When Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City public school system, the largest in the country, stepped down this week, the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, introduced his replacement, the privately owned media company Hearst’s CEO Cathie Black, as a “superstar manager.” As criticism grew about the mayor’s choice, he defended it by saying on his radio show that the job is to run an organization with “1.1 million customers.” In Bloomberg’s mind, students are customers, the chancellor is a CEO, and the school system just another massive corporation.
The contemporary wave of rhetoric in education reform is all about school-as-business. The more we say that schools are businesses, the more they start to look like them, and the easier it becomes to make the argument that they are. The problem is that public schools aren’t private enterprises, and no amount of language equating them will transform them into such entities. None of the favored rhetorical tacks work when followed to their logical end. As a result, the appointment of Cathie Black comes into focus as a service to Bloomberg’s short-term political interests rather than a representation of long-term vision.
To market, to market
Let’s take Bloomberg’s assertion that running the school system requires a “superstar manager,” and that anyone who criticizes his decision just doesn’t “understand what the job is.” Of course, this means the job as conceived by Michael Bloomberg. To Bloomberg, perhaps the biggest failure of his administration’s reforms thus far is that New York City’s public schools are not on a solid financial footing. This in spite of major budget cuts, a freeze on new hiring, and the encouragement of charter schools, which aren’t required to enter into union contracts and rely heavily on private as well as public money. We could not conceive of a mayor appointing a police commissioner with no law enforcement experience, yet when the job is promoted as managerial, it is plain that education takes a backseat. “What the job is” right now is balancing the budget and probably slashing headcount. Black as “manager” won’t pipe in on the educational issues and won’t mind signing pink slips.
New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman prefers to look at school systems as “marketplaces.” Proponents of charter schools use the marketplace argument to promote “competition” as a means of improving schools. The idea is also given credence by the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative. But education requires innovation; that doesn’t happen through competition. Education succeeds through commitment to common goals and the will to share ideas that work. Education should not be a place for trade secrets. Nor were charter schools conceived as competitors with the public system. They were intended to be laboratories for good ideas that can be copied and used in public school systems generally. The most insidious effect of market-based education is that while schools are busy competing with one another, kids at failing schools continue to fail. Corporate markets create winners and losers, but if our goal is to educate all of our kids, we can’t meet it with such models.
“Incentives” are what reformers talk about when they’re thinking about busting union contracts and introducing new pay scales. If it works in corporate America, why can’t it work in education, the argument runs. But, particularly in the wake of the last few years of financial implosion, bridge-playing CEOS and massive corporate bailouts, who really believes that pay-for-performance means that business leaders will always put the long-term welfare of companies and shareholders first? Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG: do their records suggest that paying for performance encourages best practices?
Teacher tenure always comes under attack as the anti-incentive for attracting talented teachers to the profession. This argument ignores the fact that the biggest problem for school system human resources is not in attracting talented people but in teacher retention. Tenure is one of the few incentives the system has to keep teachers. The well-known complaint about New York— that 98 percent of the city’s teachers eligible for tenure receive it—ignores the fact that most teachers don’t stay in the profession long enough to be eligible. And, as has recently become apparent in the disparity between federal and state standardized test results, tying teacher pay to test performance leads to the same book-cooking and short-sighted gains at the expense of long-term progress that we saw at Lehman and Enron.
Finally, there is the view, articulated by Bloomberg, that students are “customers.” How is it helpful to think of our students in this way? After all, in the same schema, students are also the product. What all of this comes down to is that education is something else. It’s not a business—but it does need someone who can oversee lots of employees and a huge budget. It’s not a political enterprise—yet politicians are elected, partly, to administer it. Teaching is neither art nor science—but it requires elements of both. We claim to value education above all else—and yet business executives carry far more cultural currency than teachers. We don’t want education to be a business. To reduce it to the level of just another “market” is to automatically lower our expectations for what we claim education can be: a tool for making better democracies.
The Walton family (as in Wal-Mart), along with their foundations, are the nation’s largest contributors to charter schools. What does that mean? A company whose chief business goal is to reduce consumer choice has as its chief philanthropic goal the promotion of “school choice.” Not to mention that Wal-Mart undoubtedly derives part of its enormous profits from an undereducated workforce and an undereducated customer base. Why should we leave our children’s education in the hands of the Waltons of the world? You can bet the nation’s top CEOs don’t shop at Wal-Mart—or send their children to its charter schools, either. Cathie Black? Her kids were boarders at the $45,000-a-year Kent School in Connecticut.—A NEW YORK CITY TEACHER