Education and the Commercial Mindset

21 Oct

Samuel E. Abrams has created a masterpiece of research and reason illuminating the successes and failures of the forces favoring privatization of public education. His new book published by Harvard University Press is Education and the Commercial Mindset.

Starting with Chris Whittle and his infamous Channel One on TV and the ill-fated Edison Education, Abrams documents the triumphs and failures of profit based education. He shares the thinking and biographies of key characters working to privatize education and includes voices warning about the unsavory consequences of this agenda; not only in America, but worldwide.

Evidence of Valuable Education Reform Policies

My big take-away from this book was solidified in the last two chapters that discussed privatization efforts in Europe and South America. It explains why both Chile and Sweden have begun undoing their privatized systems. Abrams wrote:

“Much as many Chileans at the same time were protesting their nation’s long-standing system of for-profit school management, initiated in 1981, Swedish critics started to raise their voices in opposition. The Chilean adversaries would soon prevail, with President Michele Bachelet declaring in January 2015 that her government would phase out for-profit school management.

“Basic to the UR [the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company] series was a crisis of faith in Swedish education known as ‘PISA shock.’ Of all OECD nations, only Sweden had seen scores on the triennial Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) successively drop with each administration of the exam since its introduction in 2000.” (Page 275)

The one country in Scandinavia that plotted its own course, Finland, has a very similar population distribution as its neighbors yet on PISA its scores are significantly better. Finland also achieved about the same result differential when compared to the United States. Here is a chart I reproduced from the book (Page 287):

pisa-results-graphic

To address a chronic teacher shortage – especially in science classes – Norway, Denmark and Sweden have all introduced Teach for America type programs. Now there is a Teach for Norway, a Teach for Denmark and a Teach for Sweden. On the contrary, Finland sets itself ”apart from not only Sweden but also Denmark and Norway as the only Nordic nation requiring all teachers to have a master’s degree before taking over a classroom.” (Page 280) The Finn’s significantly boosted teacher pay to equality with other professions and reduced class sizes. There is no teacher shortage in Finland.

Where Norway, Sweden and Denmark have embraced standardized testing of certain critical classes like language and mathematics, Finland has chosen to monitor its schools using sampling techniques similar to the NEAP testing in the United States. In addition, Finland samples all classes including music and art.

The Finns also have a different attitude toward who should be leading education than their Nordic neighbors or the United States. Abrams reports, “Of the many officials I interviewed at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, the FNBE, FINEEC, and the Helsinki Department of Education, all had been teachers for at least four years and several had taught more than ten.” (Page 289)

If the intention is great education and not merely profiting from tax payers or creating education on the cheap, then the Finish results indicate three important policy principles to consider:

1) Put highly trained well paid teachers in every classroom.

2) Respect the professional judgment of educators and have them lead education.

3) Significantly reduce class sizes.

For Profit Education and Modern Reform Efforts

In the spring of 1991, George Bush announced his America 2000 education agenda and the New America Schools Development Corporation (NASDC). NASDC was defined as “a private-sector research and development fund of at least $150 million to generate innovation in education.” (Page 20) Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill was named as its first chairman. The Regan administration published “A Nation at Risk”, which was written by leaders in the business community and NASDC was clearly a business community driven entity charged with fixing America’s “failing” public schools. Abrams described the committee:

“O’Neill was soon after replaced by Thomas Kean, president of Drew University and former Republican governor of New Jersey. Kean’s fifteen fellow board members comprised some of most powerful people in American business, including Louis Gerstner, chairman of RJR Nabisco; Frank Shrontz, chairman of Boeing; Lee Raymond, president of Exxon; James R. Jones, chairman and CEO of the American Stock Exchange; John Ong, chairman of BF Goodrich; and Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the National Football League. Their mission was to lead the way in breaking the mold of conventional schooling.” (page 21)

America had turned its back on professional educators and put its faith in these powerful CEO’s to remediate all that was believed plaguing public schools. A few years latter Diane Ravitch would derisively label this CEO led reform effort “corporate education reform.”

Concurrent with Bush’s America 2000, Chris Whittle had sold his Channel One and was putting together a for profit education organization called the Edison Project. Whittle was the consummate salesman. “In a coup that made the front page of the New York Times on May 26, 1992, Whittle lured Benno Schmidt from the presidency of Yale University and thereby brought the Edison Project national attention and clout overnight.” (Page 27) As Abrams documents, Whittle and Schmidt made grandiose claims regarding the future of the Edison Project:

“Despite this lack of experience in K-12 education, Schmidt, along Whittle, spoke with conviction about what ailed it and what should be done. They contended that no cause in the United States was as pressing as K-12 education and no remedy as promising as for-profit management. In the front-page article in the New York Times announcing Schmidt’s decision to leave Yale to lead Edison, Schmidt and Whittle forecasted that Edison could have a revolutionary impact. Whittle placed the company’s mission in the context of the Cold War and employed the language of historical inevitability: ‘You have to have a West Berlin for East Berlin to fall, and what we’re really doing here is building West Berlin.’ Schmidt added: ‘The reason this hasn’t been done before is that this thing is a matter of D-Day dimensions. Only someone with a high tolerance for risk would even be willing to contemplate it.’ Schmidt predicted, ‘If this venture succeeds, there’s nothing that could be done, aside from changing human nature that could be more constructive for our society.’” (Page 28)

Toward Edison’s Failure

Abrams obviously spent a lot of time not only researching but visiting various facilities and interviewing key actors in the story of privatized education in America. It is fascinating to learn how many of the leaders in the Edison Project have continued the quest to privatize America’s schools. I think two episodes involving Edison are particularly illustrative of privatized failure; one in Baltimore and the other in Philadelphia.

Citizens in middle and working class neighborhoods were not interested in replacing their public schools with for profit schools. However, blighted neighborhoods like those in Baltimore which became the locations for HBO’s The Wire, were fertile markets for Edison. In March of 2000, the Maryland School Board identified seven Baltimore primary schools that were not performing well and they selected Edison to run four of those elementary schools. The other three schools continued under the supervision of the local school district.

The bottom line was Edison came in with some really good people and made many facilities upgrades, but the three schools that stayed in the public system outperformed the Edison schools on language arts and math testing. When the only metric for good education is testing data, it signaled the eventual end for Edison in Baltimore.

In 2000, Tom Ridge paid Edison $2.7 million dollars to study Philadelphia’s schools and make recommendations. Abrams writes about the reaction to this contract:

“Even Brandon Dobell, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston who was bullish on Edison, expressed disapproval of the arrangement. Along with Howard M. Block, an analyst at Bank of America Securities, Dobell took the consulting contract to mean that Edison would end up running a cluster of the city’s schools and, on that account, forecasted greater earning potential for the company. A report Dobell coauthored termed the contract ‘a strong endorsement for the Edison value proposition – perhaps the strongest we have seen thus far in Edison’s lifetime.’ Indeed, Edison’s stock spiked 6 percent on the day of the announcement of the contract. Yet Dobell saw the conflict of interest inherent in commissioning a study from a company that stood likely to recommend its own services. ‘This contract is a bit strange,’ Dobell said to a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. ‘It is kind of like putting a fox in charge of the henhouse.’” (Page 104)

Eventually, after much political upheaval, Edison was awarded 23 Philadelphia schools. While Abrams details many issues faced by Edison, it was the intractable problems plaguing public schools; poverty, lack of funding and bad education policy dictated from above that were beyond Edison’s ability to conquer.

I am reminded of a story I heard from a New Orleans resident about why parents there initially embraced the charter movement. As a young woman, going to underfunded schools in the black community, she had been in middle school classes with 55 students. Furthermore, the administration would only allow teachers to run the classroom fan for 10 minutes every hour. It was oppressively hot and students would watch the clock like a hawk so they got the fan on immediately when it was time. After Katrina, political leaders said they were going to put money into schools in her neighborhood. That was new and sounded good.

Pennsylvania finances its schools almost exclusively with property taxes. In urban Philadelphia, property values are low and poverty is high. In 2000-2001, Philadelphia spent $7,944 per student on schools. The five school districts along the Main Line of the region’s commuter rail system, which services suburbanites living northwest of Philadelphia spent $11,421 per student. Even though Edison got some extra funding they could not overcome this double whammy that has also vexed the public schools system. Education on the cheap, does not work; especially in blighted neighborhoods.

In 2013, Edison ceased to exist. The bulk of EdisonLearning was sold to a supplementary educational services company in Camden, New Jersey, called Catapult Learning.

Abrams also does a thorough job of documenting the rise of the charter school industry, especially the no-excuses charters. It is fascinating to see how many young executives at Edison became key leaders in the charter school industry or went to work for foundations like the Fisher Foundation which support charter schools.

Both the for profit education initiative and charter school development were led by people with no deep education experience or theoretical knowledge. For example the famous KIPP charter school chain was started by two “Teach for a Minute Boys” with no education background and only two years elementary school teaching experience.

Abrams presents convincing arguments that KIPP and other no-excuses charter systems cannot possibly be scaled up to educate all American children. These systems have a history of burning out teachers and they rely on public schools to take in the children they expel or council out.

For people interested in public education, Education and the Commercial Mindset is an important asset. The privatization movement has been fueled by a misunderstanding of effect and cause. Public schools were struggling, not due to misguided pedagogy or “bad teachers”, but from bad policy and an unwillingness to adequately fund education in poor communities. The top down and misguided federally driven remedies and for profit cannibalism have only made the problem worse.

 

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5 Responses to “Education and the Commercial Mindset”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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