By John Thompson.

Larry Cuban’s contribution to the American Enterprise Institute’s conference of edu-philanthropy, Is the ‘New’ Education Philanthropy Good for Schools?, is nuanced and wise. One of the predictions in Cuban’s “A Thoughtful Critique of Contemporary Edu-Giving”  is:

Other current reforms such as evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, ending tenure and seniority, calling principals CEOs, and children learning to code will be like tissue-paper reforms of the past (e.g., zero-based budgeting, right- and left-brain teaching) that have been crumpled up and tossed away.

Consistent with the insights of other contributors to the AEI conference, Cuban explained:

Like most educational policymakers, donors have largely lived in their own world where idées fixes about school problems—better schooling strengthens the economy, schools are like businesses, and successful business practices can fix any problems schools have—dominate their thinking. These shared ideas spurred grants for reforming structures, allocating ample resources, and scaling up successful ventures. And the world that practitioners live in—a world of different idées fixes and behaviors—is crucial for policies to turn into classroom practices, but donors have largely ignored it.

So, I can’t believe I’m quarreling with one of Cuban’s points. He takes a long term view of education history as he rejects the term “corporate reform.” It supposedly implies “absolute certainty about reformers’ motives,” along with implying “a smell of conspiratorial decision-making.” The label is used in conjunction with “much of the back-and-forth about who is and who is not a ‘corporate reformer,’” and it “thrives on venomous personal attacks.”

Not wanting to use the term in a way that Larry Cuban might read as “hyperbole,” I’ve gone back and forth, wondering if I should use “corporate reform.” I’ve never fully understood why the label offends reformers so much; I’d think the word “elite” is more harsh and both names seem so mild in comparison to the charges (I’d say slanders) that reformers routinely hurl at teachers who disagree with them. But, since reading Cuban’s position, I’ve often edited the term from my blogging – even though I’ve sometimes reinserted the words because they seemed to be the best name for what I was describing.

At least for now, I stopped playing Hamlet with the words after reading “The Backlash Against Reform Philanthropy,” by Michael McShane and Jenn Hatfield.   McShane and Hatfield investigate the liberal, moderate, and conservative critics of edu-philanthropy who “oppose education philanthropy because of what philanthropists are pushing, who is pushing it, why they are pushing it, and how they are pushing it.”

McShane and Hatfield find:

All of our respondents had some form of concern about standardized testing. Interestingly, their criticisms struck a common chord. They believed that tests were not an accurate measurement of everything they want children to know, and that the more reliant accountability systems are on tests, the more education becomes homogenized.

Conservatives tend to support charters but liberals, like Diane Ravitch, criticize the “foundations’ failure to question whether there might be negative effects of charters [that] could result in a fully privatized education system in the near future—an outcome she would consider tragic.” But, the anti-reform leaders interviewed by McShane and Hatfield did not sound hyperbolic when criticizing choice as an ill-conceived and risky approach to school improvement.

The sources for “The Backlash Against ‘Reform’ Philanthropy“ sound remarkably similar to philanthropy and grantee interviewees in terms of the problems with the process of reform. For instance, a moderate, teacher/blogger Michael Mazenko, echoed the retrospective views of many insiders. He told McShane and Hatfield that:

The groups pushing reforms excludes the very people who would know most about what schools need to improve—teachers and school leaders. “There is just this bubble of people [referring to business leaders and entrepreneurs] who talk about education as if they are the deciding factor.”

McShane and Hatfield echo the teacher/blogger in noting that edu-philanthropists are “risk takers, deal makers, and relentless workhorses.” They explain:

Those are great skills to have if you want to make yourself a boatload of money. But the skillset that can give you the financial resources to become a major philanthropist is not necessarily the same as the one that makes you a successful philanthropist once you are sufficiently wealthy.

McShane and Hatfield note that their interviewees “did not engage in conspiratorial thinking.” They explain:

Rather than accusing foundations of being nefarious in their motivations, critics on both the right and left see the philanthropies as being fundamentally wrongheaded in their assessment of the problem that needs to be solved, and, as a result, in their assessment of what interventions will succeed. Good intentions, according to the critics, don’t make wrongheadedness any less damaging.

The “The Backlash Against ‘Reform’ Philanthropy“ concludes, “It appears that criticism of philanthropy in education is not merely the ranting of a vocal minority. Criticism has trickled into the mainstream national consciousness, and it only appears to be increasing.” It further explains that philanthropists have run into trouble because they haven’t just tried “to simply add new dollars into a system.” Venture philanthropists “are trying to use their money to redirect the flow of tax dollars.”

McShane and Hatfield conclude that the new philanthropy’s overreach is confounding because it is unnecessarily impatient. They recommend “patience, humility, and strategy” as a corrective to the errors that prompted such an intense opposition to this new approach to school improvement.

With all due respect to Larry Cuban, I will continue to use the term “corporate reform.” It’s not just that it failed to rile up AEI scholars. More and more, I see it as a concise label in terms of both education substance and edu-politics.  I also wonder how much of Cuban’s rejection of the name is a response to a word that can be used in a pejorative and a-historical manner, and how much is it a response to the way it is used in a venomous manner on social media. If I see Diane Ravitch using Instagram to post caricatures of Bill Gates on Twitter, I will once again reconsider the phrase.  In the meantime, I’ll see “corporate reform” as a dual use phrase, valuable in education discussions and a fair, though caustic, political term.

What do you think? Should educators worry about offending reformers by using the term “corporate reform?”


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. howardat58    

    The only reason to worry about this is if it is counterproductive. The end.

  2. David Greene    


    After reading William Deresiewicz’s book, “X-cellent Sheep, the Miseducation of The American Elite”, I pondered my own experiences while teaching some of them and resolved that they, like most, further the methods they know, as limited as they are.

    So I have been writing a series of posts combining my observations and experiences with his trying to explain who and what these “reformer”s really are.

    I hope you don’t mind if,instead of filling this box with text, I put the links to these 2 posts here offering what I have come to believe.

  3. Philip Kovacs    

    Absolutely Anthony. I work for a corporation. One of the things we do is run after school programs. I believe our programs are state of the art. My son will start next year when he turns 6. Two of my students designed all of the curriculum and that curriculum contains something called “Young Scholars” which is self-directed research into a topic of their choice. We operate on a budget given to us by districts and have done a demonstrably better job than the “public” was doing before we took over. This year we are giving 100 scholarships to kids in low income neighborhoods so they can attend, and we will continue giving those scholarships for the duration of the program. I have used the term corporate in the past pejoratively, but since getting out of my ivory tower and into public spheres I have seen some really disgusting behavior from…well…everyone. If I fall into the camp of corporate reformer then I wear the moniker with pride. We have kids who cry when their parents come to pick them up from our program early…that’s an after school program…

  4. Arthur Camins    

    I don’t think the issue is whether or not we offend corporate supporters of current reforms. They are not likely to change their minds except in the face of massive public pressure. It is more important to use language that gains the attention, understanding and support of people who are not yet engaged in opposing these reforms. So, attaching a presumably negative label is only effective if it serves that purpose. Only a small slice of folks automatically view the corporate label as evocative of what is wrong with current reforms. Instead, we need dual strategy that pays as much attention to the specific damages done by current reforms as it does to alternate improvement framing and solutions.
    More here:

  5. camb888    

    Q. Should educators worry about offending reformers by using the term “corporate reform?”
    A. No more than (corporate) reformers worry about offending teachers by using the term “union thugs”.

  6. 2old2tch    

    If corporate supporters of current reforms are offended by the term corporate reform, perhaps they have a self-image problem. While it is obviously intended as a slur not infrequently, it also describes the major supporters and their business model of education quite well. The only ones who have ownership of the reform agenda are the corporate reformers. Teachers and educators are only used as mouthpieces not as valued resources.

  7. Karl Wheatley    

    With all due respect to Philip Kovacs’ point above, I agree with John Thompson that the term “corporate reformers” concisely captures a) the PEOPLE who have been running much of national educational policy for the last 15-20 years, and b) the IDEAS that have driven the discussion, the policy, and the practice, for most of the last 20 years.

    Clinton didn’t say that priests, cops, waitresses, and academics should decide what the national education goals should be, he told CEOs they should get to decide. Bill Gates says education is about training workers, not citizens or strong individuals or competent family members. All the language and worldview of the education policies of the last 15 years is a corporate worldview–that life is about making money, that education is about preparing you to make money (or help others do so), that complex aspects of life (like education) can be reduced to one or two numbers, that competition and carrots and sticks inherently bring out the best in people (despite what the research says), and that more, faster, and earlier is always better.

    It has been a wholesale and hostile takeover of a major aspect of civilization by market ideas, market language, and business leaders. For those of us who come walks of life that don’t define the meaning of life as being about making money, who don’t believe GDP tells how well America is doing or that tests tell how well schools are doing, these new ideas have been alien, and ill-fitting, and counterproductive.

    “The school privatisation movement is one of unparalleled genius. It proposes free-market solutions to a problem created by the free market: wealthy taxpayers refusing to adequately fund poor people’s schools and a deindustrialised service economy that has eliminated good jobs for the working class. Once upon a time, in the 1990s, young people who wanted to change education for the better read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. Today, they watch the film Waiting for'”Superman’, join Teach for America for a couple of years and work for organisations dedicated to attacking teachers’ unions.”

    —Daniel Denvir, The Guardian, April 7, 2011

    “That education policy reflects the zeitgeist shouldn’t surprise us; capitalism has a wonderful knack for marginalizing (or co-opting) systems of value that might pose an alternative to its own. Still, capitalism’s success in this case is particularly elegant: by bringing education to heel, by forcing it to meet its criteria for ‘success,’ the market is well on the way to controlling a majority share of the one business that might offer a competing product, that might question its assumptions. . . . By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.”
    —Mark Slouka, Harper’s Magazine, Sept. 2009

  8. Ray Brown    

    To me, the “Corporate Reformers” , those who have denigrated caring, hard working teachers, who believe in for profit schools, who want to end seniority and not look at the real reason for failing schools, poverty and crime, where schools are on constant lock down, the discrepancy in school funding, these guys have not a leg to stand on. Corporate Reformers are the nicest words I can think of, in fact, I can think of a lot of other words for them, but I could not print it here.

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