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.