The Corporate Hijacking of Public Education
Date Published:March 11, 2011
The education reform movement currently sweeping the country has been embraced by the likes of Bill Gates, President Obama, Al Sharpton, Newt Gingrich, Bill Cosby, and Oprah Winfrey. Some may be inspired to see such a divergent group joining forces to help make public schools better for children. However, when you take a closer look at the policies involved in this reform, the reality is quite chilling.
Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of DC Public Schools (DCPS), is the face of what needs to be called corporate education reform. The premises of corporate education reform are: the main impediments to improving public schools are teachers’ unions because they rigidly defend bad teachers; schools need to be run like businesses to make them less bureaucratic and more dynamic; educational experience is not required to be a teacher, principal, or chancellor; the corporate education reform model is the only way public education can be transformed; and success can be measured through data-driven outcomes, with the most important data being student test scores.
Washington DC has been the testing ground for the entire corporate education reform movement, and Rhee’s main accomplishment as DCPS Chancellor was to help brand this increasingly popular agenda. For this movement, success in DC would mean that federal and state money could be directed towards funding the corporate reform agenda nationally.
Breaking the Teachers Union
The starting point for Rhee’s brand of education reform was to depict public schools as part of an entrenched failed system that serves as a jobs program for horrible teachers. Teachers were blamed for all that ailed DCPS—low graduation rates, poor test scores, and dwindling enrollment, with children fleeing to charter schools.
Rhee’s most outrageous accusation was printed in Fast Company magazine, where she described why she laid off 266 DCPS teachers in October 2009: “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school.” Her claim made it sound as if many of the teachers had committed these acts, when in fact only one of the 266 allegedly had sex with a student, and eight others were alleged to have either used corporal punishment or had excessive absences. But the shocking quote served her well, as a horrified audience praised her brave actions in taking on the Washington Teachers Union.
Rhee’s brash style and ”take-no-prisoners” approach resulted in her being described as a “rock star.” Her celebratory status culminated when she was featured in the film Waiting for Superman and soon after was hailed as a “Warrior Woman” by Oprah Winfrey.
Despite such feel-good rhetoric, in reality her corporate policies have wreaked havoc on the public education system in DC.
While bad DCPS teachers exist, they are a small minority. The real problem in DCPS and urban schools around the country is the leadership, which has left the majority of teachers and school staff overwhelmed without the proper supports, supplies, or the necessary training to overcome the tremendous obstacles that the children present.
According to Diane Ravitch, long time historian of education and author of the book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, “Fifty percent of all those who enter teaching leave within the first five years. Our biggest problem is not getting rid of deadbeats, but recruiting, retaining, and supporting teachers.”