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Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education and retired New York State high school principal, reviews Samuel Abrams’ Education and the Commercial Mindset. To sum up, she loved it! It gives an important overview of today’s privatization movement, which attempts to make schools function like businesses.
Kate Zernike of The New York Times recently wrote a scathing report of what school choice has done to the city of Detroit. The report, which appeared on June 28, tells the story of how an already strained public school system was further beaten down due to the influx of for-profit charter chains eager to grab a share of the market at any cost. Although the promise of choice was to improve all schools through competition, the outcome for Detroit has been a total collapse.
There is no better book to help explain the reasons why such a collapse would occur than Education and the Corporate Mindset, recently published by Harvard University Press. Author Samuel Abrams does a remarkable job tracing choice and market-based school reforms from their early beginnings in the for-profit Edison Schools, to the contemporary choice systems today.
Abrams, a former high school teacher of history and economics and the present Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, is exactly the right author to help the public understand why market-place reforms are doomed to fail when imposed upon schools. His thoughtful, scholarly arguments are easy to understand. Sam Abrams makes the complicated clear.
The book begins with a history of Chris Whittle’s for-profit Edison Project that sought to impose the rigors of business on what Whittle perceived to be a poorly run and inefficient education system. The beginning chapters take the reader from Edison’s philosophical beginnings, through its marketing and implementation, its transformation from Edison Schools to Edison Learning, and to its eventual demise. Although Edison may be gone, its story is still important. Despite its failure, its influence continues because both ideas and players moved from Edison to the present charter school and online learning world. And of course Edison was the door through which Wall Street first walked to enter the business of school reform.
After telling the Edison story, Abrams pulls from his background in economic theory to explain why market-place reforms like Edison do not work in schools. Because students are both an “input” as well as a customer in the “production function” of schools, the rules of the marketplace are a bad fit. He also argues that good schooling must serve the needs of both the individual and the collective, and to meet the needs of both, shared investments and sacrifices are needed—an ethos not aligned with commercial interests.
Chapter 9 focuses on the emergence of the Charter Management Organization (CMO) as the replacement for the for-profit model. The profit motive may have disappeared (although as Abrams points out, some of the charter leaders receive compensation similar to business CEOs), however, the corporate language, marketing and management styles are very much a part of the CMO model. This is not surprising given that key Edison people—Scott Hamilton, Donald Fisher, John Fisher and Richard Barth moved from Edison to KIPP.
Abrams’ critical analysis of KIPPs’ scores, as well as the advantages that result from a more selective student body and philanthropic support, are well worth the read. In Chapter 10, Abrams frankly discusses the problems that CMOs face–teacher burnout, attrition, student exodus and the exacting code of discipline in the “no excuses” schools that drives both students and teachers out the door.
His most powerful arguments against market-based reforms, however, are left for the end. In Chapters 11 and 12, Abrams contrasts the school reform visions of two Nordic nations —Sweden and Finland. The first followed the course of choice and vouchers. The second followed equity-based public reforms.
In the late 1990s, Abrams explains how Sweden embarked on a course of privatization as the driver of school reform. The country embraced choice, corporate reforms, vouchers and privatization. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and current Louisiana state education Superintendent John White were, not surprisingly, fans of the Swedish model of reform. Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City schools, visited to see how Swedish schools put self-paced curricula on computer tablets with minimal instruction provided to students by teachers.
Over a decade of Swedish market-based reforms, however, proved to be a flop. In 2011 the model came under fire. Abrams describes scandals and bankruptcies, grade inflation due to school marketing, higher costs, increased segregation, and patterns of clear advantage for the children of savvy parents. The municipal schools were left to educate the neediest children—an unequal system had gotten much worse. The country went into “PISA shock” when Sweden was the only nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to see its scores decline every time on that international test since PISA began in 2000.
Finland, in contrast, chose equity reforms and a very different course. The Finns rejected privatization and chose smaller class sizes, higher teacher pay, no curriculum tracking until Grade 10, schools as a community centerpiece, free hot lunch for all students, strong university-based teacher preparation programs, the elimination of “school inspections” and the limiting of testing to “micro-samples” across all areas of curriculum including music and the arts. Finnish students consistently earn top or near top scores on PISA in reading, math and science. They outscore their Nordic neighbors, including Sweden, even though they have demographically similar populations.
When speaking with teachers and parents, I often find them bewildered by the rapid pace of school privatization coded as “school reform”. The allure of “choice” has brought false promise, along with a host of unintended negative consequences for their neighborhood schools. And yet, despite the evidence, the commercial mindset of choice and market practices continues to drive school change. If not stopped, the democratically governed school, anchored in a neighborhood in which parents and community have voice, will be a relic of the past. One only has to look to Sweden or Detroit to see the corruption, problems and failure that will result when the commercial mindset is in charge.
Education and the Commercial Mindset deserves to be at the top of your summer reading list. It connects the dots and sheds much needed light on the origins of corporate reforms. It makes a sound, research-based argument for why the commercial mindset has no place as a driver of change in our schools.