Is our eagerness to apply business models to school reform a sign of the failure of schools? Or a failure of our current thinking about the purpose of schools?

Adapted versions of this post appear on GOOD as
“What’s Wrong with Saying Schools Need to be Competitive in the ‘Education Marketplace’?” and “Is Personalization in Education about Students or Profit?”

This is Part 3 in a series. | Part 1  | Part 2 | Part 4 


“The Root, Stem, Leaves, & Fruit of American Education:”

Pedagogy, Policy, Politics, & Progressivism




Chris Thinnes

The vice of externally imposed ends has deep roots. Teachers
receive them from superior authorities; these authorities
accept them from what is current in the community.
The teachers impose them upon children.
- John Dewey

I wonder if… advocates in the education arena will stop and
reconsider whether they are importing free-market chaos
and free-market punishments into the lives of children?
And who will stop them before it is too late?
- Diane Ravitch

I will argue strongly that such thinking must be modified,
preferably abandoned. Cooperation and connection must
displace competition and overspecialization.
- Nel Noddings

Emerging from an otherwise spectacular student voice workshop a few weeks ago, inspired by the candor and insight of 140 sixth grade students, I was left — truth be told — with a single, disturbing question that has bothered me ever since. It didn’t affect the tone or tenor of the workshop, lessen my sense of its value, or preoccupy our schools’ collective reflection in the days that followed. But it stuck in my mind like an earworm, and has fed on my thoughts like a tapeworm, ever since.

Throughout the morning, in a variety of sessions, an opinion was articulated by several of the students and their teachers, usually as a marginal or incidental comment on another subject. Early in the day, for example, when ‘Group Projects’ was the topic of an ‘Awesome or Lame?’ session, a student said, “the problem with group projects is that somebody might end up doing all the work, but somebody else will get the credit.” In another discussion, a teacher said that “it’s too hard to grade each student when you’re not sure how they contributed.” Another teacher, in another context, suggested that “collaboration is great, but somebody ends up not carrying their weight.” And in a breakout session on homework, a student indicated that “when you try to help each other, the teachers sometimes treat you like you cheated.” And so on.

There were several other such comments, each of which were clearly predicated on a core belief: that students’ collaboration might be important to their learning in theory, but that the assessment and affirmation of individual contributions, achievements, and accomplishments is what matters most in our schools, when the rubber hits the road. The persistence of such beliefs should come as no surprise to any of us, who find ourselves in a society with an education system that has embraced prevailing myths about competition, meritocracy, and economic and social mobility in its education policy. It should strike us with a great sadness, however, for those of us who question and resist those myths in our classroom practice and learning communities.

There’s a part of me that fears, at some level, that such beliefs among students and teachers might strike proponents of a certain variety of ‘corporate’ education reform, who foist vulgar models of ‘accountability’ and standards of ‘excellence’ from a caricature of backward-thinking corporate rhetoric onto the wholly unrelated discourse of forward-thinking education theory, with some considerable amount of satisfaction. For as we know from the history of empire, colonialism, and racism — narratives with which the histories of economics and education policy have fascinating intersections — structures of power and privilege realize their deepest, most enduring, and most complex impact when the ideology of the oppressor is internalized by the oppressed.

These structures of power, privilege, and oppression that most deeply influence our school system — and, I am arguing, that most endanger them — are the result of at least three decades’ intentional and strategic policies that we refer to as ‘neoliberalism’:

an ensemble of economic and social policies, forms of governance, and discourses and ideologies that promote individual self-interest, unrestricted flows of capital, deep reductions in the cost of labor, and sharp retrenchment of the public sphere. Neoliberals champion privatization of social goods and withdrawal of government from provision for social welfare on the premise that competitive markets are more effective and efficient.

As the neoliberal champions at the ‘Foundation for Economic Freedom‘ would put it, more concretely:

In the marketplace, consumers ultimately determine what is produced. Entrepreneurs take risks to serve them. And fickle consumers show no mercy when something new and attractive comes along.

Government domination of education assures that the entrepreneurial innovation and creativity we are accustomed to in, say, the computer industry will be missing from education. There is no good substitute for the decentralized, spontaneous entrepreneurial process that full privatization of education would stimulate.

This neoliberal agenda, easy and accurate enough to label as the ‘free market model,’ constitutes something more — and, as Klein has brilliantly documented, something more sinister — than a field of theoretical or political principles: the imposition of these principles has followed the course (as Lipman describes it) of ‘an ideological project to reconstruct values, social relations, and social identities”; an intentional strategy to design and promote, as Charles Taylor would put it, a new ‘social imaginary,’ or–

the way in which ordinary people ‘imagine’ their world–the common understandings, myths, and stories that make possible generalized practices and the widely shared legitimacy of a particular shared order. In this sense, the power of neoliberalism lies in its saturation of social practices and consciousness, making it difficult to think otherwise.

The particularly vexing dilemma of this current ‘social imaginary’ of the ‘free market model’ — especially insofar as educational practice and policy are concerned — is that it is deeply anti-social, so much so as to devalue to not just the theoretical benefits but the practical urgency of prioritizing creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thought, and cultural competency in our education policy. As I suggested in the first post of this series:

We are preoccupied as a nation with products, rather than processes; with competition, rather than collaboration; with dominance, rather than participation; with achievement, rather than imagination; and with results, rather than with passion. The same has become true in our schools.

This internalization of neoliberal commitments to the individual achievements of our students and teachers, and the market competition of our schools, is naturalized even in our most informal, everyday conversations about education. It is enforced by many of our classroom practices. It is celebrated in many of our school-wide rituals. But I find it perhaps most disturbing when it frames our thoughts, subconsciously or purposefully, about how to improve our schools.

We repudiate our own proud history, legacy, experience, and wisdom as educators — uncritically accepting the sweeping proposition that schools have ‘failed,’ that education is in a ‘crisis,’ and that we must redefine our schools anew — and graft the faddish theories of free market innovation (the more ‘disruptive’, the better) onto our school models in our thought experiments about education. Our efforts to be imaginative, and our commitment continually to improve, should be commended. But the language system we use to frame our thinking, and the beliefs about the purpose of schooling on which that language system rests, are disturbing. “Who is the ‘client’ we’re trying to serve?” I was asked in a debate on voucher legislation. “We need to create a ‘customer-centric’ model to the education system,” I was lectured by a ‘school choice’ advocate. “We need to learn from other ‘content providers’ and their ‘delivery systems’,” I’ve heard more than once. And we hear all the time, especially but not exclusively in independent schools, that “we need to ensure that our school remains ‘competitive’ in the ‘education marketplace.’” The dilemma, of course, as I put it in one exchange, is that

schools are not selling a product; stakeholders aren’t customers; and teaching and learning aren’t commodities… This language system of ‘customer,’ ‘client,’ ‘innovation,’ and ‘market’ is precisely the language system that has been appropriated by the ‘choice’ movement, corporate interests trying to profit from the educational market, and pundits and wonks who allege we need to ‘save’ our ‘failing’ schools. These gestures don’t help to support public education, but to destroy it — restricting our thought about the possibilities and the value of education to the degree that they impose the market model, and its language system, on the discourse and our decisions.

I don’t think it’s a ‘customer’ but a ‘purpose’ that education serves — whether that’s to develop an informed and active citizenry; to prepare children for college, careers, and their futures; to create a context in which children can learn to interact, to think, to create; and so on … stakeholders’ efforts to realize those principles and promises seem to be what’s framed the evolution of the institution’s goals and systems in its best iterations—in the spirit of a social compact, more so than a corporate contract.

The end-run of the logic of the ‘free market model’ and its application to schools is simple: the repudiation of schools as we have come to know them; the abandonment of democratic principles on which they are based; and the service of a technocratic vision of education as matrix of individual relationships with private providers. In recent years, this vision takes the form of crude assertions that online learning platforms might not only extend or enrich the learning that takes place in schools, but might obviate the need for the ‘school’ as we know it. [1]

We graft the ‘free market’ model onto a wholly incompatible field of ideas in education — markets are driven by profit; schools are not — and wonder why so many ‘innovations’ and ‘disruptions’ have provided so little to respond to our pressing, real concerns about the future of our schools and our citizens. This is primarily because the ‘free market model,’ to which we have turned for educational solutions, is precisely responsible for the economic problems that have forced our most pressing questions to a crisis. Perhaps this most savage irony of all is manifest when the ‘free market model’ is foisted not only on the discourse of education innovation, but shamelessly proffered as the solution to deeper problems still: sweeping systemic inequities in educational access, opportunity, and attainment for which the free market ‘itself’ is largely responsible. To wit, Thomas Friedman’s recent outline of the ‘natural order’ of technocratic possibilities for one and all:

The combination of these tools of connectivity and creativity has created a global education, commercial, communication and innovation platform on which more people can start stuff, collaborate on stuff, learn stuff, make stuff (and destroy stuff) with more other people than ever before…This huge expansion in an individual’s ability to do all these things comes with one big difference: more now rests on you.

If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings, and floors that protected people are also disappearing.

The ‘free market’ model normalizes ‘self-motivation’ as the defining criterion for educational, social, and economic mobility in abject repudiation of all we’ve come to know about systemic inequities in American society: though we know “the boundaries” are not “all gone,” we pretend otherwise. But the logic of “If you don’t make it, you ain’t got it” just doesn’t cut it, either in our schools or in our society. Make no mistake: this delusional portrait of America as a meritocracy based on the competition of equally empowered agents in a ‘free market’ of ideas and aspirations is not an oversight or abstract commitment: it is the intentional anchor of the neoliberal project to change our society and our schools. [2]

The logic of the ‘free market’ model emerges from a blind allegiance to a profit motive in free markets. It seeks to reproduce itself in cultural norms within our schools and households. It emerges from a discourse that has itself accounted for the cultural and socioeconomic marginalization of millions of people. And yet it is foisted on the discourses of systemic educational reform, and educational innovation, as a framework to design solutions to the sweeping inequities it creates.

In the context of my effort to explore the ‘purpose of schools’ in this series of posts, though, there are two specific dangers of the ‘free-market model’ of schools against which we must guard as pundits, politicians, and policy wonks continue to devalue the learning, the communities, and the learning communities we help to sustain. The first is the model’s distorted valuation of self-interest at the expense of the community. The second is the conception of the school as a ‘delivery system’ for cognitive ‘content.’ These are the notions that we must challenge as the neoliberal threat to the very existence of our schools persists. As Carla Rinaldi reminds us:

School is a place of culture–that is, a place where a personal and collective culture is developed that influences the social, political, and values context and, in turn, is influenced by this context in a relationship of deep and authentic reciprocity.

We must not forget how closely the school is connected to the society in which it is situated. The recurring question is whether school is limited to transmitting culture or can be…a place where culture is constructed and democracy is put into practice.

Our classrooms, our schools, and our policy must prioritize purposeful and inclusive collaboration, cultural competency, conflict resolution, careful critical thought about current orthodoxies, the creative generation of new ideas, and so much more that characterize the vital skills necessary for humans to function in relationships, and citizens to function in a society — not because they prepare a student to service the economy, but because they are necessary for all of us thoughtfully to balance the needs of the one and the many, and thus to heal and sustain a democracy. The ‘school’ must be defended. And by ‘school,’ I am referring both to the physical facility in which, and the human community with which, we congregate — and not the online learning platforms that presume to provide a more efficient system for the provision of personalized content. There is a difference between creating and sustaining cultures of continuous improvement in our schools, and submitting to a siege mentality propagated by the pirates of politics, punditry, and private enterprise who are “part of a movement that prays for crisis the way that drought-struck farmers pray for rain.


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This series will conclude with 
“Pray for Rain: In Defense of the School as a School.”


[NOTE 1]

This claim is supported by politicians, pundits, and policy wonks, the vast majority of whom would make vitally different decisions for their own children’s education, than they might for yours or mine. It’s obvious to all of us, as educators, that we should embrace the opportunities provided by digital tools, services, and platforms to supplement and to inform the learning that takes place in a school, but we should beware the growing and disturbing focus on the replacement of the school by those technologies. We have known for many decades in schools that differentiation, individuation, and responsiveness to student voice and choice are hallmarks of effective schools’ support of each learner in a school community. Now, however, the discussion of vaguely related imperatives is dressed in the language of ‘personalization’ of products, content, and services, as though this represents a new-found metaphor for redefining education as we know it. We lay faith — lazily, or purposefully, and even in the most sophisticated and insightful writing about ‘mutations’ in 21st century capitalism — in the promises of private corporations that mimic this language, extolling selfless commitments to service our individual needs. We want to believe that corporate providers and ‘education entrepreneurs’ are driven by a commitment to democratic principles, rather than the profit margin. We trust the pizza chef offers us our choice of toppings solely to warm his heart, and not at all to line his pockets. ‘Personalization’ hasn’t become popular in the education business because a democratic revolution took place in the boardroom; personalization became plausible because it generates profit.

[NOTE 2]

To wit, from the neoliberally pornographic pen of John Chubb, for example, comes this vision of the future of schooling in Philadelphia:

Rasheed began school with the academic disadvantages of so many children in his neighborhood. His home had few books and he had little experience with them. His family was not well schooled, and communicated with a limited vocabulary and imperfect grammar. He would struggle to learn how to read. But Rasheed had something his mother did not have as a child. His family owned a computer. . .

All kinds of kids were flocking to online high schools: kids with jobs, kids who had been bullied, kids who were bored by the slow pace of traditional schools, kids with special needs, all types. The exodus to online schools only accelerated in the ensuing years, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, as the schools gained acceptance and the technology and online teaching advanced.

Such racist and classist visions are haunting, whether in their myopia or their sociopathy, and we must keep them from being reproduced in the cultural norms of our schools, our households, and our communities.


You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes