School & District Management Opinion

The Nine Most Terrifying Words in the English Language: “I’m From Big Business, and I’m Here to Help”

By Anthony Cody — June 29, 2013 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

One of late president Ronald Reagan’s favorite jokes was as follows: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

Educators and students might be forgiven for turning this joke on its head a bit, because we find ourselves in terror when we hear from all sides “I’m from big business and I’m here to help.”

Every day we hear of the wondrous future that “innovations” will bring to our schools. However, the track record of these changes has been less than stellar, at least for those of us on the receiving end. Let’s take a look at the biggest changes our business helpers have brought us, and how they are playing out.

1. Data Driven Instruction: This has been the leading strategy for school improvement. Bill Gates last annual letter extolled the power of measurement - advising us to set measurable goals and work towards them. This has resulted in turmoil in high poverty schools, and a deadened test-driven curriculum. In increasing numbers, students are held back if they do not pass tests. The latest NAEP data indicates real performance has flatlined over the past few years, showing this strategy is not working to increase student learning. Teachers find their jobs in jeopardy, especially if they work with challenging populations, such English learners or special education students.

Since the test companies are driven by their desire to make a profit, they do their job for the least cost possible, which often results in colossal errors and malfunctions. But as Arne Duncan reassures us, this is just part of the process. After the recent fiasco in Indiana, Duncan stated:

This is a business. Folks are making money to buy these services. If those folks are doing a good job to provide that service, they should get more business. If they're doing a bad job providing that service, they should go out of business...
We'll get better and better. I do think, directionally, this is the right way to go. We have multiple players playing in these space... Let's see who's for real. But again, directionally, having computer-adaptive tests, having the ability to evaluate way more than just fill-in-the-bubble stuff -- the critical thinking skills -- directionally, it's the right way to go.
There will be bumps, there will be mistakes. The big thing is, 'What can we learn with them?' What was wrong with the contract? What was wrong-- how do we not replicate this someplace else? With all this stuff, we're moving the country in this direction, so for me, that's not just an Indiana challenge.

I spoke with a teacher last week in Indiana. She said children sat to take these tests burst into tears when the computer screens flashed the words FAIL at them. Of course, it was the system that failed, not the student, but these students did not know that at first. Two days of instruction were lost. In New York, Pearson has made a string of blunders with their tests, beginning with last year’s pineapple fiasco, and this year, numerous errors leading to the misclassification of thousands of students.

When Mr. Duncan speaks of competition working all these things out, he does not mention that we have, basically, a duopoly, with the only possible options for large scale tests being McGraw Hill and Pearson. Furthermore, if the problems associated with the tests are rooted in the very limitations of tests to capture what we value, having two companies both offering us competing tests of questionable value does not help much.

2. Performance-based pay and evaluations. Since it is assumed that, as with our counterparts in the world of business, we will be best motivated towards excellence if we are both in fear of being fired, and in hopes of being rewarded, we have evaluations and pay partly dependent on the test scores we manage to increase. And to be sure those doing our evaluations are focused on what matters most, our administrators likewise find their evaluations and pay likewise linked to test scores.

3. Competition between schools: Since a “government monopoly” on schools was blamed for the supposed lack of innovation, competition was supposed to be the cure. So we have been given rapidly expanding charter schools, with little or not regulation or oversight in many states. In some states, vouchers are now being made available to parents who wish to send their children to private or parochial schools, or even choose to keep them home for schooling. In spite of the ability of these schools to be more selective in the students they enroll, most have yet to show better results than public schools.
To be fair, this may offer a financial advantage to some families, especially those who were already sending their children to private or parochial schools.

4. School closures: Originally carried out on the basis of test scores, school closures are now also being done for “underutilized” buildings. After years of investing in neighborhood charter schools, District leaders in Chicago now have created a situation where some neighborhood schools are under-enrolled. But rather than take advantage of this by offering low income students smaller class sizes and using the extra space for extended community services, the schools are summarily closed. Our business guides view this “disruption” as a source of more innovation, because it creates market opportunities for new schools, and new models of delivery, which otherwise might not get a chance to experiment.

5. Technology: This should really be a clear winner in the category of innovations. However, the results here are decidedly mixed. Some technologies are wonderful enhancements and extensions of what students can do in the classroom. Students today can explore digital photography, edit their own videos, build websites, and much more. They can conduct field studies using smart phones, and collect data using a variety of probes and special applications. However, technology has a decidedly boring, uncreative side as well. Students may find themselves sitting in classes with more than 100 classmates, plugged into computers doing dull activities for hours on end. They may find their essays read and scored by machine instead of by teachers able to appreciate their creative thinking.

The other disturbing aspect about technology is the way the purveyors of choice are rather aggressively removing any choice from the professionals working in our classrooms. When I was teaching middle school science some years back, I was always on the lookout for new technology to use with my students. I even initiated an all-girl technology class that met before the regular school day began. I worked to figure out creative uses for technology, to engage and motivate my students. But more often these days we are seeing massive purchases of technology across all classrooms, such as the Los Angeles schools’ investment in iPads for every student. Will this pay off? We really do not know, and won’t for several years. But the investment has been made, and it is hard to tell whether the teachers who find themselves responsible for finding uses for these devices will find them a boon or a bane.

One thing is for certain, when “personalization” is redefined as class sizes in excess of a hundred students, all plugged into electronic devices, we have lost something very real.

6. Executive management, dominated by corporate interests. Corporations are responsible not to any democratic constituency, but to shareholders, the wealthy ones. Our corporate helpers have pushed for this model in our schools as well, and many large districts now have some form of mayoral control, where politicians who are billionaires themselves, like Michael Bloomberg, or who are owned by billionaires, like Rahm Emanuel, appoint their cronies to run the schools with little concern about responding to the wishes of parents and students.

7. Virtual charters: These “schools” deserve a special mention, as they are, in some ways, the epitome of the problem with business “solutions.” While these schools are some of the least effective of any around, they have been aggressively promoted by groups like ALEC, which receives donations from virtual charter operators like K12 Inc. The virtual charter operators also “invest” in campaign contributions to lawmakers, who sometimes reward them with lucrative contracts.

8. Philanthropy-driven research and advocacy: Corporate-financed philanthropy has become the engine of education policy. The Department of Education relied on guidance from major corporate philanthropies when it designed the competitive Race to the Top program, and then the Gates Foundation provided grants to help states apply for the money. Corporate funding buys the “research,” like the latest NCTQ report that rates schools of education based on how well they conform to NCTQ’s test-centered metrics. These philanthropies also pay for advocacy that lobbies policymakers to enact the reform policies they favor. Thus we have groups such as Teach Plus bringing forward teachers they have prepared to testify on behalf of the elimination of due process and seniority, and in favor of the use of test scores in teacher evaluations.

There are two overriding problems with the help our business buddies want to offer us. The first is their primary motivation tends to be whatever will benefit their bottom line, not what will help our students. So they are willing to market solutions that are not truly helpful. They want an ever larger share of the education dollar, so they have, in effect, put the various moneymaking ventures in competition with classroom teachers for scarce resources.

The second is that the policies they advocate place education in a highly competitive framework, as is demanded by their market-based paradigm. This drives us towards the overuse of test scores as a means of measuring performance, so that we can determine winners and losers.

Students who do not test well should not be liabilities to their schools or teachers. First lady Michelle Obama has said she did not do well on tests - something she has in common with many other successful individuals.

The market system demands winners and losers, and the biggest losers of all are the students who find themselves left behind in schools that are unprofitable, or because they are more difficult to educate, and thus are liabilities to whatever schools they enroll in.

Ronald Reagan saw “big government” as a threat to every businessman’s aspirations to grow his enterprise. Unfortunately, we now seem to have the worst of both worlds. We have an intrusive big government, in the form of the federal Department of Education, mandating the expansion of high stakes testing and top down standards, and the aggressive expansion of profit-seeking schools and technological pseudo-solutions, heavily promoted by corporate philanthropies.

I wrote a week ago that our schools are like a living organism under attack by those who wish to divert resources into profitable ventures. Those of us resisting this are perhaps becoming more activated, like white blood cells are activated when the body’s immune system detects an invasion. We need to understand the reasons business interests are realigning our schools, and work to preserve the core mission of our public education system. Our schools do not exist to prepare students to be compliant workers in an ever more efficient economic system. We are in the business of creating thinkers, not workers, creators, not drones.

What do you think? Should we be afraid of the “help” being offered by business interests? What should the core vision for our schools be centered on?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.