Sunday, February 17, 2008

The corporate mindset at Tweed: a tale of two Sirs

See this recent BBC article, about a speech by Sir Richard Pring, who to terrific applause, lambasted the corporate mentality that has come to infect the field of education in Great Britain. Pring was presenting the latest report from Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training, (in pdf) that examines how the aims and values of education have come to be "dominated by the language of management." Here is an excerpt:

When education is conceived in terms of inputs leading to measurable outputs, or in terms of targets which constitute the performance indicators against which learning can be audited, or when teachers are seen as curriculum deliverers, or when cuts in resources are referred to as efficiency gains, then education is being conceived very differently from how it was seen only a few decades ago. …. Change the metaphor, and you change the understanding of the aims of education and the values which such aims embody.

A similar perspective has invaded the management of NYC schools during this administration. Joel Klein tries to justify inflated salaries (and a huge PR staff) by saying that they are "running a $20 billion company" and could earn three times as much in the private sector. (Then send them back!) See also all the chief officers of this and that who inhabit the elegant halls of Tweed --a chief accountability officer (earning $196,000), a chief knowledge officer ($177,000), a chief talent officer ($172,000) and a chief portfolio officer ($162,000).

Many parents noted critically in our independent parent survey the way in which the administration viewed our schools as businesses rather than educational enterprises; in the words of one, children are "being treated like they are a business venture instead of like human beings." Now that we have a deficit, management is not surprisingly pushing most of the cuts to the lower level of the organization (in this case, our underfunded schools) rather than making the savings at headquarters, where there is alot more fat to cut.
The resemblance between the corporate mentality in the UK educational establishment and at Tweed is not coincidental; both have been heavily influenced by Sir Michael Barber, former efficiency expert who advised Tony Blair on education and subsequently became an adviser to Joel Klein.

The NY Times carried a puff piece about Barber in August; Sir Richard Pring wrote a famous but still unpublished letter to the Times in response, disputing the article's claim that Barber's advice had led to real improvements in the UK . Here is an excerpt from Pring's letter:

In the last few years, England has created the most tested school population in the world from age 5 to age 18. School improvement lies in scoring even higher in the national tests, irrespective of whether these tests bear any relation to the quality of learning, and schools which see the poverty of the testing regime suffer the penalty of going down the very public league tables. The results of the 'high stakes testing' are that teachers increasingly teach to the test, young people are disillusioned and disengaged, higher education complains that those matriculating (despite higher scores) are ill prepared for university studies, and intelligent and creative teachers incleasingly feel dissatisfied with their professional work. ...'What counts as an educated 19 year old in this day and age?'. The answers which we are receiving from teachers, universities, employers and the community would point to a system very different from the one which Sir Michael nurtured and is now selling to the United States.

What’s funny (or sad) is that few impartial observers in the UK think that the Blair/Barber reforms have been successful, just as there are extremely few in NYC who currently believe in the Bloomberg/Klein initiatives -- so much so that a recent article in Education Next was forced to quote a hedge fund manager who supports charter schools in their defense.

See this semi-amusing tidbit from an interview with Joel Klein published in the British Guardian in 2006:

Klein is a fan of Blair's education reforms and "learnt a lot" from talking to Sir Michael Barber, the former No 10 education adviser. "The UK is performing better on international tests and moving in the right direction," he says. "They have a lot of the challenges we have." He is surprised when I mention the sense of failure, especially in London. "The work just hasn't finished," he says, blithely.

But Barber cleverly keeps traveling to new climes, before his failures can catch up with him. He seems to continually find new people to pay him for his advice, as he merrily trips along. His motto? If "everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough.”

For the entire Pring letter, see Diane Ravitch's posting in the Huffington Post.

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