Let’s Ditch the Phrase “Corporate Reform”

By Nick Kilstein

The further I get from my experience in Teach For America and the deeper I get into my career as an educator, the more oppositional I grow to the educational reform agenda – known in certain quarters as “corporate reform.” Follow my Twitter for a day and you will see me railing against teacher evaluations, merit pay schemes, the anti tenure lawsuits, no-excuses charter schools, the increasing influence of non-educators in education and standardized testing.

By any account, I am doing my best to fight the “corporate reform” agenda. Right now, though, I want to fight the term “corporate reformer.”

What is “corporate reform”?

In her book Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch, the educational historian and the de facto leader of the anti-reform movement uses the phrase “corporate reform” in the titles to three of the first four chapters. (Chapter 2: The Context for Corporate Reform; Chapter 3: Who are the Corporate Reformers?; Chapter 4: The Language of Corporate Reform).

Ravitch paints a unfairly monolithic picture of the education reform agenda, but she gets the basics right. Education reformers tend to:

  1. Support market forces including choice and competition as a mechanism to improve all schools. This is usually done through vouchers and charter schools.
  2. Support business practices including evaluation, promotion and merit pay to motivate and attract teachers
  3. Hold that teachers and schools should be accountable for student achievement, usually measured by standardized testing
  4. Support alternate paths to the classroom through programs like Teach For America
  5. Affiliate themselves with no-excuses charter schools

(Note: I accuse Ravitch of portraying an unfairly monolithic picture of reformers because I know progressive educators working in charter schools; I know opponents of testing who want to see tenure laws eased; etc.)

If I am portraying the education reform movement accurately – and I think I am – I will say this: I, like Ravitch, oppose this agenda. But, I disagree with her dishonest phraseology.

Ravitch goes on to say that:

the ‘reform’ movement is really a ‘corporate reform’ movement funded to a large degree by major foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and the U.S. Department of Education . . .

The corporate reform movement has its roots in an ideology that is antagonistic to public education. Partisans on the far right long ago turned against public schools, which they call “government schools.: As a matter of ideology, they do not believe that government can do anything right.” (pp. 19-20).

It doesn’t help to use a dishonest ad hominem when fighting education reform. When I was an education reformer myself, terms and attacks like that prevented me from listening to evidence – and since I believe the evidence is on our side, I think this is a problem.

The term “corporate reform” implies greed and selfishness. This is a problem for two reasons: (1) It’s wrong; (2) It prevents people from listening.

It’s Wrong

The term corporate reform is clearly intended to imply a profit motive. Reformers are greedy and they are in this for the big bucks. Walton, Gates, Broad, Pearson. All reformers are supposed to be lumped in with this lot.

I was a Teach For America corps member from 2010-2012 and then I spent a year on staff. During this time, I worked with some of the most authentic, caring, dedicated people I have ever met in education. Colleagues organized and held student empowerment summits; we worked insane hours; and the focus of our conversations were almost always on students and low-income communities. More to the point: none of us made that much money and we certainly weren’t in it for ourselves.

Go to a KIPP school and you’re going to find the same things. (You’ll probably find a lot of things wrong, but I’m doubtful you’ll find greed).

Similarly, you will find a lot of tried and true liberals in that camp. Immigration rights, gay rights, and the movement that has come since the killing of Mike Brown – you’ll find reformers out on the front lines of all these issues. Indeed, when I worked for TFA staff, Michelle Alexander’s the New Jim Crowe was required reading for all incoming corps members. This goes beyond social issues: I know many reformers who would happily vote for Bernie Sanders.

In Ravitch’s book – as well as in the work of anti-reformers – you will often see caveats that “many reformers are driven by good intentions.” But that caveat it not what is implied with the phrase corporate reform.

It’s Counterproductive:

One of the main reasons I started moving away from the education reform movement was because of its manipulation of evidence and its ad hominem attacks. Unions represented “adult interests”; schools are full of “bad apples”; and there was a need to put “students first.” Test scores were manipulated, cheating scandals ensued (and were defended or ignored), and charter schools were wrongly promoted as miracle schools. By implying that all education reformers have corporate interests, the anti-reform agenda is guilty of the same dishonesty.

When I was a reformer, I blocked out people like Ravitch. I blocked out the anti-TFA people. I blocked out the people who implied I wasn’t a real teacher. And I went back into the reform echo chamber. I was taken away from the evidence.

Who were these people to question my motives? I worked from 5AM until 9PM; I ran the high school wrestling program for free; I had forgo health care I needed because teachers in North Carolina weren’t being paid enough; I spent thousands of my own dollars every year on my students and wrestlers; and I turned down law school at the end of my second year so I could stay in the classroom. How could I listen to people calling me “corporate”?

So I spent 3 years missing the research that went against VAM and choice. I never read up on the critiques of no-excuses charters and Teach Like a Champion. I didn’t read the evidence that convinced me Michelle Rhee was complicit in a cheating scandal. And I didn’t listen fully to the arguments against merit pay.

If anti reformers want to win this fight, they need to accept that a lot of reformers hold the same values as them – and they need to present the evidence in good faith.

So Are There Corporate Reformers?

Of course there are. For profit companies like Pearson are an absolute blight on our education system. Companies that use the CCSS standards to sell the old garbage as “Common Core Aligned” are seriously – and yes, selfishly – hurting kids. For profit charter schools that provide students with a lousy education and then donate profits to politicians who support them are case studies in how corporatism is one of the greatest threats to American democracy.

These are corporate reformers. And they need to be stopped. But while a corporate reformer is almost always an education reformer, not all education reformers are corporate reformers.

Is there a better name?

I have to admit, I hate the phrase “education reformer” too. The implication is that if you oppose the “reform” agenda, you support the status quo and oppose change. So, what are the alternatives?

I’m a fan of “market reformer,” since most education reformers are based on principles of free market capitalism – choice, competition, advancement, accountability.

On Twitter, I see the phrase “top-down reformer” used a lot. That’s pejorative, for sure, but at least it’s accurate.

There are other options. But whatever we use, let’s keep it honest.


6 thoughts on “Let’s Ditch the Phrase “Corporate Reform”

    • I have also have some problems with ‘Corporate Reform’ since it lumps in a lot of people who have idealistic motives and are dedicated teachers. My current teaching partner is a TFA alum and while she objects to those who came to pad their resumes, she and others like her have made important contributions to teaching inner-city kids.

      Another problem is that a lot of these reformers are not economically motivated, but politically motivated, convinced by some free-market version of social reality that unions, collective organizing and ‘distributional coalitions’ are all corrupt and evil.

      The phrase I have been using lately is ‘Market Emulation Reform.’ Catchy? No, but fairly accurate. And the acronym MER has some potential.

      You might see how I struggle over what to call this in a book I came out with a couple of years ago, Respect for Teachers The Rhetoric Gap and How Research on Schools is Laying the Ground for New Business Models in Education https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781475802078


      • Btw, the ironically titled Respect for Teachers has an accurate sub-title, ‘How Research on Schools is Laying the Ground for New Business Models in Education.’

        How ’bout the New Business Models in Education Reform Movement (NBMERM).
        And then there is GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement from Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg. It is important to note that it is a Global effort.


  1. Pingback: Social Justice Unionism, Education On Tap Style | 34justice

  2. So, I gather what we have here is a syllogistic, semantic conflation to determine what, indeed, most people, most educators consider when they are confronted with the term reform.

    Kipp schools, supported by big donors and the federal government as the business top down model of standardized education, is the preferred model by those who would like to see the public domain financially squeezed until vouchers and private, and public-private school models become the standard of education in the U.S.

    These are reformers. They consider corporate ownership and control (without accountability) aligned from land ownership or lease, to curricula designed and sponsored by the data and testing affiliates.

    Reform. Occam’s razor. In the absence of certainty, the one with the fewest assumptions should be chosen. Ravitch, et al., are by far the least progressive and move as a machination of assumptions of a gone world. As a leader in the progressive, social equity movement in public education, Jim Horn (Schools Matter) stands head and shoulders above most others. Fewer assumptions resound from Ms. Schneider (deutsch29.com).

    Wendy Kopp, KIPP, TFA, K12. All are based upon the most assumptions as to what learning is. What teaching to the whole child is. Therefore, they are duller side of the blade and confer most closely with reform as against learning driven by the community and paid for by each eligible taxpayer. I do not support federal control of education, but I find most reformers do because their funding comes from tax dollars taken away from pubic schools and fortified by corporate largesse.

    True reform is the dissolution of the power of the rentier class; returning schooling to the communities in which the students live and policy driven by the standards of the community.

    When you say you blocked out reformers like Diane Ravitch you got it all wrong. She is against reformers like Eva Moskowitz, Wendy Kopp, even Randi Weingarten who insists upon the Common Core. So, you stuck your head in the sand regarding VAM,et al. Like a good new military recruit you remain in the echo chamber of TFA.

    Reform. TFA has been designed since its inception twenty-five years ago to be a part of an inchoate reform movement in the meaning of less need for graduate schools for teacher training, non-union trainees to replace experienced teachers, due process, and the bargaining rights of teachers’ unions. TFA is the corporate dream within their own dream utility of austerity and Freidman economics. Hey, the U.S. does not have a free market. Capitalism is everything that’s wrong with everything. You’re a young man just out of school who believes that free market capitalism is the answer to equity in our schools? Would that be a true statement? That’s one hell of an assumption given our current economy and the advent of corporate sovereignty on a global scale.

    This so-called free market, Milton Friedman economic vision of quantitative easing and austerity, this is what the true reformers hold onto. Economic policy and politics geared for the advancement of the rentier class over the public commons, these are the reformers.

    Actually, I don’t care what name one gives to anything. What’s important is knowing which side you’re on. One where inequality prevvals, or one where your social justice work begins to reverse the fortunes of those caught in the austerity, capitalist imperialism of endless war and destruction of human rights.

    Good luck.


    • Your comments doesn’t really address my argument. You give you issues with the reform agenda – I share many of them. My article is about the problems associated with a specific term, namely that they imply that reformers are motivated by personal greed. This implication shuts off any chance for meaningful dialog.


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