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:
- Support market forces including choice and competition as a mechanism to improve all schools. This is usually done through vouchers and charter schools.
- Support business practices including evaluation, promotion and merit pay to motivate and attract teachers
- Hold that teachers and schools should be accountable for student achievement, usually measured by standardized testing
- Support alternate paths to the classroom through programs like Teach For America
- 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.
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.
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.