Is There A "Corporate Education Reform" Movement?

One of the more thoughtful voices in education, Larry Cuban, has delivered an interesting brief for the argument that there is no such thing as a “corporate reform movement." While he acknowledges that America’s corporate elite largely share a view of how to reform America’s schools, focused on the creation of educational marketplaces and business-model schools as the engines of change, Cuban argues that it is mistake to overstate the homogeneity of perspectives and purposes. The power players of the reform movement have “varied, not uniform motives," are “drawn from overlapping, but distinct spheres of influence," and “vary in their aims and strategies." The use of a term such as “corporate education reform” suggests “far more coherence and concerted action than occurs in the real world of politics and policymaking."

Cuban’s argument amalgamates two different senses of the term “corporate education reform” – the notion that there is a movement for education reform led by corporate elites and the idea that there is a movement for education reform that seeks to remake public education in the image and likeness of for-profit corporations in a competitive marketplace.

In co-mingling these two distinct senses of the term, Cuban is adopting a common usage. And it is a usage not entirely without justification: many of the strongest advocates for transforming public schools into educational corporations are found in the corporate elite. But it is vital, I will argue here, that we separate these two conceptions of “corporate education reform” if we are to adequately understand the complexity of the political terrain on which the battles over the future of public education are being fought.

As a matter of political sociology, Cuban’s objection to the terminology makes an important point. Power elites (and socio-economic classes more generally) are not natural entities, issuing forth from the economy and society fully matured with a common purpose, like Athena sprung fully grown from the head of Zeus. Rather, they are best understood as ongoing political projects, constituted out of a continual process of finding common ground in the midst of difference, and forging common action from that common ground. As much as the different sectors of this elite share important interests in common, especially vis-à-vis working people, they also have competing and conflicting interests. Apple is not Wal-Mart, and Bill Gates is not David or Charles Koch: their interests and their worldviews may overlap to some degree, but they are far from identical.

It is essential to grasp the differences and divisions among the corporate power players because they play out in very real ways in the world of education. Consider the battle fought last year in New York over the publication of individual teacher evaluations in the news media. No less a figure than the billionaire mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, argued vociferously for the continued publication of individual evaluations, defending a practice that he and Joel Klein had initiated and pursued in the New York City public schools.

Yet another billionaire reform advocate, Bill Gates, took to the op-ed pages of the New York Times to criticize the publications as counter-productive exercises in public ‘shaming.’ The passage of state legislation prohibiting future publication was attributable to many different factors, most especially public disapproval of this use of individual value-added scores and the political efforts of New York’s teacher unions, but there is no question that the willingness of a prominent member of the corporate elite to speak out on the wrong-headedness of this practice played a role.

Just recently, Gates appeared on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post, offering a vision of teacher evaluation that diverged in important ways from the reform model that envisions schools as for-profit corporations. Two points are particularly noteworthy: First, Gates’ disapproval of the excessive reliance on the use of standardized tests in evaluations; and second, his critique of merit pay and its promotion of competition among teachers as harmful to the collaborative nature of the educational enterprise. There is value in having a powerful voice from within the corporate world expressing such views publicly, especially insofar as they represent a positive evolution away from more problematic positions.

The real world of educational politics is complex and contradictory. There remain points in Gates’ teacher evaluation agenda, such as the weight he accords to value-added measures, that teachers and their unions find objectionable. And there are educational projects that the Gates Foundation has undertaken in the past which have drawn criticism, such as the mass production of new small schools that diverted support for a promising grassroots model of innovative small schools led by educators.*

There is good reason to be concerned with the Gates Foundation’s support of the ‘portfolio’ conception of school district governance, with its mass closure of district schools.

It is because of the shifting commonalities and differences among individuals (and organizations) in the education policy world that it is important  – contra Cuban – to maintain a definition of ”corporate education reform” as a movement that seeks to privatize public schools or remake them in the model of of for-profit corporations operating in an educational marketplace. Those who are committed to the democratic vision of education as a public good need the political clarity provided by that conception as they confront efforts to privatize public education and eviscerate teacher voice.

I was reminded of Cuban’s essay and the importance of this distinction after reading some of the commentary in reaction to a recent essay on teacher evaluation written jointly by Vicki Phillips, director of K-12 education programs at the Gates Foundation, and AFT president Randi Weingarten (Full Disclosure: Weingarten is also the president of the Albert Shanker Institute.) From individual blog posts to some reader comments section on Diane Ravitch’s blog, what one found were not political analyses or reasoned objections to the particular points where Phillips and Weingarten were in agreement, but tests of moral purity, in which any discussion of common ground with Gates and the Gates Foundation was regarded as the violation of a pollution taboo. One blogger even managed to condemn Weingarten for doing what he himself tells us he did – engage in a dialogue with the Gates Foundation. When feeling under attack, it is easy to fall victim to crude and reductionist sociological analyses that assume that the power elite has a total homogeneity of interest and purpose, with a universal and implacable opposition to all “progressive” change.** But this sort of discourse does not serve teachers or public education well.

In summary, my argument here is that thoughtful nuance and careful distinction in political and sociological analysis matter a great deal. But there is also a larger frame of reference here, a long view of American political sociology that bears recalling. Every significant progressive reform in the United States, from the Reconstruction and the Progressive Era to the New Deal and the Great Society, has been not only spearheaded by a powerful mass movement from below, but also supported by a fraction of the power elite from above. There is no reason to think that American education, at this historical moment, will be an exception to this pattern. Allies are where you find them. And, in this day and age, those of us who care about the survival and health of public education need all we can find, even those who are not allies for all things or for all time.

- Leo Casey


* See the special Summer 2005 issue of Rethinking Schools, “Is Small Beautiful?" Volume 19, Issue 4.

** For some of those who advocate a ‘corporate education reform’ agenda, any discussion of the role of power and wealth in educational politics is threatening, and so the very use of a term like the ‘corporate elite’ evokes charges that one is employing a ‘conspiracy theory.’ In its own way, the refusal to consider the dynamics of wealth and power is every bit as crude and reductionist a sociology as the view the powerful and wealthy are homogeneous in their interest and purpose, and universally opposed to all progressive change.


Mr. Casey,

There is no "taboo" on dialogue with the Gates Foundation, and I would be the last person to suggest there ought to be one, since that is what I engaged in last year. But this was an extended and often heated dialogue where core issues were brought to the surface. This was intentionally done in the form of a dialogue, so the Gates Foundation was directly challenged to respond to the concerns that were raised.

And you equate this with Randi Weingarten signing her name to an article describing best practices in teacher evaluation alongside that of Vicki Phillips of the Gates Foundation? This is not a dialogue. It is a statement of agreement and alignment, where, from my point of view, none ought to exist.

Randi Weingarten suggested in tweets afterwards that it was important to recognize that the Gates Foundation "sees big errors in what's going on now w/ evaluation." If, in fact, the Gates Foundation sees big errors, they need to first of all, take some accountability for their very active role in advocating for those "errors," and be far more specific about what those errors are. Otherwise all we have is bland statements from them that mean nothing in the real world inhabited by students and teachers affected by these policies.


"Allies are where you find them."

Agreed. Your Phillips-Weingarten tale reminds me of something from a couple years ago. If I recall, Reg Weaver had co-authored an op-ed with Wendy Kopp. One of the top leaders in that union told me how the same "pollution taboo" emerged.


Per Mr. Cody's remark above, I'm curious if there's a differentiated approach by AFT to tweets and mainstream media. The tweets target the frustrated base (emphasizing anti-reform narrative, with retweets), and the MSM op-eds targets the voters (emphasizing solutions, moderation).

That would make sense. Two audiences. But one cost may be that some in the frustrated base don't grasp the strategy.


From the trenches, where campaigns are won, this overly nuanced view lacks the utility that the carefully crafted messaging that is inherent in painting corporate reformers with a single broad brush possesses. analysis is a ill-starred luxury when opponents have a substantial edge in resources and complicit, complacent, media.


My, God, how long has it been since you've visited any real teachers at work? Do you really think leadership isn't answerable to the members when they engage in outright betrayal like this?

Yes, there is a corporate reform, and it's iWalking through our classrooms putting its jackboot on our throats.

This isn't any "overly nuanced view" you're presenting, Leo. It's a mealy mouthed sellout. Randi has sold out the teachers who pay her salary, because she's already looking towards her next six-figure job. Brothers and sisters who read this intolerable affront to honest Union discourse, let's move her on up and out of office.


Hi Mary,

Since you asked how long it's been since Leo "visited any real teachers at work," this is the first year in 27 years he hasn't taught in a NYC public school.

Thanks for your comment,


If its not the "corporate reform movement" pushing mayoral control, charters, school closings, value added assessment and budget cuts then what is this unnamed force that controls public policy and weighs so heavily and with similar talking points on school workers, parents and students in cities across the country? Words are important. I challenge Leo Casey to name it.

Of course there are differences among the corporate elite which those of us engaged in the struggle to defend public education and teacher unionism should take note of but that is not to say that we should loose sight of the forest for the trees.

The true measure of the value of critical analysis in this context is its ability to inform and guide practice. We seek not a fetishism of nuance and data but an accurate assessment of the war being waged against public education, unionism and democracy itself to better defend ourselves against it.
Larry Cuban, whose comments are approvingly noted by Leo Casey, is part of the charter school movement with which the AFT remains a part of. Readers shaking their heads in disbelief at the intellectual gyrations of Casey should ask why the AFT remains embedded with the charter school movement that in the current context is squarely aimed at dismantling and privatizing public education in large urban areas with a majority of Latino and Black students.
The proliferation of charters follows the passage of legislation by the Clinton administration which granted hefty tax exemptions to hedge funds that invested in them.
Charters encompass a variety of approaches but what is their principal role in the current context of the war being waged against public education and the learning, living and working conditions of the working class in the USA?

Larry Cuban tells us that there is no corporate reform weighing down upon us by reference to the nuances that exist among the corporate elite but consciously or unconsciously this is a scholastic exercise in dissimulation and a justification for his own involvement with charters. Leo Casey embraces Cuban's smoke and chaff as his own because it is serves to aggrandize the AFT's approach of "triangulation" with one or another proponent of the corporate education reform; now Bloomberg, now Gates, now this or that charter operator.

The effect of "triangulation" in stopping and reversing the attacks should be the focus of truly critical and valuable intellectual work by the AFT and Shanker Institute. But that is not happening. Instead our house intellectual is busy creating artful dodges and nuanced postings that obscure more than they reveal.


This analysis is quite doesn't hold together.

Mr. Casey -- and Prof. Cuban -- require uninimity on every plank in order to acknowledge that there might be some sort of movement.

The Democratic and Republican Parties do not have unimity on their their party platforms. Even among the very top members of each party, there are areas of difference. And yet there ARE Democratic and Republic policies.

Not everyone in the reproductive rights movement agree on late term abortions, and yet there IS a productive rights movement. (And I can say with confidence what the reproductive rights position on late term abortions is.)

Not all gun owners agree on all gun control proposals. And yet we know that there is a gun rights movement.

So, Mr. Casey and Prof. Cuban have not actually shown that there's not a Corporate Education Reform Movement.


Prof. Cuban criticizes a straw man when he writes, "I avoid such phrases as “corporate reformers” because they suggest far more coherence and concerted action than occurs in the real world of politics and policymaking."

There's nothing wrong with the term "corporate reformers." This isn't an academic terms; it's a political term, a term that emerges in vivo, not in the ivory tower. The term also represents a step forward for those who oppose much of the corporate reform agenda. The first step in combating an idea is to name it. After 20 years of education reform, we have identified and labeled our enemy. That's progress.

Talking about an ideology may sound like talking about a conspiracy, but they are not the same. Ideologies are patterns of thought that selfishly try to control discourse for particular ends. Like conspiracies, they are present, but unseen and unnamed, and hard to put your finger on. There doesn't need to be a conspiracy. There are an ideology and a movement.

Corporate education reform is movement. A movement isn't a monolith. The largest movement in the 20th century was probably the Civil Rights movement. Was it a monolith? Did SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and the Nation of Islam agree on all tactics and goals? People may have sought the same ultimate goal racial equality, but they disagreed on many things. People with radically different beliefs protested the Vietnam War, yet we still talk about the anti-war movement. The same was true for the feminist movement.

Our corporate reformers share a common goal--that of reforming education. It's okay if they focus on different means. They don't need a star chamber to come up with ideas, and we don't need labels with science-like precision.