Why Corporate School Reform will Eventually Fail

collaborative learning

The bottom line is this, you cannot get professionalism, compassion and commitment from teachers when you treat them like Starbucks employees. The corporate model of school reform, with it’s focus on charter schools, high-stakes testing and Common Core standards, ignores the reason the best teachers went into the profession in the first place.

What the profiteers also ignore (and don’t want anyone to know) is that the model they are selling with charter schools is an imitation of successful innovations first developed in America’s public schools. Since the 1960s, educational researchers across the nation have been collaborating with teachers, working to develop more effective learner-centered forms of education.

Yale University psychiatrist and educator Dr. James Comer’s School Development Program and similar learner-centered whole school projects developed successful approaches decades ago and were proving their effectiveness in the 1990s when business people saw an opportunity to make some money. From 1989 to 1993 I worked with one of those innovative programs, Hank Levin’s Accelerated Schools, featured in this 1993 ABC News documentary on The New American Revolution in Learning.

Our project and similar one’s were part of a progressive national movement of participatory action research that was flourishing in America, experimenting with helpful ideas from psychology (such as Csikszentimihalyi’s theory of flow, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, neuroplasticity, constructivism, Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences & Dweck’s insights into fixed vs. growth mindsets).

All of these ideas were developed and applied with innovative methods such as cooperative learning strategies, project based learning and alternative assessment. Across the U.S., educational researchers and teachers were working on their own or in partnership, developing some of the innovations we now see being evolved further in nations like Finland.

freedom-writers-diary-book-coverSchools of education taught these creative ideas and strategies to new teachers, giving rise to sometimes “miraculous” results, such as in the case of first-time teacher Erin Gruwell, who’s story was told in the film Freedom Writers. With dedication, creativity, compassion, insight and autonomy Ms. Gruwell helped transform the lives of her poor and working class inner-city students.

Success stories like this have been happening everywhere. The field of education has been growing and transforming, shedding it’s test, text and teacher-centered factory model of the past, evolving a more flexible and successful learner-centered paradigm..

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way profit motivated individuals in the business and investment community took notice. The idea of “venture philanthropy” was spawned, a trojan horse essentially designed to close down public schools serving the most disadvantaged communities, and put profit-making McCharters in their place. It does this by emphasizing “measurable results” where “donors and grantees assess progress based on mutually determined benchmarks” so as to “shift funds between organizations and goals based on tracking those measurable results.”

Put another way- since No Child Left Behind- the corporate reformers have been successful at sneaking factory school style tests and measurements back into education. The charter school movement has been a con game, trying to re-package and profit financially from the learner-centered model that public school teachers helped to develop, while simultaneously forcing an entire nation to bow to new standards, test-prep materials and measurements developed by non-educators and billion dollar testing corporations, off-site.

It’s been like watching a Wall Street corporate takeover in slow motion, not that different from what happened with industrial agriculture and our health care system. So far thousands of skilled and dedicated teachers have lost their jobs in New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia and other locations. And yet, to date, there has been no evidence that schools run by this business model are in any way superior to the successful public school reform programs (like Comer’s project at Yale) that first developed these innovations.

thMoreover, some of the tactics of the venture “philanthropists” borders on sinister. There’s a billionaire named Eli Broad who created an “Academy” to train non-educators to take over as superintendents in school districts across the country. Once they got into power these individuals used the same strategy as the HIV virus when it invades the body’s immune system, basically taking over the education system by hijacking centers of defense and control.

In 2008, Broad had his greatest victory, as the Obama administration placed one of his protégé’s – Arne Duncan – in the very top position at the Dept. of Education. As Chicago journalist Greg Palast prophetically warned in December of 2008, just a few days after Duncan’s nomination:

“The problem with Arne Duncan is not party affiliation. The problem is education philosophy. And Duncan is a Bush baby through and through, a card-carrying supporter of the program best called, “No Child’s Behind Left.” At the heart of the program is testing. And more testing. Testing instead of teaching. When tests go badly, the solution is to push the low-test-score kids to drop out of school. If triage isn’t enough, then attack their teachers… 

What horrifies me more than Duncan’s lack of credentials is Obama’s kowtowing to the right-wing clique crusading against the teachers’ union and progressive education. The ill philosophy behind the Bush-brand education theories Duncan promotes, “Teach-to-the-Test,” forces teachers to limit classroom time to pounding in rote low-end skills, easily measured on standardized tests. The transparent purpose is to create a future class of worker-drones. Add in some computer training and – voila! – millions of lower-income kids are trained on the cheap to function, not think.

Analytical thinking skills, creative skills, questioning skills are left exclusively to privileged little Bushes at Phillips Andover Academy or privileged little Obamas at the Laboratory School. For the rest of America’s children, instead of hope, we’ll have hoops..”

charter3Since Arne Duncan took office, teachers and students have experienced something like No Child Left Behind on steroids. Race to the Top and the Common Core standards were created, with hundreds of “low performing” community schools shut down around the nation even before the new tests were fully implemented. Amazingly, the Common Core’s claims of legitimacy are not even based on any research evidence. As respected educator Stephen Krashen has pointed out, the claims are totally false.

Another hidden agenda of Common Core appears to be to standardize teaching across the nation so that new tests and software can be marketed to measure students and provide a profitable market for their corporate developers. Furthermore, as Thomas Armstrong has revealed, Common Core’s pedagogy isn’t even new, it’s based on an approach called “New Criticism” that was popular during the Cold War period.

There is no evidence that these new standards have helped anyone, with the exception of charter school investors, software makers and testing companies. This is because successful schools are not corporate run businesses serving consumers, they are innovative self-directed learning communities, with professional teachers who truly care about their students, collaborating with one another and with parents.

comer416The new focus on high-stakes testing and for-profit charters as “the answer” has had disastrous effects for many of the pioneering public school programs that were doing wonderfully throughout the 1990s. Yale University’s Dr. James P. Comer (left photo), arguably the father of successful whole school reform for communities living in poverty, describes in this video how funding started to dry up in the last decade for his innovative program.

Even worse, because of a “clueless” new superintendent snuck into the top position, when one of his schools did succeed at raising student test-scores it was immediately suspected of cheating. When eventually the superintendent realized the success was real, he assumed it was “caused” by the leadership of the principal. Having no understanding of the creative teamwork, love, passion and social dynamics of Comer’s program, he removed the principal, thereby setting up the school for failure.

When serving children in situations of poverty and difficult home life situations, a family-like atmosphere and sense of trust is absolutely essential at school. For those children to thrive requires adults who love and care about them, who understand the social and developmental issues involved.

Teachers need to be given creative autonomy, financial support, trust and professional respect. Dr. Comer and educators involved in successful learner-centered projects understand this. The education systems of Singapore and Finland understand this, as do the expensive private schools that serve the children of the wealthiest Americans.

Can U.S. schools once again lead the world in innovation and effective teaching? Can all of our nation’s children be motivated, successful and creative in their lives and careers? Yes, they can. But it’s not going to happen with a business model that punishes teachers, children and schools that don’t meet questionable new “standards” so as to then channel taxpayer money and resources into the pockets of Wall Street investors.

It’s not going to happen with top-down testing and “teacher-proof” curriculums developed by people working in companies like Microsoft and Pearson who, in an effort to reboot the Factory School model, have no clue about the children into who’s lives they are intruding, but only wish to be able to “measure” schools, teachers and children so they can manipulate what goes on there, and profit financially from their education “investments.”

Teacher helping student with school workIntelligent and passionate people go into the field of education because they love teaching and wish to help children develop a love of learning. It’s about assisting each student to develop their potential for curiosity, creativity, intelligence, independence, self-direction, social competence, character strength, academic success and a wide range of other abilities.

In order to do this successfully teachers need to be treated like the professionals they are, encouraged to be flexible, innovative and think for themselves. Shared goals are essential, but teachers have to adjust to the needs of each student and the culture of their community. Educators should also be directly involved in creating goals and standards in our field. Telling adult professionals what to teach, how to teach and then watching over them like factory workers, is sending many of the best teachers out of the profession.

Powerful innovation in American education has been going on successfully for decades. It will flourish once again as soon as students and teachers everywhere are respected, listened to and given the freedom to be creative. It will happen when we provide equal educational funding for all of America’s children, supporting local community-based innovation and the talents of compassionate teachers who have dedicated their lives to the profession. It’s that simple.

~ Christopher Chase
The Art of Learning



Parents speaking out about the effects of high-stakes testing on their children

* Invest in Children, Not Testing. It’s That SimpleThe Bait and Switch of School Reform *  * Standardizing Education – Common Core’s Hidden Agenda  * Self-Direction is the Key to Mastery  * A Nation’s Schools Reveals Our Hearts – John KuhnFlow- The Psychology of Optimal Experience * Understanding How Our Brains Learn  * Common Ingredients of Successful School Reform * Every Child is an Artist by Nature *  It’s a Pink Floyd World – Welcome (Back) to the Machine * Walmart, Gates, Hedge Funds & Charter Schools (Business Insider) *  Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education * Educational Malpractice – The Child Manufacturing Process * Real Learning is a Creative Process  *

Jan. 2015 (video below): Special Education Teacher, Jia Lee from NYC was invited to give testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, to discuss the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind…

About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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27 Responses to Why Corporate School Reform will Eventually Fail

  1. Awesome post with much needed information clearly and succinctly presented. Thank you. This needs to be shared widely.

  2. Pingback: Dr. James P. Comer, Forgotten Pioneer of Successful School Reform | Creative by Nature

  3. Tori Skidori says:

    I agree that there are many unscrupulous corporate charters out there, there are also some really wonderful individual local public charters as well. They have local school boards controlling them and some incredibly dedicated and visionary teachers and administrators who are making kids get excited about learning in ways they haven’t been since preschool. Please don’t lump those in with the corporate profit-driven charters. Charter schools have a place, but states need to put controls on them so that their primary focus will be children, not profits. It is nothing new to have companies profiting from schools; textbook companies have long profited with their over-priced books. But there are charters linked to non-profits that are doing good things and filling needed roles.

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  14. Bonnie Rosario says:

    As usual…Excellent Post!

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