policy by educators, you’re a “defender of the status quo.”

This political branding has little to do with reality or the substance of the issues under debate. Like many others who oppose corporate school reform, I’ve spent years criticizing the flawed institutions and policies of public education as a teacher, an education activist, and a policy advocate. Rethinking Schools has been pressing for radical reform of public education and for student-centered, social justice education since we began 25 years ago.

But with debate about education policy now sharply politicized and polarized, there are added reasons to look beyond the rhetoric. Examining closely what the corporate education reform movement proposes and what it actually delivers can help expose where it is vulnerable to the most hopeful development of the last two years—the steady growth of a deep, broad, and at times quite militant pushback against the corporate reform agenda.

Corporate education reform includes a specific set of policy proposals currently driving education policy at the state and federal levels. 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, often tied to the firing of 5 to 10 percent of the teaching staff.

implementation of common core standards and adoption of “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 rely heavily on the testing regime that is the main engine of corporate reform. Under NCLB, standardized tests were used to narrow curricula and promote increased scripting of classroom practice. Now, they are being used to drill down 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, turnarounds), test-based sanctions are increasingly targeted at teachers (e.g., merit pay, test-based evaluation, wholesale staff firings). 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.

Standardized tests, which have been disguising class and race privilege as merit for decades, have 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. These deeply flawed tests have become the primary policy instruments used to shrink public space, impose sanctions on teachers, and close or punish schools. If the corporate reformers have their way, their schemes to evaluate teachers and the schools of education they came from with another generation of tests based on the “common core” standards will dramatically expand the testing plague unleashed by NCLB.

Beyond changing the way schools and classrooms function daily, the larger goals of corporate reform are reflected in the attacks on collective bargaining and teachers’ 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 ‘Reform’ Track Record

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 chose the wrong targets. 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 education.

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, when lower-income communities have experienced economic growth, or when significant new investments in school funding have occurred, often in response to grassroots campaigns for civil rights and social justice.

Teachers overwhelmingly 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.

The corporate reform plans now being put forward do nothing to reduce the concentrations of 70, 80, and even 90 percent of families living in 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 upheaval 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 waiver bailout for NCLB announced last fall by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will actually ratchet up that pressure. Although the waivers roll back NCLB’s absurd adequate yearly progress system just as it was about to self-destruct, the new guidelines require states that receive waivers to identify up to 5 percent of their schools with the lowest scores for destabilizing “turnaround” interventions, charterization, or closing.

Teacher Evaluation as a Weapon

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 social policies that are failing both our schools and 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 reform policies have done successfully is bring the anti-labor politics of class warfare to public schools. By demonizing teachers and unions, and sharply polarizing the education debate, corporate reform has actually 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, take the issue of teacher evaluation, which the corporate reformers have made a top priority in almost every state. On the surface, 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 need for:

better preparation and evaluation before new teachers get tenure (or leave the profession, as 50 percent do within five 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 or nontenured.

Good models for each of these ideas exist, many with strong teachers’ union support. (See, for example, this description of the Montgomery County, Md., professional growth system)

But corporate reformers have detached the issue of improving teacher quality from the conditions that produce it. Instead, they 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 deforming 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 giving 1st 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, an updated version of industrial-era management by stopwatch-wielding efficiency experts, now with computerized clipboards. It’s what happens when people who have never taught in classrooms control them.

One of the favorite—and most dishonest—framings of the corporate crowd is counterposing the interests of “adults” vs. “the children.” This rhetoric self-righteously pits the interests of teachers and their unions against those of children. 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 the corporate reformers never question the motives of adults like the hedge fund privateers, consultants, private foundation officers, pundits, and politicians who are suddenly the champions of the poor. Only in a 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. New York City union activist Leo Casey noted that, of the top 10 names on Forbes’ list of the richest Americans, only one “is not engaged in active political warfare against public school teachers and teacher unions.” The rest are investing their fabulous wealth in campaigns for vouchers, charter school franchises, astroturf political groups like Michelle Rhee’s self-promoting Students First, and efforts to reduce salaries, benefits, and job security for teachers.

Inescapable Realities

Two things have been painfully clear throughout this sustained attack on public education. One is that deep racial and class inequality remains the Achilles’ heel of public education. This inequality is the entry point that allows the corporate reform virus to enter and attack the entire system. Two, the assault on the public education system has been immeasurably strengthened and legitimized by the Obama/Duncan administration. Anyone who has followed the development of NCLB and corporate education reform knows it has always been a bipartisan project. The support that the Obama administration has given to corporate reform has been a major factor in its ascendancy. As New Jersey’s own corporate reform bully, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, said: “Secretary Duncan and I have a lot of common views and interests on the school reform agenda. What he and the president are doing is making possible the kind of reforms that are happening in New Jersey, that are happening in other states.”

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 and a misleading narrative of failure to introduce market reform into public education.

But because they’ve also promised results and choices they cannot deliver, we can 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 that absence of evidence to press for the 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.

Hopeful Signs of Resistance

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. Test-based reform, which is now the status quo in public education and has been for some time, 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.

That’s why, despite the backing of the 1 percent, corporate ed reform is running into increasing opposition from the rest of us. So let me end by offering a quick survey of 10 hopeful, tangible signs of growing resistance to the corporate reform agenda. These are promising efforts to build on as we work to turn the race over the cliff into a fight for a better, more democratic future. In no particular order:

Parents Across America has linked experienced parent activists in Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Florida, and elsewhere into a growing parent voice for better education policies and programs. The landscape is different in every city, but there is no more crucial work than mobilizing parents and building an alliance with teachers to defend and improve public education. Even a small group of activist parents can have a big influence on local reform debates if they join with educators, community leaders, and others. If you haven’t connected to PAA already, do it (

The outpouring of critical response to the pro-charter propaganda film Waiting for “Superman” 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 New York City, the Grassroots Education Movement produced The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, a documentary response to the film that’s served as a rallying point for organizing and discussion across the country (

Renewed teachers’ union activism. The two national teachers’ unions, the AFT and 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 pressure includes 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 education. 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.

The heroic Wisconsin rebellion. Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on public education and basic workers’ rights sparked months of sustained large-scale protests and broad-based organizing in the winter of 2011. Less than a year later, nearly 2 million Wisconsin voters signed petitions to recall Walker and his closest legislative allies. The next step is a successful recall election that would send a national message about the power of organized labor in alliance with a mobilized citizenry to defend democracy.

The defeat of SB 5 an anti-labor bill in Ohio that was overwhelmingly repealed by a 61-39 percent vote last November. Led by the teachers’ and other unions, Ohio voters turned back the massively well-funded campaign of Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the right-wing billionaire Koch Brothers. Like Wisconsin, Ohio showed that, effectively mobilized, people power can defeat big money and win significant political victories.

A growing national movement 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. United Opt Out National is organizing four days of actions to “Occupy DOE” in Washington, D.C., March 30–April 2 .

The growth of locally based teacher activist groups. There are now active teachers for social justice groups in Chicago, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Portland, New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Atlanta, Boston, and other cities. In some places there are multiple groups working together. The Education for Liberation Network (—and the Free Minds, Free People conference ( it organizes—is a network of educators, youth, and community activists, led by people of color, doing great work on the school-to-prison pipeline, youth organizing, and other social justice and education issues. If there’s a teacher activist group in your town, join it. If not, start one ( or email Contact Me).

Last July’sSave Our Schools march and conference reflected both the growth and the as-yet-unfulfilled potential of a broad, united national teachers voice in defense of public education and the teaching profession. The media offensive around Waiting for Superman and the state-by-state battles across the country convinced many that a national mobilization was sorely needed. The SOS project, which made savvy use of social media, reflected the growth of a strong counter-narrative to corporate reform. This has included the emergence of Diane Ravitch as a prominent critic of the corporate reform agenda, and the readiness of well-known, respected advocates for public education to throw their support behind the SOS effort, including Jonathan Kozol, Linda Darling-Hammond, Pedro Noguera, Angela Valenzuela, Nancy-Carlsson Paige, Matt Damon, and others. The event had an impact far beyond the 8,000 people who turned out for the rally. While SOS works to harvest what it started and sustain a national effort, local and state groups are building on the grassroots energy that SOS helped set in motion. See for the latest plans.

Occupy Wall Street.Hundreds of Occupy movements across the country gave voice to the simmering outrage over the deep social and economic inequality that surrounds our schools, threatens the planet, and makes real democracy impossible. It also reminded us what it will take to change the policies and institutions that create this inequality: massive popular mobilization, grassroots organizing, and truth-telling in all its old and new forms. The lasting lessons of the Occupy movement for education activists are that we must carry its democratic spirit into our schools, classrooms, and communities; and that any effort to reclaim our schools must be tied to broader efforts to fight for social justice.

Rethinking Schools has survived to celebrate our 25th anniversary this year as a grassroots voice for activist educators. In the past year, Rethinking Schoolshas been part of efforts to push coal company curriculum out of our lesson plans, defend the hard-won ethnic studies program in Tucson, Ariz., provide tools to fight against standardized testing, teach about the Occupy movement, and build the pushback against corporate reform.

Rethinking Schools has always sought to connect efforts to create classrooms that are places of hope and humanity with larger struggles for racial and social justice. Never has it been more important to fight on both fronts.

Stan Karp (Contact Me) is a Rethinking Schools editor.