Every year Forbes magazine publishes a list that it calls “30 Under 30” — people it has deemed to be leaders in various industries, including education. The magazine, which issued its 2018 list late last year, describes the endeavor this way:

What never grows old? The burning desire of youth to reinvent the world. That ambition and impatience is on full display in our 2018 edition of the Forbes 30 Under 30, our annual encyclopedia of creative disruption featuring 600 young stars in 20 different industries. Selecting these youthful visionaries is a year-round obsession: We vet thousands of nominations, leaning on the collective wisdom of our online community, ace reporters and a panel of A-list judges. Now in our seventh year, with a 4,000-strong alumni network that spans the globe, this list continues to spotlight the impressive, the inspiring and the (genuinely) enviable.

Three education researchers decided to analyze the education winners in the contest by Forbes — a business magazine — and they found something interesting: Winning has “less to do with training or experience in education and everything to do with being connected to the judges and their respective, and likewise connected, organizations seeking to deregulate and privatize schooling in the United States.”

The three are:  Jameson Brewer, who is assistant professor of teacher education at the University of North Georgia, and co-editor of the book “Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out“; Nicholas D. Hartlep, associate professor of urban education and chair of the Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education in the School of Urban Education at Metropolitan State University, whose latest book is “Asian/American Scholars of Education: 21st Century Pedagogies, Perspectives, and Experiences“; and Ian M. Scott, a former special education teacher, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Their full study is published at Education Policy Analysis Archives and is publicly available online, and here is a post by the three of them about what they did, why and what they found.

Incidentally, there is among the 2018 education winners on the “30 Under 30”  only one person who works directly for a school district. The rest of the 30 are in the business of education. Forbes is, of course, a business magazine, but the “30 Under 30” list in education doesn’t say it’s a list of experts in education technology, or education entrepreneurship, or education business. It just says education.

By Jameson Brewer, Nicholas D. Hartlep and Ian M. Scott

Since 2011, Forbes has published its list of “30 Under 30” across a wide array of industries ranging from fashion to music to science. The awardees on the list are presented to the world as experts in their field. The award serves as an acknowledgement of success in transforming and reinvigorating, and in some cases disrupting, the “industry” in which the award is given. Forbes takes pride in the selectivity statistic that following “intense competition,” only 4 percent of those nominated are recognized by the judges. Consequently, the award is construed to be prestigious.

Beginning in 2013, Forbes included education as one of its award categories. Using the term “edu-preneurs” to describe the winners in the education industry, the award firmly establishes the belief that school reform is best served when educational reformers use market-oriented philosophies and business-model approaches to their work. Forbes perpetuates a commonsensical approach that the dispositions normally associated with education should be substituted with pro-business and pro-market ideologies.

As educational researchers, we were curious about the educational backgrounds of those who have received the award in the education category, as that would represent an artifact of the type of training and dispositions they possessed as “expert” education reformers. Our curiosity led to a year-long study that uncovered the vast education reform networks connected to the Forbes award.

Our study found that the academic credentials of most of the Under 30 education award recipients were in computer science, economics, political science, engineering, and business, with the overwhelming majority possessing Ivy League pedigrees. In fact, only four of 192 Under 30 education recipients over the years we studied earned an undergraduate degree focused on education. Of those who actually had minimal teaching experience, most acquired it through the alternative teacher training program Teach For America (TFA), which historically has provided only five weeks of student teaching for recruits who commit to working as a teacher for two years in high-needs schools.

If the recipients of the Forbes award lack a background in education and have minimal classroom experience — crash-course style, as it were — what, then, justifies selection into Forbes’ education category?

To answer this, we considered the possibility that the “30 Under 30” judges select individuals from within their own organizations (given their own connections to education reform and their organization’s penchant for celebrating their connections to the Forbes awardees each year); that the award is, in effect, skewed toward the ideologies held by its judges. So, we investigated the connections between the judges, the winners, and the broader education reform network.

What would it mean if those who are chosen by Forbes are simply from within the same closed networks of the judges? Asked differently: What if the judges who in recent years have primarily been CEOs or founders of market-oriented school reform organizations, were simply selecting individuals from within their organizations to bolster their group’s efforts at privatization?  Sadly, that is precisely what we found … the recognition was a form of nepotism awarding alignment with an ideological commitment to privatize education.

We employed social network analysis — a method that allows us to map and analyze the relationships between individuals and organizations — in order to answer these questions. We found that there were, in fact, substantial connections between the judges and those selected for the “30 Under 30” award.

For example, a significant portion of the award recipients were connected to TFA. Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA, has served as a judge for multiple years and in those years, the majority of the judges had organizational connections to TFA. Stacey Childress, CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund (which is a pro-charter organization and also connected to TFA) is the longest serving judge for the award.

Similarly, we found that a significant portion of award recipients are directly connected to charter advocacy organizations and charter schools which have ties to venture philanthropic funding from the Walton (Wal-Mart family), Bill and Melinda Gates, and Eli and Edythe Broad Foundations (all staunch supporters of charters and school vouchers, and yes, TFA).

In short, what we found is that being selected for the Under 30 award in education has less to do with training or experience in education and everything to do with being connected to the judges and their respective, and likewise connected, organizations seeking to deregulate and privatize schooling in the United States. As one would expect, this results in the promotion of a narrow vision of what is possible for the future of public education.

Creating an echo chamber and self-congratulating cronies under the façade of prestige and the guise of productive reform reinforces the idea that the “30 Under 30” education reformers are experts in their field despite limited to no training and experience in education.  The reality, however, is that the award promotes the various brands of reform of those connected to the judges. Forbes’s self-congratulatory award represents “homophily” (or love of the same).  That is, it appears that the Forbes judges explicitly pick winners who remind them of themselves and their ideological commitment to reforming education through business models.

Recipients of the award were not only strongly connected to the organizations represented by the judges but are often connected in more than one way to the broader reform network. This reform network endeavors to push some of the same agenda that  President Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has been pushing for decades despite evidence that such reforms are not as successful as DeVos might claim.  Those reforms?  More charter schools, more school  vouchers, fewer protections for marginalized students (e.g. students with disabilities), and the deregulation and privatization of teacher certification.

The “30 Under 30” award in education is, in our estimation, an effort to reify and normalize the efforts of those working to undermine public education through some of the same reforms championed by DeVos who, likewise, has no personal experience in education outside of attempting to reform it along business-oriented models.

To put all of this into perspective, another category within the “30 Under 30” award is in healthcare.  Imagine a scenario in which the judges for that category were connected to, say, “Doctors for America” and the majority of the recipients had studied medicine through that program for five weeks, spent little time actually working in a hospital, and then were recognized as the top talent in the medical field. While that is clearly unthinkable, we must ask ourselves why such a thing is so readily acceptable in education, and why efforts to de-skill teaching and privatize schools is lauded.

Rather than conceive of education as a profession that requires specialized training, such as attending accredited teacher preparation programs that include lengthy practicum training and restricted entry into the field, Forbes’ “30 Under 30” celebrates individuals with no degree or training in education as the best hope for “revolutionizing learning” and reforming education.