One of the more thoughtful voices in education, Larry Cuban, has delivered an interesting brief for the argument that there is no such thing as a “corporate reform movement.” While he acknowledges that America’s corporate elite largely share a view of how to reform America’s schools, focused on the creation of educational marketplaces and business-model schools as the engines of change, Cuban argues that it is mistake to overstate the homogeneity of perspectives and purposes. The power players of the reform movement have “varied, not uniform motives,” are “drawn from overlapping, but distinct spheres of influence,” and “vary in their aims and strategies.” The use of a term such as “corporate education reform” suggests “far more coherence and concerted action than occurs in the real world of politics and policymaking.”
Cuban’s argument amalgamates two different senses of the term “corporate education reform” – the notion that there is a movement for education reform led by corporate elites and the idea that there is a movement for education reform that seeks to remake public education in the image and likeness of for-profit corporations in a competitive marketplace.
In co-mingling these two distinct senses of the term, Cuban is adopting a common usage. And it is a usage not entirely without justification: many of the strongest advocates for transforming public schools into educational corporations are found in the corporate elite. But it is vital, I will argue here, that we separate these two conceptions of “corporate education reform” if we are to adequately understand the complexity of the political terrain on which the battles over the future of public education are being fought.
As a matter of political sociology, Cuban’s objection to the terminology makes an important point. Power elites (and socio-economic classes more generally) are not natural entities, issuing forth from the economy and society fully matured with a common purpose, like Athena sprung fully grown from the head of Zeus. Rather, they are best understood as ongoing political projects, constituted out of a continual process of finding common ground in the midst of difference, and forging common action from that common ground. As much as the different sectors of this elite share important interests in common, especially vis-à-vis working people, they also have competing and conflicting interests. Apple is not Wal-Mart, and Bill Gates is not David or Charles Koch: their interests and their worldviews may overlap to some degree, but they are far from identical.
It is essential to grasp the differences and divisions among the corporate power players because they play out in very real ways in the world of education. Consider the battle fought last year in New York over the publication of individual teacher evaluations in the news media. No less a figure than the billionaire mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, argued vociferously for the continued publication of individual evaluations, defending a practice that he and Joel Klein had initiated and pursued in the New York City public schools.
Yet another billionaire reform advocate, Bill Gates, took to the op-ed pages of the New York Times to criticize the publications as counter-productive exercises in public ‘shaming.’ The passage of state legislation prohibiting future publication was attributable to many different factors, most especially public disapproval of this use of individual value-added scores and the political efforts of New York’s teacher unions, but there is no question that the willingness of a prominent member of the corporate elite to speak out on the wrong-headedness of this practice played a role.
Just recently, Gates appeared on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post, offering a vision of teacher evaluation that diverged in important ways from the reform model that envisions schools as for-profit corporations. Two points are particularly noteworthy: First, Gates’ disapproval of the excessive reliance on the use of standardized tests in evaluations; and second, his critique of merit pay and its promotion of competition among teachers as harmful to the collaborative nature of the educational enterprise. There is value in having a powerful voice from within the corporate world expressing such views publicly, especially insofar as they represent a positive evolution away from more problematic positions.
The real world of educational politics is complex and contradictory. There remain points in Gates’ teacher evaluation agenda, such as the weight he accords to value-added measures, that teachers and their unions find objectionable. And there are educational projects that the Gates Foundation has undertaken in the past which have drawn criticism, such as the mass production of new small schools that diverted support for a promising grassroots model of innovative small schools led by educators.*
There is good reason to be concerned with the Gates Foundation’s support of the ‘portfolio’ conception of school district governance, with its mass closure of district schools.
It is because of the shifting commonalities and differences among individuals (and organizations) in the education policy world that it is important – contra Cuban – to maintain a definition of ”corporate education reform” as a movement that seeks to privatize public schools or remake them in the model of of for-profit corporations operating in an educational marketplace. Those who are committed to the democratic vision of education as a public good need the political clarity provided by that conception as they confront efforts to privatize public education and eviscerate teacher voice.
I was reminded of Cuban’s essay and the importance of this distinction after reading some of the commentary in reaction to a recent essay on teacher evaluation written jointly by Vicki Phillips, director of K-12 education programs at the Gates Foundation, and AFT president Randi Weingarten (Full Disclosure: Weingarten is also the president of the Albert Shanker Institute.) From individual blog posts to some reader comments section on Diane Ravitch’s blog, what one found were not political analyses or reasoned objections to the particular points where Phillips and Weingarten were in agreement, but tests of moral purity, in which any discussion of common ground with Gates and the Gates Foundation was regarded as the violation of a pollution taboo. One blogger even managed to condemn Weingarten for doing what he himself tells us he did – engage in a dialogue with the Gates Foundation. When feeling under attack, it is easy to fall victim to crude and reductionist sociological analyses that assume that the power elite has a total homogeneity of interest and purpose, with a universal and implacable opposition to all “progressive” change.** But this sort of discourse does not serve teachers or public education well.
In summary, my argument here is that thoughtful nuance and careful distinction in political and sociological analysis matter a great deal. But there is also a larger frame of reference here, a long view of American political sociology that bears recalling. Every significant progressive reform in the United States, from the Reconstruction and the Progressive Era to the New Deal and the Great Society, has been not only spearheaded by a powerful mass movement from below, but also supported by a fraction of the power elite from above. There is no reason to think that American education, at this historical moment, will be an exception to this pattern. Allies are where you find them. And, in this day and age, those of us who care about the survival and health of public education need all we can find, even those who are not allies for all things or for all time.
- Leo Casey
* See the special Summer 2005 issue of Rethinking Schools, “Is Small Beautiful?” Volume 19, Issue 4.
** For some of those who advocate a ‘corporate education reform’ agenda, any discussion of the role of power and wealth in educational politics is threatening, and so the very use of a term like the ‘corporate elite’ evokes charges that one is employing a ‘conspiracy theory.’ In its own way, the refusal to consider the dynamics of wealth and power is every bit as crude and reductionist a sociology as the view the powerful and wealthy are homogeneous in their interest and purpose, and universally opposed to all progressive change.