The top positions in state education across the US – for example, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, recent chancellors Joel Klein (New York) and Michelle Rhee (Washington, DC), and incoming Chancellor Cathleen P Black (New York) – reflect a trust in CEO-style leadership for education management and reform. Along with these new leaders in education, billionaire entrepreneurs have also assumed roles as education saviours: Bill and Melinda Gates, and Geoffrey Canada.
Gates, Canada, Duncan, Klein and Rhee have capitalised on their positions in education to rise to the status of celebrities, as well – praised in the misleading documentary feature Waiting for Superman, on Oprah, and even on Bill Maher's Real Time.
What do all these professional managers and entrepreneurs have in common?
Little or no experience or expertise in education. (Instead, they have degrees in government and law, along with nontraditional entries into education and strong ties to alternative certification, such as Teach for America). Further, they all represent and promote a cultural faith in the power of leadership above the importance of experience or expertise.
When Klein quit his post as chancellor in New York – soon after Michelle Rhee left DC – the fact that he was leaving for a senior position at News Corp and that his replacement would be a magazine executive sent a strong message. The implication was that the American public distrusts not only schools, but also teachers and education experts.
More telling, however, is the appointment of Duncan as secretary of education under President Obama. This appointment of a CEO-style leader of schools in Chicago comes under a Democratic administration and, ironically, a president once demonised as too friendly with the radical left within the education community.
Like Obama, Secretary Duncan has led refrains against bad teachers, while ignoring the growing impact of poverty on the lives of children and on schools. One very visible effect of this trend for recruiting CEO-style leaders and billionaire entrepreneurs is the new commitment to corporate-sponsored charter schools – such as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) among the most high profile.
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The messages coming from state education in the US, then, are that government has failed and that only the private sector can save us. But is that message accurate?
The corporate push to take over state education is, in fact, masking the failures of corporate America. And, in turn, this masks the fact that America has failed state education, rather than state education failing America.
The standards, testing and accountability movement is built on a claim that education can change society. The corporate support for the accountability movement and the "no excuses" charter school movement seeks to reinforce that claim because, otherwise, corporate America and the politicians supporting corporate America would have to admit that something is wrong with our economic and political structures.
And the evidence isn't on the side of corporate America.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that only 14% of pupil achievement can be attributed to the quality of the school; 86% of that achievement is driven by factors outside of education. David Berliner has also established six out-of-school factors that overwhelm the effectiveness of education against poverty and expanding social inequities.
In the US, achievement gaps and failure in state schools reflect larger inequalities in society, as well as dysfunction in corporate, consumer culture. The schools did not cause those gaps or failures – although it is true that, far too often, they perpetuate the social stratification. And the evidence shows that schools alone will never be able to overcome powerful social forces.
The real failure, which is the message being ignored here, is that one of the wealthiest countries in the world refuses to face the inequities of its economic system, a system that permits more than 20% of its children to live in poverty (pdf) and to languish in schools that America has clearly decided to abandon, along with its democratic principles.