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?”