Yo Teach…! Or how to avoid teaching like Jason

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 18 2012

The “Corporate Reform” Movement

When skimming through blog posts, I have a nifty trick for quickly deciding whether a something is going to be worth reading. I check whether it uses the phrase “corporate reform” in the first paragraph. If so, I move on.

The terms “corporate reform” or “corporate reformers” usually refer to anything or anyone who is associated with or funded by businesses, or adopts a “business” mindset about education where competition is fostered and workers’ jobs are in the end dependent on their tangible results. But in practice, the label “corporate reform” is more often than not used as a convenient ad hominem attack on people or policies. If I say a policy or organization is part of the corporate reform movement, I am insinuating that the actors involved in these reform movements see education simply as a business. Many use it to imply that educational actors think business strategies will improve educational outcomes; others use it to say that fostering successful businesses is the ideal educational outcome. While using these polemic terms does a fantastic job of stirring up readers who (rightly) believe that there are fundamental differences between running a school and running a business, it clouds a debate that should be based less in presumed motives and more on actions and results.

I feel lucky that I was able to see first-hand how misguided applying general labels to policies or organizations based on the people on the top can be.

I have a couple friends who got hired by a charter school network in Detroit that I think most people agree embodies the “corporate reform” movement: it is strictly run by outsiders providing little autonomy for teachers, it has little respect for teachers, it relies on the low cost and general acquiescence of TFA corps members, and it is quite possibly owned by a for-profit company (the ownership structure is worryingly vague). I was upset that this was the kind of charter school in my new city, and was even more upset that TFA was giving it the fuel (first year CM’s) needed to exist. Just as expected, over the first few weeks and months my friends told me horrifying stories about how the administration at the school all but prevented them from making any real academic progress.

But over the course of the year, their stories and their attitudes began to change. Particular rogue mentor teachers and administrators at the charter school stood out as effective, motivational, and helpful in spite of the charter schools ownership. The staff bonded together in hatred for a particular principal (interestingly a Detroit survey found that one of their schools had the lowest ranking for teacher-principal communication and the highest ranking for teacher-teacher collaboration). Moreover, my friends who were pessimistic about the future of their school are now very optimistic about the schools trajectory over the next few years, in spite of the people on the top. My point with this anecdote is not to say that all charter schools can be effective or even that this one is necessarily effective. Rather, it’s to show that educational organizations in particular are heterogeneous. The mindsets, pedagogies, and philosophies of the people at the top have a very hard time trickling down to those at the bottom, especially when they are antithetical to most educational values.

Many would jump to label this school as a product of the corporate reform movement, but that would do a disservice to the myriad of teachers at this school who, in the end, have autonomy over their mindsets, values, and practices. I believe the diversity of these teachers is not unique. While much of the funds that go into TFA, charter schools, value-added assessment research do come from corporations, the people who carry out the funded operations are guided by their own experiences, their own moral compasses, and their own beliefs about what works. Let’s evaluate them based on what they can or cannot achieve, not whom they associate with or where they get their money.

7 Responses

  1. What I find silly about “corporate reform” ideas is that rewarding teachers for student performance will increase student learning. I swear I was giving my best effort to help my did. If you’d promised me one million dollars at the end of the year if my kids passed the math test I still would have been new and confused and not sure what to do but keep trying really hard.

    • Rea

      Cameron, not sure that rewarding for student performance is necessarily to increase student learning (as studies recommend as you do that it doesn’t work). BUT I think it is to reward teachers who’ve found ways to be successful to let them know that you saw what they did with their students and want to let them know that. Just my thoughts!

      • meghank

        I think merit pay is a strategy that will be slowly phased in. The first phase is paying those with better test scores extra. Next, they will pay those with poor test scores less than what is now the base line. Since test scores fluctuate, salaries will be based on chance and teaching will not be looked upon as a career that can be done long-term, since no long-term plans can be based on it.

  2. Gary Rubinstein

    What do you think of people who frame it as ‘the reformers’ vs. ‘the unions’?

  3. yoteach

    I prefer Builders v Haters (jk). But reformers v unions is also not a very useful characterization/dichotomy, mainly because I don’t think there are many people (including those in unions) who think no reform is needed. Though I would like that camp to take more risks saying what practical things they think could be changed: specific ways to improve TFA, tangible lessons charter schools can learn from public schools, comprehensive ways of evaluating teachers, schools and principals or ways of using standardized tests in a productive way. My point is, unlike in other disciplines (politics = equality v freedom), I don’t think there is necessarily a value breakdown that ought to split educational thinkers ideologically. I think most people involved in education think more money should be spent on schools, and most think education is a means of achieving equal opportunity. People against most recent reform movements don’t have their unions as their number one priority, and reformers (those in classrooms and in offices) are rarely motivated or indoctrinated by a businesses (especially the former group). There is more room for agreement than I think both sides care to admit (even if this gives them less fodder to write about), and all of these characterizations prevent us from finding where we split, why, and eventually whose right.

  4. Demian

    Seems like you’re making the same erroneous generalization about people who use the term, that people who use the term sometimes make. When talking about large groups, it’s very easy for a descriptive term to be carelessly used or abused. It’s done all the time with terms like conservative and liberal. That doesn’t mean such terms should never be used. “Corporate reform” is a useful descriptive term, but it’s not super-precise. If you see it abused, call the author out. But, simply writing someone’s views off because of using the term seems hypocritical to me.

  5. yoteach

    So sure: if my main point was that anyone who uses the term “corporate reform” has nothing useful to say, then your right (and I’ll agree that I never came full circle with my introduction). When I started writing, I intended mainly to point out that terms like “corporate reform” are part of an ad hominem attack, that often correlates with a badly argued polemic against really all major reform policies. Where your wrong is liberal and conservative have real meaning: there are deep human characteristics that often determine if we are liberal or conservative, and rarely (with the exception of libertarianism) do people draw from both movements. Corporate reform/reformer is used to cover a very wide range of reforms that few people believe work as a coherent package. For example, school choice and high stakes standardized tests are both termed “corporate reform” but actually come from VERY different intellectual movements (school choice emerged to address the ineffectiveness of top-down testing) , and not a large group of people advocate for both. My bigger point is that we should look for more useful ways of labeling, classifying and organizing the different reform movements and ideologies, and terms ad hominem terms like “corporate reform” gets us further away from that goal.

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