School Beat: Of Profits and Schools

by Lisa Schiff on December 15, 2005

Major corporations are raking in money and celebrating their profit margins at the expense of our children. While we are arguing over how many small schools we can afford and demonstrating over and over again the successes of our school communities despite the major hurdles in front of us, the proverbial fox is still feasting in the hen house.

This legalized inequity comes about thanks to the confluence of at least three factors: the standardized curriculum; the simplistic accountability of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation; and a culture built on extracting profit from anywhere and everywhere, which has produced a feeding frenzy on the part of major corporations tapping into the education market.

The first of these factors, the curriculum, is a complex issue. Standards for subjects can be very useful. As a parent, it’s nice to know that some collective thought has been put into what children should be and are capable of learning at different developmental moments. This assumes that the standards are crafted in such a way that we can trust their quality and appropriateness–a difficult thing to assess as a parent.

Just recently, California’s science standards were lauded as being exceptionally strong by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (http://www.edexcellence.net/doc/05sci_CA.pdf.pdf). This organization is a strong support of vouchers, which should cause any public school advocate some concern. The analysis was also given positive publicity by the Oakland-based National Center (http://www.ncseweb.org), though, which has as its mission supporting the teaching of evolution in public schools and counted among its supporters the late Stephen J. Gould.

However good standards and a given standardized curriculum may be, they do open the door for text-book-like economies of scale in the production of teaching materials. Combined with the imperative from NCLB (and our own state before then) to have all children in a state take one test, and you have the lucrative situation in which we now found ourselves.
Lucrative for some that is.

Reading First, the NCLB preferred reading program to make sure children are reading at grade-level by grade three, has proven to be a boon to publisher McGraw Hill. Announcing their third-quarter financials in early December, sales in the Elementary to High school market were cited as central to their double-digit rise in earnings per share. (http://biz.yahoo.com/prnews/051020/nyth005a.html?.v=1).

McGraw Hill gave appropriate credit to NCLB, Reading First, and the testing focus for the company’s healthy sales: “The reading and testing markets continue to benefit from the federal government’s No Child Left Behind program. Our revenue from Reading First programs again showed a year-over-year increase in the third quarter.The testing provisions of No Child Left Behind continue to fuel growth in custom contracts while reducing the demand for higher margin norm-referenced test products and services at the district level.”

Connections of this sort are important to identify and share. These are the meat behind the arguments that much of what is driving so-called reform is about creating markets for private entities.

Educating ourselves and each other about these relatinships is the start. The next step is bringing this understanding to a broader audience.

An opportunity to do just that is coming up on January 18th, 2006. The Public Education Network (PEN) has been holding “hearings” across the country on the impact of No Child Left Behind.

A set of hearings were held in 2004, the results of which are available online (http://www.publiceducation.org/portals/nclb/hearings/national/Open_to_the_Public.asp).
In 2005, PEN began a new round of hearings with he goal of giving the public an opportunity to weigh in on how well the legislation is working from various community vantage points.

San Franciscans will be able to participate on the January 18th date-all of the logistical details are currently unknown as community based organizations are just starting to get involved in the planning. Information will be getting posted to the PEN website http://www.publiceducation.org/nclb_hearings.asp
PEN has committed to bringing the results of the hearings to policy makers in the White House and Congress. Circling back to the people who bring us legislation has been a missing step in other efforts of this sort, so this is welcome news. However, there should be no illusions that this attempt will be any more successful at opening the eyes (or changing the values) of individuals at the policy level because of it, but it may be a more effective way of raising public awareness and shining some light on some rather dark practices.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (http://www.ppssf.org).

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