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Why we should be skeptical of “corporate” education reform

Like so many other political issues, education reform has, sadly, devolved into a battle between two polarized camps. First, there are the “corporate” education reformers, people like former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and, to a certain extent, President Barack Obama.

Corporate education reformers apply the logic and incentive structure of the private sector to public education (hence the name). They focus on test scores as a measure of school and student achievement, and they tell a story in which bureaucratic schools hold back progress while mediocre teachers are protected by strong tenure laws and disincentivized from improving by compensation structures that fail to reward merit. They advocate for school choice (vouchers, charters, etc.) to inject competition and innovation into public education, and they attack teachers unions, pushing to end tenure laws, implement teacher evaluations based (in part) on student test scores, and use those evaluations to fire the worst and give bonuses to the best.

On the other side is everyone else. By no means a unified force, the second camp is defined as much by its opposition to corporate reform as it is by the solutions it promotes. Key members of this side include writer Diane Ravitch, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. They point to inequities in funding, severe poverty, an excessive focus on testing and insufficient support for teachers as primary obstacles to education reform.

As is so often the case, there is at least a grain of truth on each side. Corporate reformers are right to emphasize reform of stagnating schools, and there definitely are bad teachers out there who are protected by the shield of lifetime tenure. That being said, we ought to be deeply concerned about the general philosophy of corporate reform.

If one hopes to apply the ideas of one sector to inform decisions in another, one must assume that the two sectors are similar enough in substance for the ideas to be transferrable. This is a shaky assumption. In particular, there are three broad areas in which business and education are not comparable:

  1. Education outcomes are incredibly complex, so quality is much harder to define and to measure than it is in business, where profit (and perhaps customer satisfaction surveys) rule the day. The things we expect educators to teach our students (critical thinking, creativity, factual knowledge, intellectual curiosity, study skills, social skills, open-mindedness, etc.) are so nebulous and so diverse that we cannot develop (or at least have not yet developed) standardized metrics for learning in each of these areas. Moreover, even if we did develop such metrics, and we could use them easily, no two educators would agree on how to weight these learning goals in comparison to one another. Given these facts, the corporate reformer’s focus on test scores is myopic. While tests, if well-designed, can be a useful tool for measuring a certain type of learning, overreliance on their results may incentivize teachers to “teach to the test,” reduce time spent on un-tested subjects and even cheat on behalf of their students.
  1. In business, managers can link outcomes (success of a project, cost savings, etc.) to the actions of a particular person or group of people. In education, however, it is extremely difficult to connect student outcomes (i.e. test scores) to any particular teacher. Although value-added modeling attempts to do so, by controlling for student demographics and learning trends, the statistical science relies on several problematic assumptions, one of which is that students are randomly assigned to the classrooms in which they are taught. Therefore, at least in the current moment, it makes little sense to base hiring, firing and merit-pay decisions on teacher evaluations that rely in large part on value-added models. Evaluating professionals is necessary in any field, but evaluating them according to flawed metrics is a recipe for disaster.
  1. Finally, the dynamics of choice and competition play out differently in business than in schools. Good businesses grow and attract lots of interest, and bad businesses go bankrupt because consumers express their preferences through the products they buy. Although theoretically useful, this theory can be misleading when applied to public schooling. Schools are often highly valued centers of community. Thus, even if a school is failing, it is often better to reform it from the inside – and preserve that community hub – than to shut it down (like a failing business), as many corporate reformers would prefer. Additionally, as UCLA Professor Gary Orfield demonstrates in a new book, unregulated school choice can perpetuate inequality, because well-off families will continue to find ways to concentrate themselves in the highest performing schools. If managed correctly, systems of school choice can actually reduce segregation, but blindly applying principles of choice to public education will not lead to beneficial outcomes.

Ultimately, the goal of this article is neither to denigrate the corporate reform movement nor to prop up its critics. That being said, we need to be careful about the comparisons we make between business and education. In the years to come, some insights of business may prove useful in reforming American public education. For example, as mentioned earlier, carefully regulated systems of school choice could actually lead to greater racial and socioeconomic integration. However, before jumping to conclusions and experimenting on schools with the highest-need students, we must proceed with caution, think carefully and look at the available research. The scientific method – not the unproven theories of the private sector – provides the safest ground for the development of sustainable solutions to problems in public education.

Contact Austin Block at aeblock ‘at’ Stanford.edu.

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