Common Core and Corporate “Reform” Require a Governance Structure Fit to Impose the “Student as Product” Mentality

The following article was originally published on January 31, 2013. Its content is very relevant to solving the problem of receivership now facing the Buffalo Public Schools. I’ve revised it slightly for clarity. 


Going back to Horace Mann, the argument given was that because public schools were funded with public money, and because they were to serve democratic purposes, they must be controlled by publicly elected authorities in order to secure the interests of the public. In a sense, the argument was that because the public paid, the public should have direct control, and that elected forms of governance were part of this control mechanism.

One key aspect of current education reform is to challenge this arrangement, postulating instead that the “challenge” is to first “determine what constitutes an adequate education and then consider, separately, how it ought to be provided.”[1] This is “product specification” speak — first design a product (what it is and what it should do) and then find the best manufacturer to “deliver the goods.” This argument is part of efforts to brand “private providers” of “educational services” as serving the “public” (e.g., Educational Management Organizations and Charter Management Organizations, which, by the way, are the best manufacturers of this type of product). It is also part of an effort to justify the rise in power of venture philanthropy as a governing agent.[2] As their funding levels increase (the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has spent over $1billion between 2009 and 2012 on the Common Core standards initiative) so does their claim to decide, against public claims.

This raises a key question: Does the form of governance of education — the wide range of ways in which decisions are made about schools and school systems — affect the content and aim of that education? Are decisions about what “constitutes an adequate education” (leaving aside the problematic notion of adequate) affected by who makes those decisions and to whom they account? Does implementation affect the character of what was decided? Current “reformers” seem to be saying, “no.” Public ends, they assert, can more effectively be met by private, self-interested parties. But the Common Core, high stakes testing, characterization, new teacher evaluation schemes, school closings, so-called “personalized learning” via “big data” — all these portend a different aim than that of creating democratic citizens.

This thesis is crucial as it underpins current policy, most of which seeks to alter the traditional model of public control: Executives (CEOs, mayors, governors, state education commissioners) should decide, not school boards or even legislatures. This governance structure is linked to views that “the market place” is a more efficient way to make decisions; the corollary postulate is that public deliberation is inefficient and unable to make “tough choices”. Decisions about public matters are to be made by executives in secret. “Experts” under the control of venture philanthropy and other forms of “sponsored research” are key ingredients as they recommend the “tough choices.”

Peter Galbraith

Take the example of the Common Core initiative (CC). “Teachers, parents and community leaders have all weighed in to help create the Common Core State Standards,” exclaims corestandards.org. Then why this? “Backers of the common-core academic standards have worked for years to secure the support of a diverse collection of elected officials, academic scholars, and school employees. Now they’re ramping up efforts to court a different and potentially critically important audience: parents.”[3] The Standards were not developed by educators or a publicly accountable entity. They were developed by educational trade organizations, business organizations, venture philanthropists, and D.C. political operatives. News reports and the sheer speed with which the standards were adopted suggest states could not have possibly carried out careful reviews of the CCSS.[4]

The main governing apparatus for the CC is private in nature, and while it may be subject to some forms of public pressure, it is certainly outside the normal boundaries of local, state or federal control. Neither The National Governors Association nor the Council of Chief State School Officers are directly elected, nor are they as collectives accountable to any publicly elected body.

I have argued elsewhere that the CC is a set of product specifications and a means for product quality control. I believe this is evidenced by the hyper-narrow focus on skills related to the narrowest form of preparation for employment under the banner of “winning the global competition” (an aim which I argue should be rejected). Possibly even more telling is the continuing removal of the social, cultural and philosophical content of education. I am not simply referring to narrowed curriculum, but to the elimination of everything from nap time to a rich array of extra curricular activities not easily reducible to “career and college ready.” While some may object that part of this reduction in what many schools offer is a result of fiscal problems unrelated to the CC, I counter that when computers and other resources are needed for pilot testing PARCC assessments, those resources will magically appear, as they already have in Buffalo. As they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way! For the CC, and especially for the assessments, nothing will be spared. Not to mention the near silence regarding the more “traditional” function of public schooling in preparing young people for citizenship and democratic participation.

But possibly the most glaring evidence of the “student as product” mentality is this unchallenged mantra: we must establish what students should know and be able to do, and when they should know and be able to do it, and how well they should know and be able to do it (so called “standards”).[5] In the present case, those who established the CC view humans as things to be manipulated for their benefit, and the view pervades the reforms they impose with the help of their “standards.”[6] We are repeatedly told by CC crusaders that if we do this the same way in every state, we will reach education nirvana. Note that this approach is a dramatic shift away from specifying what should be taught, and in what sequence (i.e., curriculum).

To demand that every student acquire specific skills at specific times is to deny what is known about human development. Even if all forms of social inequality were absent, substantial variation in human development would still exist. Education can not be effective while organized on the basis of manufacturing. Yet, that is precisely what the “know and be able to do at x point in time” mentality presumes. And we are suffering from this practice. Until educators break with this outdated mentality there is little hope that we will be able to raise the quality of education and prepare students for the future.

This notion of education standards as product specification can only be maintained if students are not seen as individual human beings, with rights and dignity, conscience and conviction, aspirations and demands. This outlook demands that students be viewed as things, as products to be bought and sold after some “value has been added” (and some profit has been made along the way!). The very idea of “value added” is a frank admission to the view that some human beings are “more valuable” than other human beings, a proposition originally written into the U.S. Constitution regarding Africans and Native Americans. In this way, the CC and associated reforms such as charter schools and teacher evaluation schemes signify a dramatic increase in social, political and economic inequality.[7]

Thus the increasing fixation on “outputs” that began during the late 1960s has matured into a full-blown set of product specifications and quality control apparatuses that “readies” students for trade in the global market (note even college is now considered part of the global market, where trade in students is big business). For this revolution in educational practice to come into full force, a new governance structure is required.

The CC is built on a corporate governance structure. If one examine this governance system, they will see it directly corresponds to the content of the CC. In this corporate governance system, there is no place for “academic freedom” or “inquiry” and so the workers need no protections. Supervisors ensure compliance with the product specifications by ensuring their unit adheres to quality assurance protocols (so-called “metrics”). Ineffective workers and supervisors are identified by the metrics and either re-educated (i.e., even more “professional development”) or removed from the production line (fired). Costs are to be continually cut, profits are to be increasingly maximized. Owners of capital are by virtue of this governance system empowered to claim the lions share of the financial, political and social benefits of this arrangement. It is not for nothing that the main organizations controlling the CC are non-public and act to realize the collective interests of their benefactors, the generals of global competition.

Put more simply, elected school boards and elected representatives, even as weak and ineffective as they may be, nevertheless have stood in the way as parents and their communities generally do not view the world this way, they do not view the world as Bill Gates and his fellow travelers do. So, these “outdated” modes of governance must be removed. This is called “innovation.”

Notes

  1. Hess, Frederick M. “Making Sense of the “Public” in Public Education.” Washington, D.C.: Progressive Policy Institute, 2002. Available: http://www.capso.org/pdfs/Hess.pdf.
  2. Saltman, Kenneth J. The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy. Education, Politics, and Public Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  3. Cavanagh, Sean. “Standards Backers Seek out Support of Parents.” In, Education Week 32, no. 5 (2012, September 25): 1, 14-15. http://www.edweek.org.
  4. See Mercedes Schneider on this point: https://deutsch29.wordpress.com
  5. This should not be confused for an argument against standards, or that the work of students and their teachers should not be evaluated; rather it is an argument that standards for education cannot be premised on an industrial model that denies the very nature of human beings and social life. It is pointing to the fact that what standards are established are imbued with the outlook of those who established the standards.
  6. Note that I write “so-called” because reformer use of the word standard does not correspond with the actual definition of the word standard.
  7. See this post, especially the section “The Rise of Anti-Public Education.”

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