An Abridged Glossary of Corporate Education Reform

Disaster struck when the Senate confirmed the controversial Trump Secretary of Education nominee, billionaire Betsy DeVos. With the Senate deadlocked at 50-50, Vice President Mike Pence stepped in to cast the tie-breaking vote confirming her nomination.

During the Senate hearing, senators questioned the candidate about her qualifications to serve as secretary of education. Although DeVos admitted that neither she nor her children had ever attended public schools, she believed she was qualified for the post nonetheless. Even more embarrassing was the fact that she lacked basic understanding of key education laws.

In spite of the fact that DeVos’s answers to questions were vague, contradictory or downright fact-free, the fix was in. Though her positions on education issues, from charter schools to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to prohibiting guns in schools, raised the collective ire of teachers across the country, Republicans moved her confirmation to the Senate floor on a 12-11 vote.

Staunch champions of charter schools and vouchers, Betsy DeVos and her husband, Richard DeVos, have poured millions of dollars into the coffers of Michigan politicians vowing to dismantle public education. DeVos has spent years promoting public school alternatives (charters and vouchers) as a way to funnel taxpayer money away from public schools. The funding wreckage in Detroit’s school system is a testament to her life’s work.

As New York Times reporter Kate Zernike observed, “The Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids school districts have among the nation’s 10 largest shares of students in charters, and the state sends $1 billion in education funding to charters annually. Of those schools, 80 percent are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than anywhere else in the nation.”

But Michigan’s charter schools have not been as successful as DeVos and others claim, Zernike reports. In 2015, a federal review concluded that the number of charter schools on the list of the state’s lowest-performing schools was “unreasonably high.” And, according to Education Trust-Midwest: “The majority of charter districts statewide (67 percent) perform worse than Detroit Public Schools among African-American students in 8th Grade Math.”

Despite these reports, DeVos insists that it is the public schools, not the charters, that are failing. In response to the Detroit Public School budget crisis, she wrote this in an op-ed in The Detroit News: “Rather than create a new traditional school district to replace the failed DPS, we should liberate all students from this woefully under-performing district model and provide in its place a system of schools where performance and competition create high-quality opportunities for kids.”

The privatizing and corporate reform movements of our times have intertwined their objectives at the expense of the US’s millions of public school students. DeVos may not be a student of public education details, but she has the lingo down cold.

Indeed, sweeping corporate education reforms, peppered with Wall Street jargon, have become part of public education’s daily staple. Words such as “flexibility,” “efficiency,” “accountability” and “investment” are examples of the corporate public education lexicon.

1. Investment: The Gates Foundation-funded nonprofit Stand for Children insists that appropriating more money to public education will not improve student achievement. They say that state governments should begin “investing more wisely.”

Advocates of public education also refer to “investing in public education” to connote the fact that society benefits from the underwriting of this institution. The “ROI” of public education in this sense is an educated citizenry. Corporateers, too, value the investment in each educated individual as a workforce-ready drone.

The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of investment is: “putting money into financial schemes, shares, property or a commercial venture with the expectation of achieving a profit.” Its definition of funding is: “money provided, especially by an organization or government, for a particular purpose.” Businesses invest capital to make profits. Should we expect the same from public education? DeVos would answer in the enthusiastic affirmative.

2. Outcomes-based funding: Complaints about the “outmoded” public education system are common among corporate education reformers. They say the system must be redesigned to account for student outcomes. The old model, they argue, funded institutions, enrollment and seat time. Instead, they propose funding public education on the basis of attendance, test scores and graduation.

Kentucky’s Senate Bill 303 — the state’s 2016-18 biennium budget — includes a provision that requires institutions of higher learning to allocate 5 percent of their budget to fund a performance-based model. A higher education work group claims that this model provides “incentives for improved institutional and student performance by establishing an explicit link between the attainment of desired state outcomes (e.g., increased degree production, closing achievement gaps, reduced time to degree, research productivity) and allocation of available resources.” It is hoped that the other 95 percent of higher education funding buys the good old-fashioned “products” of inspiration and scholarship. DeVos used this vocabulary strategically to call for the replacement of, not the reinvestment in, Detroit Public Schools.

3. Accountability: Unlike the welfare state, which guarantees funding for social services including public education, the corporate state contracts with education “providers.” It requires each to show progress toward measurable benchmarks. Schools that fail risk reduced funding or privatization.

In 2012, Oregon lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1581. It established “achievement compacts” — agreements between the now defunct Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB) and the state’s 197 school districts and 19 colleges. The short-lived law held teachers, school administrators and institutions accountable for student performance. The law was scrapped a year later because its onerous requirements failed to meaningfully serve either students or politicians.

Accountability in higher education attempts to link tuition to student earnings and other “productivity” indicators. Oregon’s Senate Bill 213, for instance, would require the state’s universities to participate in a national study of instructional costs and productivity. The bill’s true goal is to make drastic cuts to an underfunded public university system.

5. Efficiency: Public schools don’t have a shortage of money, reformers say. They claim that public schools are inefficient bureaucracies controlled by self-serving, greedy teacher unions who profit at the expense of students.

Indiana House Bill 1045, known as the “The school efficiency grant fund,” was approved in 2016. It provides up to $500,000 in grants to “school corporations for costs associated with implementing efficiency and cost-effective measures.” The problem with implementing efficiency measures is that they often become synonymous with an expectation to reduce or eliminate costs associated with educational services, including schoolteachers, transportation and classroom resources.

6. Teacher Evaluation: Corporate education reformers support teacher evaluation allegedly to measure the effectiveness of schools, programs and teachers. In 2015, Michigan lawmakers passed Senate Bill 103. It “evaluates a teacher’s or school administrator’s job performance, using multiple rating categories that take into account student growth and assessment data.” Value-added and other schemes have been largely panned as unscientific and meaningless evaluative tools, but that hasn’t stopped reformers from pushing the punitive systems.

7. Flexibility: Page through any dictionary and you will find that “flexibility” is defined as adaptability and versatility. When DeVos-style reformers refer to flexibility, they mean allowing outside private vendors to manage public schools that are labeled as “failing.” “Achievement School District,” created by North Carolina’s House Bill 1080 does exactly that. Flexibility in corporate speak also is used as a defense for such practices as the hiring of unlicensed teachers or for rolling back employment protections for professional educators.

8. Standards-based Curriculum: The 1983 “A Nation at Risk report blamed public schools for perceived poor economic competitiveness. The report, which faulted public schools for low student performance, gave rise to the standards-based movement. It requires students to achieve arbitrary benchmarks in each subject and grade. It is fair to assume that the new Secretary DeVos will use her “bully pulpit” at the Department of Education to crack the standards whip.

9. The Achievement Gap: Corporate education reformers invented this term to berate institutions for test-score gaps among students of privilege compared to their less well-off peers. Though the differences in testing performance are generally linked to family income, the achievement gap mythology establishes differences by race and then demonizes the system for “under serving” certain demographic groupings. Closing the achievement gap means, in this context, improving the scores on high-stakes math and English tests — not on improving equality of opportunity. Because these tests do not assess musical talent, artistic skills or other academic abilities, they are limited yardsticks of student achievement. Furthermore, they exploit the circumstances of our most vulnerable children as a way to undercut the public system. In the early days of failed voucher schemes, advocates such as DeVos strategized to make the idea seem more palatable by pretending that theirs was a new “civil rights” struggle to lift students out of “poor performing” inner-city schools. By making low-income students of color the poster children for their movement, they disguised its true objectives.

10. School Autonomy: When they advocate for decentralization and autonomy in school reform policies, their goal is to take money from public education to fund privately managed charter schools and virtual schools. The Massachusetts Senate approved Senate Bill 2203, touted as “an act enhancing reform, innovation and success in education.” State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, who supported the bill, said that it would put district schools and charter schools on a level playing field. It would also maintain Massachusetts’ charter school cap, but increases charter payments from 18 to 23 percent in districts whose students have the lowest test scores, thereby increasing the number of students in these districts’ charter schools. The bill aimed to defund schools whose students are struggling to benefit charters under the guise of “autonomy” and “choice.” But opposition from the Massachusetts Teacher Association convinced the House to vote against the bill and defeated it before it could reach the governor’s desk.

These 10 terms are just a sampling of the doublespeak vocabulary of reformists whose decades-long efforts to subvert the public education system have done much damage. By disguising their true motives and by creating a lexicon of production and output, reformers hope to win over an unsuspecting public that has long supported public schools. When you hear these terms, emanate from DC beware: the motives and the effects are not what they seem. Expect the voucher queen-turned-education secretary to lead a renewed charge. According to the beltway crowd, this is the “outcome” our children deserve.