"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Privatization Ayes for the McGraw Prize

This year's recipients of the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education are
Norman Augustine, Retired Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Lockheed Martin Corporation; Wendy Kopp, President and Founder, Teach For America;
Vincent Murray, Principal, Henry W. Grady High School, Atlanta, GA.

The Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education annually recognizes outstanding individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving education in this country and whose accomplishments are making a difference today. Honorees are chosen by a distinguished panel of judges made up of thoughtful and influential members of the education community. Each winner receives a gift of $25,000 and a bronze sculpture. The Prize was established in 1988 to honor Mr. McGraw's lifelong commitment to education, and to mark the Corporation's 100th anniversary.
As for their efforts at improving education, it seems that improvement -- like beauty -- is in the eye of the beholder. From these recipients' vantage point, improving education means something very specific.

For example, to improve education, Norman R. Augustine chaired the National Academies Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy, which produced the report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." According to McGraw-Hill, this report was "designed to address student preparedness for the 21st Century." The report is filled with the same kind of alarmist rhetoric that followed the launch of Sputnik, the same that drove "A Nation at Risk," and gave corporations an entree into defining what "improving education" meant to them. It should be noted that Mr. Augustine is a member of the boards of Conoco Phillips, Black & Decker, and Procter & Gamble. It should also be noted that he is an expert in missile defense systems currently in use in Iraq and in educational reform. Apparently the two go well together.

Wendy Kopp has chosen to improve education by relying on the romantic idealism of 20-something college graduates who want to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children. A noble goal, without doubt. But Kopp and Teach for America have managed to help snuff out the call for the kinds of socioeconomic reforms that are at the heart of the educational achievement gaps between the haves and the have nots. Kopp, herself a romantic idealist who has never set foot in a classroom as a teacher, believes that it's up to teachers to try harder and teach better. She waxes elegiac as she relays anecdotes about TFA teachers working longer hours and on Saturdays. Admirable, indeed. Scalable, not at all. After all, TFA teachers only teach for 2 years. Some teach longer, but most don't. They -- by design -- move on to positions of power where they can better affect policy changes for public education. Their major argument, based on their own experience? Teachers need to work harder and teach better. Forget about all this poverty stuff. That's just an excuse.

So why would McGraw-Hill hold these folks up as the bright stars of education?

With Bush using the bully-pulpit of the Presidency to advocate for the policies of NCLB, supporters can line up behind him and advocate solutions that are similar to his. These proponents all have slightly different intentions. But one thing that most of them, at least the educational corporations, have in common is this: if Bush's policies are successfully implemented, all of them will be incredibly rich. Peter Jovanovich, chief executive of Pearson Education, a multi-billion dollar corporate publisher of tests and education materials, described NCLB by saying, "This almost reads like our business plan.”

So, funneling tax dollars into private institutions can certainly be seen as a way of holding public schools accountable. And funneling tax dollars into private institutions can certainly be seen as a way to eventually improve them. But funneling tax dollars into private institutions can also be seen as a way to make educational corporations more profitable and investors in these corporations more excited about these companies. For example, in its 2004 Annual Report, McGraw-Hill reported its revenue increased 7.4% to a record $5.3 billion, that net income increased 9.9% to $755.8 million, and that operating margins rose 3 percentage points to 25%.

Does this mean that McGraw-Hill is out to destroy public schools? Not at all. Does this mean that Peter Jovanovich of Pearson Education is secretly colluding with Bush to privatize public schools? No way. Does this mean that private, for-profit educational companies like to see poor kids get crappy educations? No. The stunning, heart-breaking thing is that as they all work to support reform through NCLB, the following happens: (1) the companies make more money, (2) public schools are destroyed, (3) more and more schools are privatized, and (4) more and more poor kids get crappy educations. None of these companies explicitly WANT these things to happen, but as their business practices seek to fulfill on the revenue-generating opportunities that NCLB affords them, we move inexorably towards the end of public education as we know it.

Peter Campbell

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