Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Big Picture

Why do we have these policies that don't make sense? Why does it seem like this system is set up to make schools fail? Why do states pass these laws that discourage people from becoming teachers?

My friends, colleagues and family ask these kinds of questions all the time. So my goal today is to step back and try to fit the pieces into the larger picture. If you have been paying attention, you already know this stuff, but perhaps this post will help someone you know who's trying to make sense of reformsterdom. Here, then, is my attempt to show the big picture.

The Perfect Storm

The Current Education Reform Wave is driven by a joining of two major impulses in the US. Neither of them are new, but over the past decade they have come together in ways that are proving powerful.

Growing steadily (at least since A Nation at Risk) has been a desire for Centralized Efficiency in education. Their basic narrative has always been that American schools are failing, and what is needed is strong, clear-headed, direction from People Who Know Better. The rise of massive computer based data capabilities and the internet's ability to lock together widespread organizations first led the CE folks to believe they could actually do it.

And then, they realized that they could do even more. The infamous Marc Tucker letter lays it out as clearly as anything--  we could create a cradle-to-career pipeline, a massive planned track fed by mountains of data. Through computer-based testing and data gathering, we could track each individual starting shortly after birth, so that we could design an educational program that would perfectly prepare each person for a productive place in society.

To do that, we'd need to get every possible data source plugged in, and for the data to mean anything, we'd have to have all schools doing basically the exact same thing. Standards could be used to tag and organize every piece of data collected about every student. This suited people who see US education as a slapdash, sloppy, disorganized mess of many different schools doing many different things (this bothered them as much as your pictures hanging cockeyed in the den drive your OCD aunt crazy). But all of that would require massive planning and infrastructure far beyond what government could politically or financially manage.

This dovetailed perfectly with the other powerful impulse-- the desire of Educational Privatization. Public education represents a huge, huge mountain of money that has historically been unavailable to corporate interests. Companies have been forced to jockey for the crumbs of book contracts here and there, or occasional consultant work. Now, making the Centralized Efficiency dreams come true would also provide corporations with unprecendented access to that mountain of money. This was also appealing because many business-folks find their sensibilities offended by the unbusiness-like running of US education.

Combining these two impulses finally opened up the possibility of remaking the entire US education system in a new image. Just as Rockefeller had brought vertical integration to the oil industry by owning everything step of the process from oil wells to consumer marketing, reformers envisioned a fully integrated system that generated financial returns at every step of the educational process while simultaneously organizing education around a centrally planned and controlled system. It is an unholy marriage between the worst aspects of socialism and capitalism, but to make it happen, certain steps must be taken.

Opening the Supplier Markets: The Mystification of Education

Producers of educational materials have long had to live on the fringes of education, subject to the individual preferences of thousand upon thousands of individual school districts. Texas was a hint of how sweet life could be-- a place where you just had to make a textbook sale to one central authority. Could the whole country become Texas?

Well, yes, kind of, and Common Core was key. Get everybody on the same page, and everybody needs to buy the same books. Common Core was envisioned as a way to get everyone teaching the same stuff at the same time, and therefor content providers need only align themselves to one set of expectations. Instead of trying to sell to thousands of different markets, they could now sell to a thousand versions of the same basic standardized school district.

The less obvious effect of the Core was to change the locus of educational expertise. Previously teachers were the educational experts, the people who were consulted and often made the final call on what materials to buy. But one message of the Core was that teachers were not the experts, both because they had failed so much before and because Common Core was such a piece of "high standards" jargon-encrusted mumbo jumbo that you needed an expert to explain it. (Here's just one example of the genre)

Educational experts were no longer found in the classroom. Now they are in corporate offices. They are in government offices. Textbook creators now include "training" because your teachers won't be able to figure out how to use teaching materials on their own. More importantly, teachers can no longer be trusted to create their own teaching materials (at least not unless their district has hired consultants to put them through extensive training).

Meanwhile, testing programs, which would also double as curriculum outlines, were also corporate products (which require such expertise that teachers are not allowed to see or discuss their contents), and every school must test as part of an accountability system that will both force schools to follow the centralized efficiency program and label them as failures when their test scores are too low, as well as feeding data into the cradle-to-career pipeline.

The entire supplier market for education had become the sole property of the book publishers, who could market more efficiently while reinforcing the Centralized Efficiency picture of exactly what should happen in schools. And teachers were shut out of the process because they would only gum up the works.

Opening the Provider Markets: Breaking the Government Monopoly

But owning the entire supply chain was not enough. There was a ton of money to be made by running the schools themselves. Attempts to bleed money from the system by the use of vouchers had been repeatedly slapped down by the courts and simply not borne fruit

But another mechanism was already in place-- charter schools. Charter schools have been a way of using public tax dollars to finance an independent school for ages. Now the privatization crowd could harness this business model. It was ripe and ready; Clinton-era tax laws made the ROI from investing in charters wondrous. Charters were a ready-made tax shelter, a way to get solid investment results while looking like a do-gooder to boot.

But the market for schools was covered and controlled by the public school system (except for Pre-K, which was ripe for the plucking). So that nut had to be cracked. The government "monopoly" on schools had to be broken.

First, it had to be shown that public schools were failing. That job was half done, because Schools Are Failing had been the mantra since Nation at Risk. But people still tended to believe that their own local school was pretty good. We needed more proof. Common Core has been used as its own proof-- we need these "higher standards" because schools suck, and teachers never teach reading or critical thinking and look how bad our test scores are. Standardized testing, particularly testing that was poorly done, instigated before the actual standards that it was supposed to measure, and using cut scores set politically rather than educationally, could help "prove" that schools were failing. There was also a focus on how college unready students are.

The beauty of testing is that since test results generally line up with economic class, the schools that would fail would be the schools of the poor-- the people also least able to muster resistance to school takeovers. The discovery of failing schools for the poor also allowed reformers to adopt the language of the civil rights movement (and in a bold move by the Obama administration, to use civil rights law to enforce school reform). Real school failure could also be hastened by simply cutting money and resources for poor schools.

There have been attempts to create other means of failing schools. (The parent trigger law was one that never quite worked out.) But the result is always the same-- the discovery that a school is failing does not lead to meetings with the parents, teachers and administrators, but instead leads to hiring turnaround experts or charter operators or consultants. When a school "fails," somebody is going to make money from it. The more schools we can prove are failing, the more money somebody can make. And of course the rising tide of school failure has been the excuse for the Obama administration to make "open more charters" a requirement of waivers. And when more charters open, more resources are taken from public schools, adding to the ways in which they can fail.

Opening the supplier market also means breaking the geographical limits. The rhetoric of making sure that students are victims of their zip code is about opening up markets, about making it possible for charters to recruit from outside a defined geographical area.

Opening the Teaching Market: The De-professionalizing of Teaching

It drives corporate privatizers crazy that A) the biggest operating expense in schools is staff and B) that they can't simply hire and fire as they wish. It drives central planning fans crazy that teachers insist on doing whatever they feel like doing instead of all teaching the same things the same way at the same time. How could both groups effect change?

One step we've already discussed. By creating a system in which teachers are no longer the experts on what they teach or how to teach it, reformsters turn teachers from educated professionals into content delivery workers. You don't need a building full of education experts-- just one or two to direct the rest of a staff of drones. Use a boxed program like engageNY-- anybody who can read the script and the instructions can teach students.

Teachers frequently scratch their head and ask, "Are they TRYING to drive people out of the profession? " Well, probably, yes. Teach for America "teachers" are not a stop-gap measure-- they're the ideal. They don't stay long enough to get raises, and they don't saddle the district with any expensive pension costs. And they're young and healthy, so even insurance costs are low. Teachers who spend a lifetime in the profession are an expensive nuisance; what we need are a regular supply of compliant short-timers.

We can facilitate that by, of course, doing away with tenure and any other job protections. And systems like merit-based pay allow us to manage costs effectively and limiting the amount of pay that will be handed out. A low-paid, easily-replaced staff that serves at the pleasure of management provides optimum control of expenses and "human capital." These reforms can be applied to public schools as well, forced by budget cuts.

We can accelerate the process by taking the failure we are imposing on schools and blaming it all on teachers. The low scores that poor students always get-- teachers' fault. We can keep framing it as praise (teachers are the most important part of schools), but what's really being said is that everything that goes wrong is a teacher's fault. If there's a lot of failure, it must be caused by bad teachers-- and that's why school leaders must have the tools for hiring and firing at will.

And we can turn schools of education training into parking lots or basic training for delivering teacher-proof programs.

Is this some sort of conspiracy?

Am I suggesting that there is some sort of vast conspiracy? No. I'm not a believer in vast conspiracies. Hard to organize. Cumbersome. But all it takes for all of this to happen is people in power who believe that applying free market business principles are innately good, teamed up with people who believe that centralized standardization.and efficiency are innately good. There's a network of such people in power, and while some of them undoubtedly are motivated by greed and ambition, I believe that some of them simply believe they are giving schools a good hard dose of reality, of How The World Really Works.

The end effect is the same. Ignore the rhetoric. Watch what they do and what the effects are. Everything happening in education reform is about 1) reducing the autonomy and local control of schools and 2) mining the school system for every cent of economic advantage. Education reform has literally nothing to do with providing quality education for America's children.


  1. Your point that the Common Core was supposed to be homogenizing educational materials is - so far - not happening. Every textbook and educational materials publisher is repackaging its products as "Common Core Aligned" whether they ever were or not.

    1. The actual homogenizing isn't about the customer side. It's for the vendor. I no longer have to produce multiple versions of my textbook and materials for every state-- I can slap that CCSS label on there and then sell the material in every state in the union.

  2. Mr. Greene,
    For the only other writing that explains the "Big Picture" of the corporate take-over of our once-proud public education system, see (the initial essay, I think, in) Jacquez Barzun's collection of education policy essays in Begin Here: the Forgotten Conditions of Teach and Learning.
    Barzun's term for your "reformsters" is "educationists," and his explanation of the damage to teaching and learning caused by groups of people ignorant about the individual, student-centered but life-long focused imperatives of education are eerily aligned with yours.
    Jerry Masters

  3. Absolutely great. If I can find time, I would like to translate this in Italian and put it in my blog ( in order to show to italian readers what is behind the current school reform of the Renzi government... would you mind if I do this?

  4. This is first rate stuff, Peter. I'll do my best to spread it around.

  5. I'd extend that to: Everything happening in neoliberal reform is about 1) reducing the autonomy and local control of democracies and 2) mining the system for every cent of economic advantage.