Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Corporate ed fails the test

HOW LONG DO you keep a failed experiment going before you pull the plug - especially when you are using children as its subjects?

HOW LONG DO you keep a failed experiment going before you pull the plug - especially when you are using children as its subjects?

About 20 years ago, the seed of corporate education reform - the idea that education should no longer be a cooperative endeavor governed by school district residents, but an experiment in free-market economics overseen by millionaires and billionaires from afar - was planted.

Investors and lobbyists spun the narrative that schools were failing and that teachers and their unions were to blame. Budgets were slashed while standardized testing was ramped up; test results were used to justify handing over neighborhood schools to charters or closing them permanently. The untested Common Core standards were adopted in every state. And in cities including Philadelphia, local school boards were replaced by state appointees. Lasting decisions on the mission and direction of entire districts were being made in the corporate boardrooms of reform heavy-hitters, including The Bill and Melinda Gates and Walton foundations. Their grants came only with mandates to "turn around" schools - by forcing out faculty, converting to charter or closing permanently.

But after all of the billions spent and all of the laws passed to institute these reforms in every major city in the country, those vastly improved school systems, meeting the needs of children and communities, have yet to appear on the horizon.

Yet disasters like New Orleans are still held up by reformers as models for other cities. Before the flood waters had receded 10 years ago, with many thousands of residents still displaced, the New Orleans public school system was dismantled and replaced by a web of privately managed charter schools. The firing of more than 7,500 unionized teachers contributed to the further destruction of the city's black middle-class. And because there is no longer one district office, thousands of young people who should be enrolled in school are still unaccounted for.

But it seems now that the bloom is of the rose of corporate education reform.

The findings of the 47th annual PDK-Gallup Poll show that a cross-section of Americans and parents believe that the biggest problem in education today is not teacher quality or unions, but underfunding. Only 14 percent of public school parents rated standardized testing as "very important"; in fact, 47 percent believe they should have the right to opt-out their children from standardized tests. The majority of Americans reject the need for national standards or the idea that it is crucial to use tests aligned to those standards to compare test results across states. Most want an end to more federal control in general, having seen the failures of both the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind and President Obama's Race to the Top.

What has education reform done for us? Philadelphians have lost over 30 neighborhood schools, and ongoing charter expansion threatens the future of those remaining. Imposition of the Common Core standards and the accompanying test-prep curriculum has sucked the joy and creativity out of teaching and learning. And we are stuck with a School Reform Commission which seems to have better things to do than explain its decisions to the public. Could anyone make the case that this experiment in corporate reform has delivered a more thriving public school system?

What would real reform look like in Philadelphia? Every school with a librarian, music and art teacher; aides in all kindergarten and special education classes; lower class size; full-time nurses and counselors; proven reading programs taught by reading specialists; sufficient security to keep schools a safe haven for all children.

The corporate model creates winners and losers. It diverts public resources to create profits for private entities. It has not worked in education and it never will. Time to pull the plug and give our schools back to the people.

Lisa Haver is a retired teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. Email her at