Education’s Bottom Line: Tests, Competition, and Market Models of Reform!

Dear Commons Community,

The online edition of the Teachers College Record has republished an essay (from 2013), entitled, “The Will to Quantify: The “Bottom Line” in the Market Model of Education Reform”, written by Leo Casey, Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Dr. Casey describes marketplace school reform as the desire to break up the monopoly that is public education. To do so, common measures such as test scores had to be established to take the place of corporate “bottom line” profit statements. He traces part of the history of market-driven reform to New York City during the chancellorship of Joel Klein.

“For Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, and a cohort of similarly minded education reformers across the United States, the fundamental problem with American public education is that it has been organized as a monopoly that is not subject to the discipline of the marketplace. The solution to all that ails public schools, therefore, is to remake them in the image and likeness of a competitive business. Just as private businesses rise and fall on their ability to compete in the marketplace, as measured by the “bottom line” of their profit balance sheet, schools need to live or die on their ability to compete with each other, based on an educational “bottom line.” If “bad” schools die and new “good” schools are created in their stead, the productivity of education improves. But to undertake this transformation and to subject schools to market discipline, an educational “bottom line” must be established. Standardized testing and value-added measures of performance based on standardized testing provide that “bottom line.”

This theory of action applied not only to schools, but also to the teachers that worked in them. Here Bloomberg, Klein, and other education reformers adopted the “stacking” theory of personnel management first popularized by Jack Welch, the controversial past CEO of General Electric. (Welch was hired as a consultant in the early days of the DOE’s school supervisor training program, the Leadership Academy.) Welch believes that the disciplining power of competition must be applied within the business itself: all employees needed to be ranked, or “stacked,” from the highest to the lowest performing, and each year, the bottom 10% of employees must be fired. Welch’s theory relies upon what might be called a Hobbesian market model, in which the workplace is organized around a competition for survival, a war of all against all. This cut-throat competition engenders a fear-ridden, conformist culture and an ethos of servility in which the autocrat who rules the workplace exercises unchallenged power. To this end, the price of challenging autocratic power is deliberately set very high, so that few will overcome the fear and muster the courage to take such a step. Moreover, workers are pitted against each other in bitter competition precisely because that competition will make it more difficult for them to mount the solidaristic actions that could make challenges to autocratic power successful.

The Hobbesian market model of personnel management is therefore as much a political theory on how to rule the workplace as it is an economic theory of how to maximize enterprise productivity. Welch’s well-known anti-union animus played a pivotal role in developing this model: on principle, he is opposed to the idea that workers should have a collective voice in how their workplace is organized and run, and he conducted harsh campaigns against the General Electric unions during his time as CEO. A significant part of the attractiveness of Welch’s approach for Bloomberg, Klein, and like-minded education reformers has been their own ardent opposition to teacher unions and to a meaningful professional voice for teachers in the important decisions at their schools, as well as their general distrust of career professional educators. Once this common ground is grasped, the obsession of Bloomberg and Klein with having unfettered power to “fire” teachers and the constant talk from the NYC DOE about the legions of “bad” teachers who need to be replaced becomes comprehensible, as part of the Hobbesian market approach to personnel management.

Seen in this context, decisions that are inexplicable in terms of the well-established, professional code of the Standards become intelligible as part of a theory of action which seeks to remake schools in the image and likeness of competitive businesses. If the objective is to produce an intense competition for professional survival among teachers, in which the “bottom” 10% are fired each year, than what one needs is an annual ranking, period. Using three years of value-added data will produce a more reliable and valid measure of a teacher’s performance than one year of value-added data, but it would also make it impossible to do annual rankings for many teachers. Similarly, using only larger sample sizes will eliminate the more unreliable and invalid measures, but then many teachers would no longer be ranked. What is important here is the political effects of the competition that comes from the ranking and the firings, not the educational soundness or quality of the ranking. The market model of education reform has become a prisoner to a Nietzschean will to quantify, in which the validity and reliability of the actual numbers is irrelevant.”

We have become obsessed with test scores and teacher evaluation measures in our public schools, much of which is now promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education and state education departments. People like Joel Klein and Jack Welsh had no place in public education. They caused great harm by their insistence of reducing children and teachers to entries on a profit-loss spreadsheet.



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