Louis Fisher's Education Blog

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 20 2013

Bull and Bear Classrooms?: Markets, Morals and the Accountability Movement in Literacy Education

It is not surprising that questions of political economy often wriggle their way into casual conversations amongst my 20-something-year-old peers, given the all-too-familiar statistics surrounding our collective employment situation (or lack thereof).[1] I am somewhat surprised, however, when these conversations repeatedly reveal an unmitigated and almost fundamentalist faith in the divine power of the free market to improve our society in every aspect, and thus to succor the growing pains of our stilted entry into the adult world[2]. Former President George W. Bush has encapsulated this belief in the connection between market logic and American progress, affirming, “trade and markets are freedom.[3]


I firmly agree that competitive markets are the most efficient way to allocate our resources in certain realms (like consumer goods), but the boundless market enthusiasm of some millenials, even in the face of this devastating recession, is symptomatic of a broader movement to organize our entire society according to the logic of the markets. From my perspective as a one-time classroom teacher, I find it troubling how this “market triumphalism”[4] has come to dominate the discourse of the American education system in the form the “corporate education reform.” [5]


According to some vocal teachers, such as David W. Hursh, the “rise in high-stakes testing and accountability” and the movement to dismantle the ‘monopoly’ of “government schools” through privatization measures represents “the real crisis in education.” [6] My portal into the education profession was in fact, Teach For America, an organization decried by some as “corporatist.”[7] My limited time in the classroom convinced me, however, that the corporate reform movement in education has not only proved ineffective in raising student reading achievement, but has also served to morally distort our country’s educational institutions.


Corporate Reforms are Ineffective in Raising Student Achievement (in reading)


The corporate reform agenda proceeds from the basic assumption that we can measure the impact of a teacher on his students’ achievement through tests (the teacher’s “value-added”). Once we have calculated this golden metric for supposed teacher impact, we can employ market principles, like performance-pay, to create competition and ensure that our school quality improves.  This assumption has been incorrectly taken for granted in reading instruction, with disastrous consequences for how we teach our kids.


Even Doug Lemov, who self-identifies as “bullish” when it comes to “the strategic use of value-added data”[8] acknowledges that “ELA scores are “sticky” and…so hard to link to a specific teacher” and that a “given teacher’s scores correlate 50% less to that teacher’s sores in a subsequent year when she is a reading teacher than when she is a math teacher.” In other words, value-added data is simply not a reliable measure of teacher effectiveness in the context of reading instruction. Experts such as E.D. Hirsch assert, and again Lemov concedes, that this may be why background knowledge (and hence parental education and income) continues to correlate strongly to reading scores, especially at early ages. [9]The corporatist agenda, however, perpetuates the insidious notion that we can judge reading teachers solely on a value-added basis.  This paradoxically leads to the implementation of ineffective test-prep practices in our reading classrooms.


As a teacher, I witnessed such foolhardy practices firsthand (and as a novice teacher, was at first too intimidated and naïve to contravene them). Reading instruction was broken down into discrete, benchmarked skills, based on the question-stems prevalent on the state tests, and high school teachers were instructed to spend approximately two weeks each exploring lofty literary concepts such as “main idea,” “cause/effect relationships,” and “author’s purpose/perspective.”


Unfortunately, research in cognitive science supports my initial and continued skepticism that this test-prep methodology will succeed in helping struggling readers make meaning of texts:


…cognitive science has shown that comprehension is “domain specific. Several studies show that “poor” readers suddenly look quite strong when reading on subjects they know a lot about, and “strong” readers who have weak subject knowledge, suddenly look quite weak. Despite this finding, students are boringly and time-wastingly taught to practice formal strategies on trivial fictions.


Such policies lead not only to ineffective instruction and undesirable student outcomes, but contribute to a disinterest and even aversion to reading among our youth. How could a junior in high school possibly enjoy reading Arthur Miller when they are not only struggling with comprehension, but being taught the “WIN” strategy for main idea? (WIN is an pneumonic device used in Miami schools—W: Determine the who or what the paragraph is mostly about. I: Determine the most important information about this who or what. N: State the main idea accurately and concisely using only a small number of words.)[10]

[11] Instructors also see their love of teaching and literature eviscerated, as bureaucrats circulate the halls to ensure compliance with trivial test-driven measures (Have you correctly identified “main idea” as the daily objective on your white board? If not, we need to have a serious talk about your commitment to your students’ futures).


Given that the research does not support test-prep techniques like “WIN,” I was not shocked to learn that corporatist reforms do not have a great track record in helping our nation’s young readers. The most bitter irony for me, however, was the self-congratulatory delusion propagated by our school system in Florida: between 2011 and 2012, tenth-grade reading proficiency at my high school dropped from 24% to 17%, yet the school grade rose from an “F” to a “D,” resulting in monetary bonuses (well-earned through blood, sweat, and tears) for faculty members. How’s that for market-based incentivization?  Although market-based reforms could be rejected solely on the basis of their failure to truly improve student outcomes, I now reject them on philosophical grounds as well.


Market-Based Education Reforms are Morally Problematic


Generally speaking, proponents of market logic, be it in education, healthcare, or elsewhere, assume that markets are “inert, that they do not affect the goods they exchange.”[12] By compensating teachers, for example, based on their objective “value-added,” we make no impact upon the “good” (i.e. great instruction) that such teachers produce.  Again, market reformers are making a faulty assumption here, and again the effects on our education system have been painful.


When we allow the logic of the market to become the sole means of organizing our education system, we can end up altering the moral norms and values of our society.  For example, in one Israeli study, a fine was instituted at a daycare center in an attempt to disincentivize parents from showing up late to pick up their kids. The rational individual of market logic should respond to such a fine by avoiding late pick-ups, but paradoxically, late pick-ups actually increased! The monetary incentive altered the moral value of the norm surrounding late-pickups; where parents once felt guilty on moral grounds for sticking the poor teacher with their energetic munchkins for an extra 15 minutes, they now considered the late pick-up to be a market service worth their payment of the fine.[13]


As philosopher Michael Sandel thus suggests, this proves that “marketizing a good can change its meaning [or moral value].” This has obvious implications for market-based policies like value-added and performance pay. Firstly, as alluded to above, it is not clear that such measures incentivizing teachers actually improve student achievement in the first place; a privately funded pay for performance venture in Nashville, for instance, led to no improvement in students’ math performance, despite bonuses of up to $15,000 (more than a third of my former salary as a teacher)!


Secondly, when we offer teachers a marketized system of carrots and sticks to ostensibly get them to do their jobs better, we degrade the preexisting moral value of the teaching profession. We fundamentally change what it means to be a good teacher and why it matters. This is not simply fluffy philosophical posturing; there are real practical consequences for students, which I unfortunately witnessed at my own high school in Miami.


While I was by no means a masterful classroom manager by my second year, I did have positive relationships with a good deal of students, and this inevitably helped me to enforce order and foster a positive culture of learning in the classroom. This is just easier when students like you and respect you. More likely than not, my students did not respect me because I was young, or friendly, or strict—they respected me in spite of these characteristics because they became convinced that I cared about their lives, especially their future opportunities as determined by their capacity to read.  No matter how often we disagreed about how much homework I should assign or how hard we should work each day for our 90-minute block, my students knew that I was motivated almost solely by a desire to see them better off in life.


My point is that the unadulterated exposure of the teacher-student relationship to market-logic will inevitably degrade and corrupt the preexisting moral value of the profession. My students were (and are!) extremely savvy, and some of the more difficult ones did not hesitate to throw the government’s carrots back into my face: “You don’t care about us, you’re just worried about your bo-nus! You teachers just want us to pass this test so you get money; you don’t care if we learn!” Such accusations (especially early on) often left me without a response—one can see a clear analogy between these allegations and the Israeli study—by putting a market value on goods and services with pre-existing moral norms, we often unintentionally “crowd out” such moral values (like guilt about the waiting day-care teacher).  Whether teachers change how they act in response to carrots and sticks is only part of the story; we are fundamentally altering how the students perceive their teachers’ most basic motivation for coming in to see them everyday.


So What Can We Do?


Given this protracted discussion of corporate reforms and marketizing in education, I think it is clear that I, for one, advocate for a sea-change in how we think about turning around schools.  Firstly, I agree with E.D. Hirsch that the implementation of the Common Core represents a moment laden with positive potential for the education reform movement—we must not allow Common Core to be the next framework for “test prep,” but rather for a new framework in reading instruction based on research in cognitive science, which supports the development of content background knowledge, and thus helps us “chart a way out of the incoherence that reading instruction has become.”[14]


Secondly, as a nation, I hope we can move away from corporatist accountability policies that not only encourage bad teaching through test-prep, but also damage society’s perception of teachers. As discussed above, such corporatist rhetoric not only undermines the credibility of teachers and to trivialize the work they do each day; it also degrades the moral value of the profession. The marketization of education threatens to undermine the moral essence of the teaching profession, and to poison the interactions between a teacher and student, making teachers appear less like stern-yet-caring mentors, and more like self-interested, rational agents seeking to maximize their profit.


Such discussions of interpersonal interactions and school culture are powerful venues to explore in the reform movement. A recent study of AP incentive programs in Texas actually serves to highlight the potential power of changes in school culture, rather than the power of the market to shape student and teacher behaviors. Students were offered $100 to pass the AP test, and more students from low-income and minority backgrounds thus took and passed AP exams. This sounds like the triumph of the market! But as Michael Sandel reveals, the story is more complicated.


Students were not behaving as ‘revenue maximizers’ according to the standard “price effect”: it did not matter whether the schools offered $100 or $500, the results across these different schools were the same. The incentive was effective for its “expressive” (as opposed to monetary) value. These incentives, coupled with special lab equipment, special training for teachers, organized weekend tutoring, and the opening of AP classes to all students, served to “transform the culture of the school and the attitudes of students towards academic achievement.”[15]


So instead of attacking and degrading the teaching profession through market reforms and incentivizing and enforcing poor instruction through accountability measures, perhaps we should think about empowering excellent veteran teachers to lead reform from the bottom up, thus fostering teacher buy-in and the growth of a transformatively positive culture of achievement across entire school systems, allowing great teachers’ passion for their subject matter and for their students’ futures to drive the education reform movement forward.




[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/28/young-americans-jobs_n_3667244.html

[2] source

[3]David W. Hursh, High-stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning: The Real Crisis in Education, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 2.

[4] Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, (New York, NY: Macmillan, 2012), 8.

[5] I take my broad definition of “corporate education reform” from Leonie Haimson, who leads Class Size Matters in New York City and was a co-founder of Parents Across America, courtesy of Prof. Diane Ravitch’s blog.

[6] Hursh, 2.

[7] http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2013/05/28/opinion-confessions-privatizing-corporatist-union-thug

[8] Doug Lemov, “On Ed Hirsch and Value-Added Scores in ELA,” Doug Lemov’s Field Notes, 9-16-2013, http://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/on-ed-hirsch-and-value-added-scores-in-ela/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dove, “Main Idea Win Strategy,” Flagler Schools, 10-09-2012, http://flaglerschools.com/content/main-idea-win-strategy.

[11] (W: Determine the who or what the paragraph is mostly about. I: Determine the most important information about this who or what. N: State the main idea accurately and concisely using only a small number of words.)

[12] Sandel, 9.

[13] Sandel, 89.

[14] Valerie Strauss, “E.D. Hirsch, Jr.: Common Core Standards Could revolutionize Reading Instruction,” The Answer Sheet, The Washington Post, 04-06-2010, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/guest-bloggers/ed-hirsch-jr-common-core-stand.html

[15] Sandel, 54.

About this Blog

2011 Miami-Dade corps member, placed in 11th Grade ELA at Booker T. Washington Senior High School for two years. Currently J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School

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