Saturday, December 22, 2012

Public K-12: Corporate Reform – “The Wrong Stuff?”


The Edunationredux blog of 16 December 2012 promised a Part Two of “the other reform.”  That post was waylaid by an exchange with Ms Strauss, master of the prolific “The Answer Sheet.”

First, Apologies to Valerie

In sum, two of my assertions were critiqued:  That my prior blog underrepresented the negative role of our corporate population in present public K-12 reform strategies, and also misstated “The Answer Sheet” coverage of criticism of public education’s own performances.  The latter criticism was on the mark. Ms Strauss said:  “…you seem to have missed my frequent comments about how desperately many schools have needed reform for years, how unions have brought their troubles on themselves for being so late to agree to address major issues including evaluation, how teachers have allowed themselves to be infantilized, and how some of them ought to be fired immediately…”  Stronger words than even past posts from this blog; this writer sincerely apologizes to this column and its amazing editor for not doing sufficient homework.

Second, Not So Simple Valerie

The context of the second point is more problematic.  Ms. Strauss said:  “…I am not talking about industry directly but about the corporate mentality that the four options show. They represent bad corporate thinking: Shutting something down, getting rid of employees, etc., rather than a more humane approach of retraining (where necessary), adding the kinds of supports for students that would really make a difference...”  With respect, factoring out our diverse universe of corporate actors versus the “corporate mentality” of K-12 critique is challenging. 

There are roughly 200,000 American companies with over $10MM in sales.  I would argue that a limited fraction of those firms – at least the successful ones and industry exemplars – operate as described above.  Technology – heavily factory automation – beginning in the ‘70s and over four decades massively replaced human low-skill jobs; world markets have replaced former American industrial exceptionalism; and comparative advantage has rearranged where production is now clustered world-wide.  But the displacement of human labor goes beyond an act of corporate mentality; it has frequently been undesired but a company’s productivity and survival imperative, and actively stimulated by tax policy.  Taken over the universe of US businesses, the issues are more nearly national industrial policy challenges – and the US doesn’t have a national industrial policy.

Noble words, but the test of meaning is in the experiences of the viewer of the issues.  If you have never had to fire employees – I have and it extracts a personal psychic toll – the above distinction may not fully register.  The argument here is that my own experiences are far more common in the ethical strata of our corporate communities than an undiscriminating “corporate mentality.”  But that coin has two sides; not all of our present private sector or even corporate actors influencing K-12 have the same image of the mission, its goals, or what processes are kosher.

Representative of the Corporate Mind?

Reform options offered by current questionable Federal education policy (the same options forged for Bush’s NCLB) have been stated as below:

"The "turnaround model"  in which the LEA replaces the principal and rehires no more than 50% of the staff, gives the principal greater autonomy, and implements other prescribed and recommended strategies.

The “restart model” in which the LEA converts or closes and reopens a school under a charter school operator, charter management organization, or education management organization.

The “school closure model” in which the LEA closes the school and enrolls the students in other schools in the LEA that are higher achieving.

The “transformation model” in which the LEA replaces the principal (except in specified situations), implements a rigorous staff evaluation and development system, institutes comprehensive instructional reform, increases learning time and applies community-oriented school strategies, and provides greater operational flexibility and support for the school."

I suppose if you are intellectually limited, and managerially myopic, the above options might seem apropos.  Their prescriptive dogmatism, wholly unqualified by the diagnostic work that precedes good organizational decision-making, is jarring.  One has to assume that there is more political Machiavellianism in the list than rational evaluation, or the list was fashioned by some educational ideologue living in some utopian space?   Except for option four, that with tweaking should arguably always be in some dress the applicable reform option, the unqualified options one through three are infantile.  That they allegedly were crafted in the US Department of Education is even more bizarre – is that Department still vying with the US House of Representatives for national stupefaction?

Different Folks, Different Strokes

Let’s change the goalposts, to that “corporate mentality;” and the issues are prominently, who are the players, and what are their positions?  Even this mission must be bisected into the present status of corporate reform, that might be described as knee-jerk myopia, and versus an extended history of attempts to upset public education that also have a corporate aroma.

You can't lay the current entire K-12 reform debacle on "corporate mentality" – ignoring the pivotal roles played by dug-in public K-12 systems in denial or dogmatic, bottom-feeding collegiate schools of education, and simultaneously a utopian and hypocritical Federal stance – but to give Ms Strauss her due, there really is a current euphemistic corporate dirty dozen.  The challenge may be ordering the current mischief.

The list starts with players, who like the fable of the scorpion and the frog are just practicing their nature, the firms dominating K-12 test and text businesses:  CTB/McGraw-Hill; NCS Pearson (including Harcourt); Riverside Publishing (Houghton Mifflin); SAP; et al.  Their performance reflects a lack of social responsibility, vulture capitalism, unknown damage to our concepts of knowledge and learning, and cynicism and arrogance that used to be unacceptable in a younger America.  Only occasionally visible, their lobbying and influence efforts may relatively top all industries except our military-industrial complex and big pharma.  Their manipulation of K-12 textbook markets constituted ethical issues long before the current reform wars ignited.

Also on the primarily corporate ladder are the facilitators of corporate activism: The US Chamber of Commerce that hasn't promoted legitimate business and managerial excellence in decades; the Business Roundtable; the virtually undocumented collections of firms and consultancy formed to benefit from charter takeovers of public systems when they can be undercut; and also still largely undocumented, the extent that state departments of education have been infiltrated and corrupted by the testing companies, e.g., Ohio.

The Rise of Controlling Philanthropy

Then there are the billionaires, seeking to privatize or twist K-12 into a version of the 20th century’s business thinking, stuffing it down the nation’s throat.  Funny thing, no one recalls voting for their installation as K-12’s public leadership.

Perhaps the most egregious of the billionaire edu-gorillas is Bill Gates, his Foundation potentially controlling an alleged $60B.  Gifted with the operating system that became Microsoft by IBM (apparently not heeding their own THIMK anthem), supplemented primarily from ideas copied from more creative firms, Microsoft’s former market position and Gates’ fortune were built on monopolistic practices and pricing, plus antediluvian management featuring “stack ranking” that now appears in testing and the VAM models of teacher assessment.  Ironic coming from that source, anything that is a paean to K-12 competition, never practiced at home.  Education historian Diane Ravitch called Gates’ self-anointed K-12 change efforts “puzzling.”  A less kind assessment is that it represents a conceit and ignorance of genuine learning as well as retro managerial theory, now damaging all American K-12 education.

The corporate gang also features Walmart, the Broad Foundation, Michael Bloomberg, Michael Dell, and more hiding in the shadows, self-styled activism some now term “philanthrocapitalism.”  Famously, Mr. Broad stated in a 2009 speech:  “We don’t know anything about how to teach or curriculum or any of that.  But what we do know about is management and governance.”  I would argue that Mr. Broad’s command of contemporary management theory is on a par with the self-stated assessment of educational literacy.

The sting isn’t just from corporate power, it reflects:  The capacities of that wealth to influence our states; funding an ALEC to write state legislation undercutting public schools; enabling the National Governors Association (presently a right wing dominant entity) to shape school policy; imposition of the alleged Common Core (the CCSSI, representing more reintroduced K-12 methods garbage than needed contemporary knowledge standards); and funding of ad hoc experiments and publications shaping educational civilian beliefs, but too frequently without the controls on genuine scientific publication and standards of proof.

The current reform narratives, under the heading “corporate reform,” have to raise the question, where is that theory of successful work originating?  The strategies and tactics advocated are archaic, reflecting F. W. Taylor’s once “scientific management” and related theories of management and organization, mostly made obsolete last century.  Where are our B-schools, who have to be seen as complicit in fostering these views in training our corporate executives?  In fact, most US B-schools are at least three decades overdue for their own second round of reform, currently reflecting leaderships focused on flogging endowments and self-promotion rather than intellectually-driven business theory and ethical management concept development.

Lastly, though present vision of K-12 reform starts with NCLB, or for some with “A Nation at Risk” during the Reagan Administration, the hijacking of public K-12 by a mix of ideological beliefs has been underway since WWII, perhaps even earlier.  That the need for self-initiated change should have been obvious to both public K-12 leaders, and the teachers’ unions, is also obvious.  The old saw, “you gets what you pays for,” applies in spades to many present US public schools delaying over the same decades needed self-diagnosis.

The Dirty Underbelly of Corporate Reform

Summary observations:  “The Answer Sheet” is truly addressing in a faction of the private sector one of the three most destructive forces currently crucifying public K-12 and potentially strategically effecting the nation’s learning vectors.  The second force – call them America’s odd couple – remains in too many cases the dug-in, self-righteous, sluggish targets of so-called reform, many still in denial of the conflict, or lacking the courage or intellect to self-assess their profession.  The third force, incongruously, is our own US Department of Education, on course with the apparent goal of choosing the worst of all K-12 worlds and blowing billions of tax dollars on those options to entrench bureaucratic solutions and low order learning in the belief it will ensure utopian equal opportunity.

Consider two simple questions:  First, why would a nation dependent for progress on creativity and intelligence in pursuit of STEM, social, and political achievement, delegate to a dozen or so self-serving corporations the de facto definition and implementation of what constitutes universal knowledge? Add, where their claim to fame is basically peddling other people’s ideas, aggressive lobbying of governments through the White House, colluding, corrupting educational decision-making while metaphorically avoiding the sheriff, and publicly applauding that the US has a $500B K-12 education market waiting to be exploited?  With standardized testing perverting genuine learning as their primary assault weapon, the net of “corporate reform” by an ideological and/or profit-driven corporate minority has become another American tragedy.

Second, metaphorically, who is watching the watchers, or more apropos, who will reform the alleged reformers?  Finding a compromise that will get the nation’s public K-12 schools off the battlefield seems a goal as contentious as the present debacle of the “fiscal cliff.”  Anyone who understands the roles propagated throughout a society and economy by an educated workforce and electorate – roles that in future must extend beyond assembling some “standardized K-12 graduate” in the historical version of early 20th century thinking – has to ask whether the US, in knee jerk fashion, is myopically jumping off an educational cliff to solve a problem of learning inequality that is embedded in societal issues extending way beyond the classroom.  History teaches that the strategy of hoping the [educational] phoenix will rise from the [public K-12] ashes may not be a prudent bet. 

How escape the K-12 deadlock and cliff?  A contention is that it will take major intervention to sort out what has become America’s most convoluted and dangerous mess after sustainable employment of its citizens and fiscal reality, and likely to peak to crisis ahead of climate change.  Needed:  A call for a "time out" on dysfunctional standardized testing intrusion; strategic thinking instead of trial and error; for the corporate community that does not endorse present methods, a mechanism to speak out; research on more effective methods for measuring learning effects and assessing accountability; start the accountability exercises at the level of school leadership where K-12 shortfalls really originate; valid experiments and data beyond test scores and state school grades; and way overdue, what might be termed some “slow thinking.”

The Mayans did not predict our demise, but the US is increasingly demonstrating the capacity to update the prediction.

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