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Steve Nelson: Education Reform Is a Lucrative Business

  • John Engler, former Republican governor of Michigan, in Dec. 19, 2012. (Associated Press - Carolyn Kaster)

    John Engler, former Republican governor of Michigan, in Dec. 19, 2012. (Associated Press - Carolyn Kaster)

  • Mitch Daniels, Purdue University president and former Republican governor of Indiana, in Jan. 2010. (Associated Press - Darron Cummings)

    Mitch Daniels, Purdue University president and former Republican governor of Indiana, in Jan. 2010. (Associated Press - Darron Cummings)

  • U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan in Feb. 2013. (Associated Press - Jessica Hill)

    U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan in Feb. 2013. (Associated Press - Jessica Hill)

  • John Engler, former Republican governor of Michigan, in Dec. 19, 2012. (Associated Press - Carolyn Kaster)
  • Mitch Daniels, Purdue University president and former Republican governor of Indiana, in Jan. 2010. (Associated Press - Darron Cummings)
  • U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan in Feb. 2013. (Associated Press - Jessica Hill)

Several weeks ago The New York Times published an interview with three high-profile proponents of educational reform: Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education; Mitch Daniels, Purdue University president and former Republican governor of Indiana; and John Engler, former Republican governor of Michigan. The interview, titled “A Report Card on Educational Reform,” purported to convey their collective wisdom about public education.

The interview was conducted in the offices of the Business Roundtable, a corporate lobbying group. It followed on the heels of a meeting these three men had with “several dozen chief executives of big companies to talk about education.” If not for the masthead, I might have thought the article was from The Onion.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. On second thought, perhaps not harsh enough because, to my knowledge, these gents have collective teaching experience of, well, zero.

What they did have, in abundance, was a collection of talking points, ranging from mildly deceptive to fundamentally dishonest. Duncan, in particular, is remarkably adept at smearing gobs of lipstick on the pig that he slaughtered in the name of educational reform. I don’t mean to insult Duncan personally. I suppose he is a thoroughly decent and likeable fellow — just unqualified for the job he holds. All objective analysis reveals that so-called educational reform has been an abject failure, and even Estee Lauder herself couldn’t make this a pretty picture.

But try they must and try they did. They trotted out the falsehoods about Program for International Student Assessment scores. The claims that our students are “falling behind” have been repeatedly discredited, but politicians and reporters have declared a national crisis based on the allegedly poor performance of American kids on these tests. As Diane Ravitch has brilliantly explicated in her new book, Reign of Error, when corrected for the corrosive impact of poverty, our students are doing quite well compared with any other country. It is one of many big lies advanced to accelerate the dismantling of public education and rebuild it as a private enterprise.

Engler predictably talked about “products” and “consumer groups.” Duncan cited “high performing charters,” which are statistically in the minority and whose selection and culling practices he either obfuscates (bad) or doesn’t know about (worse). They all talked about “raising the bar,” “playing by the rules,” “being in the game,” “not being in the game.” Daniels made a particularly troubling comment: “Some of the experiments (showing positive results for early-childhood education) are ones that are doomed to succeed. I mean, if you pour enough money into a situation, it’s not really replicable, and you might be able to get the kind of results you want.” Well now, we wouldn’t want to pour money into successful early-childhood education programs and get the results we want, would we?

It is telling that the conversation took place at a corporate lobbying office, preceded by a meeting with “chief executives of big companies.” The takeover of education by business has been a steady, insidious process for decades, but the pace is accelerating. Decades ago, the buzz-phrase “run it like a business” crept into higher education. Management experts who brought toolboxes full of strategic planning jargon and sharp pencils to their work replaced intellectuals at the helm. Business majors proliferated. Philosophy departments withered. As higher education is now “consumer driven” (in many places students are now called customers), boards of trustees are dominated by financiers and corporate executives, whose resources are needed, but come at a high price.

Now the steamroller is headed toward America’s children. Public education has enormous profit potential. The K-12 market is estimated at $500 billion per year, roughly 9 percent of gross domestic product. What good capitalist wouldn’t want a piece of that supersized pie?

So, in the name of educational reform, for-profit educational management organizations are taking over schools and school systems. Apple, Microsoft and other technology companies are rushing into the marketplace with devices, software, online programs and a full array of strategies to lower costs (eliminate teachers), increase class size, and direct cash flow from taxpayers into their own coffers.

It’s not new. For decades, school programs and curriculum have been driven by the corporations that peddle materials and tests. The entire Phonics First federal policy was concocted by the vendors who sold reading programs. As fastidiously documented in Denny Taylor’s book Beginning to Read and the Spin Doctors of Science, then-Texas governor George W. Bush and others handed the reins of education to private enterprise. Now Pearson, McGraw-Hill and others are dining at the trough, aided and abetted by politicians like Engler, Daniels and Duncan who repeat deceptive talking points about broken schools while ignoring the elephant of poverty and racism that sits mute in the corner of the room.

Educational reform is about money, not about kids. It is disappointing that the Times would choose this trio to explain the current state of education and educational reform. Where are the voices of America’s 3.3 million teachers? Where are the viewpoints of the neurobiologists, developmental psychologists, dedicated school leaders and others who observe education through a more experienced and thoughtful lens?

Those voices are silenced by the clanging of the cash register.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.