The Appointment of Cathleen Black and the Trouble with Corporate Schooling

The corporate community and most venture philanthropists, persist in thinking schools should be run like businesses. This time around though, instead of the factory model school, they have bequeathed us the latest business fads.
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The latest episode in the corporate takeover of public schools in New York City is playing out in Mayor Bloomberg's appointment of non-educator Cathleen Black to replace Joel Klein as the city's Chancellor of Education. Black is a magazine mogul and 20-year member of the board of directors of Coca Cola, a company under attack for its union-busting activities and its contribution to childhood obesity. She is a product of private schools; her kids attended boarding schools; and she has no experience in the public sector.

The secrecy of her appointment process has annoyed even those who support corporate leadership, leading to considerable opposition to Black from unions, parents, and educators, which is giving State Commissioner, David Steiner and his advisory panel pause.

Steiner's vision for school reform draws on a corporate model. I recently spoke on a panel on Long Island in which Dr. Steiner was the respondent. I lamented that it had become impolitic to mention John Dewey's name in public, so under attack were educators and Dewey's notions of democratic and experiential education. I expected and received the standard response that giving urban kids any thing other than a skills-oriented, high stakes accountability-driven education was to undermine their future. What I wasn't prepared for was his assertion that Dewey, late in life, recanted all of his life's work. With the wave of his hand, he dismissed the most important educational philosopher of the 20th century. This kind of thinking, even by credible academics, is responsible for hollowing out our public schools of creativity, critical thinking, and grounding in the richness of students' experiences and local communities.

The early 20th century legacy of looking to business to design our education system first gave us the impersonal, factory model school that was obsessed with bureaucratic efficiency. This system worked reasonably well for awhile, but as more working class and poor youth entered the system, it did little more than teach them obedience and track them into low-paid jobs. Today, everyone from the left to the right agrees that this is scandalous and needs to be changed, but there is little agreement on how to get there.

The corporate community and most venture philanthropists, persist in thinking schools should be run like businesses. This time around though, instead of the factory model school, they have bequeathed us the latest business fads: quasi-markets (school choice), deregulation (charter schools), autonomy (superintendents and principals as CEOs), statistical control of product quality (high-stakes testing), and a shift from system inputs to system outputs (testing without investing). There is nothing in this corporate grab bag that is evidence-based, and the evidence that has accumulated as these reforms have been implemented over the last two decades is not promising.

Results for charter schools have overall been mediocre, in spite of the well-funded hype of Waiting for "Superman", and the latest test scores for New York City have been a devastating blow to Bloomberg's claim that New York City's corporatized system has been successful. And the next corporate boondoggle, funded by Race to the Top and Bill Gates, will be pay-for-performance for teachers. This merit pay scheme not only has no evidence base of success, and was even reviled by the business guru, W. Edwards Deming as diminishing social trust and destroying the culture of collaboration necessary for corporate success.

But the real failure of the corporate model is that it has further hollowed out schools that serve low-income urban youth. University of Chicago professor, Charles Payne points out in, So Much Reform, So Little Change, that while these schools were never rich learning environments, evidence-based reforms like Reading Recovery, school designs like Comer Schools, the Coalition of Essential Schools, Accelerated Schools, and 30 years of research on effective program implementation were making inroads. Impatience with the progress of these reforms led to the current mix of corporate inspired reforms, NCLB's obsession with high stakes testing, and scripted instruction. But poor kids of color deserve a richer, more motivating, education that draws on their multiple intelligences and experiences. This Deweyian approach has apparently been relegated to the trash heap of educational history, at least for low-income youth.

Some of this notion that inner-city kids need a more "skills-based" approach was attributed to Lisa Delpit's critique in, Other People's Children, of largely white, progressive teachers who failed to understand the scaffolding of skills needed before providing poor children with progressive teaching methods. This has often been translated into the "back to basics" notion promoted by conservatives like The Fordham Institutes' David Whitman. In his book, Sweating the Small Stuff, he argues that poor kids need paternalistic, boot camp schools that protect them from the pathologies of their surrounding communities. But Delpit was clear that this was not what she meant, when she wrote,

Students need technical skills to open doors, but they need to think critically and creatively to participate in meaningful and potentially liberating work inside those doors. Let there be no doubt: a "skilled" minority person who is not also capable of critical analysis becomes the trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions that orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly. (Delpit, 1995, p. 19)

This was another of Dewey's ideas that is apparently no longer valid: the notion that schools prepare students for citizenship and participation in a vital and equitable democracy. There is nothing wrong with cross-sector borrowing of ideas, but as long as educators continue to indiscriminately borrow leftover ideas from the corporate closet, they will fail to provide poor and working class students with the rich, motivating, and critical education they have a right to.

But Cathleen Black is not even part of this conversation. Under a chancellor with no particular loyalty to public schools, no understanding of education, and no public vetting, the largest public school system in the country and thousands of low-income students of color may be placed at even greater risk.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.

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