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Why calling school reform ‘corporate reform’ is an insult to corporate reform

A board at the New York Stock Exchange . (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

School reform in the age of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top has for years been referred to by critics as “corporate reform.” Why? Because many school reformers seek to privatize the public education system, and they want the public education system to be operated like a business, even though it is a civic institution not designed to function within a business model. This post takes an unconventional view of the labeling of today’s school reform as “corporate reform,” arguing that “no leading company” would do some of the questionable things being done to public schools in the name of reform.

This post was written by  William Doyle, who was just selected as a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar to study global education best practices. He is the co-author of civil rights icon James Meredith’s 2012 memoir, “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America,” and he was recently named to the Fulbright Scholars Program Specialist roster for 2013-2018. Previously he managed budgets totaling over $200 million for public U.S. media companies,  including HBO.

By William Doyle

It is a mistake to refer to failing education reforms as “corporate reform.”

No leading company would place the entire foundation of its business on inaccurate, unreliable, system-distorting and often “bad” data like multiple-choice standardized tests.

No leading company would roll out a multi-billion-dollar national venture (like Common Core) nationally without extensive field-and-market testing first.

And while much education policy is currently focused on rating, shaming, stressing and punishing teachers, schools and even students based on alleged “performance” on standardized test “data,” according to an article in the April 21, 2015, Wall Street Journal (“The Trouble With Grading Employees“), a number of leading companies including Microsoft, Adobe Systems and Gap, Inc., are realizing that “performance ratings” are counterproductive, are abolishing them, and achieving better results.

The article reports that the companies “abolished such [performance] ratings after leaders decided they deterred collaboration and stoked staffers’ anxieties,” and quoted David Rock, the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, as saying that ratings conjure a “threat response” in workers, or “a sensation of danger” that can last for months if they didn’t get the rating they expected.

The article reports that “companies that have gotten rid of ratings say their employees feel better about their jobs, and actually listen to managers’ feedback instead of obsessing over a number.”

Since late 2013, when Microsoft stopped rating and ranking employees because the practice “discouraged risk-taking and collaboration,” the company has found that teamwork has increased, said John Ritchie, a Microsoft human-resources executive quoted in the article.

The article reports:

The internal change mirrors the shift CEO Satya Nadella is working to effect externally, charming and collaborating with startups and venture-capital firms so that Microsoft doesn’t get left behind in the increasingly heterogeneous world of technology. “We needed to change and everybody knew it,” Mr. Ritchie said of the new performance management system.

It’s time that education reform followed the example of companies like Microsoft in adopting a truly 21st Century approach to this critical aspect of organizational management. Our schools, teachers and students stand to reap enormous benefits.