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The Corporate Hijacking of Public Education

Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of DC Public Schools (DCPS), is the face of what needs to be called corporate education reform. The premises of corporate education reform are: the main impediments to improving public schools are teachers' unions because they rigidly defend bad teachers; schools need to be run like businesses to make them less bureaucratic and more dynamic; educational experience is not required to be a teacher, principal, or chancellor; the corporate education reform model is the only way public education can be transformed; and success can be measured through data-driven outcomes, with the most important data being student test scores.

Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of DC Public Schools (DCPS), is the face of what needs to be called corporate education reform. The premises of corporate education reform are: the main impediments to improving public schools are teachers' unions because they rigidly defend bad teachers; schools need to be run like businesses to make them less bureaucratic and more dynamic; educational experience is not required to be a teacher, principal, or chancellor; the corporate education reform model is the only way public education can be transformed; and success can be measured through data-driven outcomes, with the most important data being student test scores.

Washington DC has been the testing ground for the entire corporate education reform movement, and Rhee's main accomplishment as DCPS Chancellor was to help brand this increasingly popular agenda. For this movement, success in DC would mean that federal and state money could be directed towards funding the corporate reform agenda nationally.

Breaking the Teachers Union

The starting point for Rhee's brand of education reform was to depict public schools as part of an entrenched failed system that serves as a jobs program for horrible teachers. Teachers were blamed for all that ailed DCPS—low graduation rates, poor test scores, and dwindling enrollment, with children fleeing to charter schools.

Rhee's most outrageous accusation was printed in Fast Company magazine, where she described why she laid off 266 DCPS teachers in October 2009: “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school.” Her claim made it sound as if many of the teachers had committed these acts, when in fact only one of the 266 allegedly had sex with a student, and eight others were alleged to have either used corporal punishment or had excessive absences. But the shocking quote served her well, as a horrified audience praised her brave actions in taking on the Washington Teachers Union.

Rhee's brash style and “take-no-prisoners” approach resulted in her being described as a “rock star.” Her celebratory status culminated when she was featured in the film Waiting for Superman and soon after was hailed as a “Warrior Woman” by Oprah Winfrey.

Despite such feel-good rhetoric, in reality her corporate policies have wreaked havoc on the public education system in DC.

While bad DCPS teachers exist, they are a small minority. The real problem in DCPS and urban schools around the country is the leadership, which has left the majority of teachers and school staff overwhelmed without the proper supports, supplies, or the necessary training to overcome the tremendous obstacles that the children present.

According to Diane Ravitch, long time historian of education and author of the book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, “Fifty percent of all those who enter teaching leave within the first five years. Our biggest problem is not getting rid of deadbeats, but recruiting, retaining, and supporting teachers.”

Embracing the business model

Rhee's strategy of attacking unions and teachers eased the implementation of free market policies, which rely on three main tenets: a top-down organizational structure, privatization, and competition (or “school choice”).

It is not surprising, then, that reforming public education has become a very profitable industry, involving testing companies, consultants, supplemental educational services, educational management companies and charter schools. Some are non-profit but a growing number are for profit. And then there are the venture philanthropists: the Broad, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Walton Foundations, who direct huge amounts of money to projects they deem worthy.

The Broad Foundation's website claims, “We take an untraditional approach to giving. We don’t simply write checks to charities. Instead we practice 'venture philanthropy.' And we expect a return on our investment.”

Is that what educating children has boiled down to—a return on investment?

Rhee sought to show that her reform was inclusive early on by ensuring that all emails from parents and teachers were immediately responded to. However, her top-down approach to school management made meaningful community participation and transparency nearly impossible. In response to mounting criticism, Rhee began monthly “Chancellor's Office Hours” where anyone could “sit down one-on-one with the chancellor for five minutes.”

Five minutes and you have instant community engagement—the innovation of corporate education reform at work!

School communities have been further shut out of the process as privatization of public education has taken hold. Under Rhee, an increasing number of services were contracted out to private companies. This has been exacerbated by Federal No Child Left Behind regulations that mandate restructuring of schools that continually fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Then there is the competition element, better known as “school choice.” Every parent deserves a “portfolio” of school choices, the logic goes, just like they have the choice between fifteen types of tortilla chips on the store shelf. The idea is that competition among schools will improve the quality of all schools.

Without delving into the charter school debate, it is important to discuss how the concept of competition is driving the call to close down “failing” schools. Every year, new charter schools open in DC as both charter and traditional public schools close. The corporate education reformers celebrate schools closing as proof that reform is progressing.

But shuttering schools is not the same as closing down a Starbucks. Many of the children attending these schools come from unstable homes and most of them are not reading or writing on grade level, which is the primary reason for the school closures to begin with. Their teachers can be one of the few sources of stability in their lives. Bouncing these children around from school to school will only increase the chaos in their lives and make it more probable that they will slip through the cracks.

It is also a downward spiral, as “competition” leads to shrinking enrollments. These schools scramble to attract new students as their funding drops, forcing staff cuts that make it more improbable that they will be able to raise test scores, which further fuels the loss of students. Instead, these schools, which happen to be in some of the neediest communities, should be infused with supports.

More destabilization occurs in schools as the latest fads in education reform, funded by the generous support from the venture philanthropists, are forced on them. Most of the time these initiatives last a year or two, at which time a “new and better” program is brought in. This “flavor of the month” approach only adds to the disarray in schools.

No experience necessary

Since corporate education reform is viewed through the lens of the business model, the importance of having educational experience and formal training is diminished. In this new world of public education, you don't have to be an educator to be a principal or teacher, you just have to be a good manager. A degree in education is irrelevant to being “highly effective” and having years of experience is not valued.

You can't talk about corporate education reform without mentioning Teach For America (TFA), one of key players in the reform movement. TFA demonstrates an extreme approach to the concept of teaching. With just five weeks of on-the-job training, recent college graduates are placed in schools with high-needs populations. It is their energy, drive and belief that “all children can learn—no excuses” that is the supposed formula to success. TFA recruits only make a commitment to teach for two years, which adds to the turnover of public school teachers.

TFA embraces one of the most controversial aspects of corporate education reform, which is the contention that a teacher is the single most important factor in student achievement. According to this, poverty and dysfunctional home lives are extraneous factors. This fallacy has been drilled into the minds of the public so often that many people accept it as true. If you argue otherwise you are labeled as someone who believes that poor children can't learn.

Countless studies instead find that poverty is the “single biggest correlate with low academic achievement,” as Ravitch notes. This does not mean poor children can’t learn and it does not mean that all poor children live in dysfunctional homes. Poor children can learn and even excel, but as Ravitch explains, “Children who grow up in poverty get less medical care, worse nutrition, less exposure to knowledge and vocabulary, and are more likely to be exposed to childhood diseases, violence, drugs, and abuse. They are more likely to have relatives who are incarcerated. They are more likely to live in economic insecurity, not knowing if there is enough money for a winter coat or food or housing. This affects their academic performance. They tend to have lower attendance and to be sick more than children whose parents are well-off.”

As a social worker in an underperforming DCPS elementary school with a large population of “high needs” students, this reality is confirmed for me every day. Most of my time is spent responding to conflicts or crises in which students act out the trauma, neglect, abuse, and confusion in their lives. These children are suffering and it is affecting their ability to concentrate and learn. Schools get saddled with the responsibility of dealing with all of the societal ills that children experience. You can't ignore these realities.

One anecdote of many is about a girl who recently sought me out at recess. She shared that before she came to school that morning, the police raided her home with guns drawn to arrest a relative. She was extremely upset and terrified. But if it is test time, this is not supposed to affect her scores. Unfortunately, I have heard similar stories from other students many times before.

Why don't we look at more facts, like DC's child poverty rate? Forty-three percent of African American children live in poverty in DC. I wish the corporate education reformers would be as appalled at this statistic as they are with AYP scores.

Delving into the complexities of reforming public education doesn't jive well with the likes of Rhee. Instead, the reform debate is polarized: if you are against their reform, then you are for the status quo. If you support tenure, then you support bad teachers who can't be fired. If you oppose the closing of schools, then you think it is acceptable for children to be relegated to “failing schools.” If you say that poverty and home dysfunction affects a student's ability to learn, then you have given up on all poor children.

It makes the debate easy to argue when you dismiss all criticism in this manner. The consequence is that no meaningful dialogue can take place.

Test factory

The final element of corporate education reform is accountability, which Rhee and the new reformers believe is best measured by “data driven outcomes.” This requires excessive amounts of documentation, reports, and paperwork for a central office to track how schools are performing. But this emphasis to the extreme overburdens school staff, who are already stretched to the limit. Documentation is important, but it often appears as if documentation is an end unto itself.

Then there is the high-stakes standardized testing that determines a school's AYP, which has become the focal point for the entire school year. Almost all decisions made are based on how standardized test scores are going to be affected. This is especially true for schools like mine which have not been meeting AYP for several years. Critics point out that the emphasis on test scores narrows the curriculum. However, the most detrimental consequence for turning our schools into test factories is the effect it is having on the students' psyches. The school year is now saturated by testing mania. This is alienating for many students. For those who are two or three years below grade level, taking a test that could have very well been written in a foreign language leaves them feeling stupid and angry. The test experience just reinforces their perception that they are utter failures.

As if this wasn't enough, Rhee has reignited the movement to tie test scores to staff performance through one of her signature reforms, the teacher evaluation tool known as IMPACT. For some teachers, half of their score is based on one standardized test. Many teachers and other staff worry that even if they are doing a good job, they could be terminated. It is astonishing how many times I have heard staff members say they are making decisions not based on what is best for children but what is best for their IMPACT scores, especially because the two are in many ways unrelated.

In the end, instead of inspiring people, Rhee has instilled fear. Most DCPS employees felt intimidated into keeping silent, which prevented the media from exposing the many failures that resulted from Rhee's policies. When complaints did surface they were either minimized or denied all together.

DCPS is a perfect example of how data can be manipulated and packaged into promotional press releases. Gaming the system is more about politics than children—and the corporate reformers have won round one. The Obama administration has signed onto their agenda with the competitive grant program, Race To The Top. And although she has left DCPS, Rhee continues to push the corporate model nationally through her Students First organization.

Common needs

It is important to note that there are many well-intentioned people who embrace corporate education reform. Like the rest of us, they see public school systems that are failing children in numerous ways. However, these folks are misguided. This movement is being led and funded by conservative think tanks with an agenda that promotes the privatization of public schools. The deep pockets that are bankrolling all aspects of corporate education reform are from foundations headed by mostly white, male billionaires who put their own children in elite private schools that treat teachers with dignity and respect.

The system needs to be reformed. The unions, like the Washington Teachers Union, do have a history of not advocating for teachers in ways that are needed to improve “failing” schools. But teachers unions are not the enemy.

In fact, teachers and students have many of the same needs. When teachers are able to teach in buildings that are not dilapidated, children learn better. When teachers get the resources, training, and support they need, children can excel. When teachers are allowed to teach a varied curriculum rather than being forced to focus on standardized testing, children can have an enriching educational experience. When teachers are treated professionally without a culture of intimidation, children will learn in nurturing schools.

True reform cannot be imposed but must include meaningful participation with the school community and must address the poverty, violence, and dysfunction that plague too many of our children’s lives.

See “The Myth of the 'Crappy Teacher” which accompanies this article in the print edition.

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