Why Are the Rich So Interested in Public-School Reform?

They want to remake America's students in their own high-achieving image, but they're overlooking socioeconomics

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It was perhaps inevitable that the political moment that has given birth to the Occupy movement, pitting Main Street against Wall Street and the 99% against the financial elite, would eventually succeed in making some chinks in the armor of the 1%’s favorite feel-good hobby: the school reform movement.

It’s been a good decade now that the direction of school reform has been greatly influenced by a number of highly effective Master (and Mistress) of the Universe types: men and women like Princeton grad Wendy Kopp, the founder of the Teach for America program, her husband, Harvard graduate Richard Barth, who heads up the charter school Knowledge Is Power Program, the hard-charging former D.C. schools chancellor (and Cornell and Harvard grad) Michelle Rhee and the many hedge fund founders who are now investing significant resources in the cause of expanding charter schools. Excoriating the state of America’s union-protected teaching profession and allegedly ossified education schools, they’ve prided themselves upon attracting “the best and the brightest” to the education reform cause, whether by luring recent top college graduates into challenging classrooms or by seducing Harvard Business School or McKinsey-trained numbers-crunchers away from Wall Street to newly lucrative executive positions in educationally themed social entrepreneurship.

The chief promise of their brand of reform — the results of which have been mixed, at best — seems to be that they can remake America’s students in their own high-achieving image. By evaluating all students according to the same sort of testable rubrics that, when aced, propelled the reformers into the Ivy League and beyond, society’s winners seem to believe they can inspire and guide society’s losers, inoculating them against failure with their own habits of success, and forever disproving the depressingly fatalistic ’70s-style liberal idea that things like poverty and poor health care and hunger and a chaotic family life can, indeed, condemn children to school failure.

And yet as schools scramble to keep up with these narrow demands, voices are emerging to suggest that perhaps the rubric-obsessed school reform game, as it’s been played in the Bush and Obama years and funded and dressed-up by the well-heeled Organization Kids, is itself perhaps due for a philosophical shake-up.

(MORE: Andrew J. Rotherham: Cheating on the Hard Work of School Reform)

Earlier this year, S. Paul Reville, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, blogged in Education Week that reformers need now to think beyond the numbers and “admit that closing achievement gaps is not as simple as adopting a set of standards, accountability and instructional improvement strategies.” In Massachusetts, he wrote, “We have set the nation’s highest standards, been tough on accountability and invested billions in building school capacity, yet we still see a very strong correlation between socioeconomic background and educational achievement and attainment. It is now clear that unless and until we make a more active effort to mitigate the impediments to learning that are commonly associated with poverty, we will still be faced with large numbers of children who are either unable to come to school or so distracted as not to be able to be attentive and supply effort when they get there.” Reville called for “wraparound services” that would allow schools to provide students with a “healthy platform” from which they could begin to work on learning.

Diane Ravitch, the education policy specialist and reformed charter school advocate, made the same argument in a trenchant New York Review of Books article this fall, where she enumerated the many reasons that school reform as we’ve come to know it needs to be called into question. For one thing, like so much else “the best and the brightest” have brought us in recent years, many of the reform movement’s results don’t stand up to scrutiny. After reviewing the data, she writes:  “Most research studies agree that charter schools are, on average, no more successful than regular public schools; that evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is fraught with inaccuracy and promotes narrowing of the curriculum to only the subjects tested, encouraging some districts to drop the arts or other nontested subjects; and that the strategy of closing schools disrupts communities without necessarily producing better schools.”

Striking a serious blow to the contention that it’s bad teaching — not bad luck in life — that makes some American students perform much worse than others (and all of them much worse than students in other countries), Ravitch noted that on a recent international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, “American schools in which fewer than 10% of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan and Korea. Even when as many as 25% of the students were poor, American schools performed as well as the top-scoring nations. As the proportion of poor students rises, the scores of U.S. schools drop.”

In other words, more than good teachers, more than targeted testing, more than careful calibrations of performance measures and metrics that can standardize and quantify every aspect of learning, it’s the messy business of life — where a child comes from and what he or she goes home to at the end of the day — that really determines success in school. This message flies in the face of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-boostrap individualism, the extreme emphasis on private (read: teacher) responsibility that has animated the school reform movement in recent years. It demands a complete rethinking now of what our public response to the perennial crisis of public education in America should be.

(MORE: Warner: Overmedicating Foster Kids: The Cost of Skimping on Care)

Fortunately, there are some programs in place that have had real success in providing “wraparound services” that help children come to school ready to learn. In Northern California, for example, the Making Waves Foundation has for decades run a program providing  tutoring, academic advising, college counseling, after school enrichment programs, mental health services, nutritional food, transportation and parent education to more than a thousand low-income children, selected by lottery. In Cincinnati, where more than 70% of children live in low-income households, a program called the Strive Partnership coordinates services and support for school children that include mentoring, health care, arts programs, quality preschool and financial aid for college — and the result, according to a new report from the independent think tank Education Sector, is that, over the last four years, Cincinnati schools have made greater gains than any other urban district in Ohio and have had the most success in reducing the percentage of its students who score at the very bottom on achievement tests.

The Obama Administration hasn’t been blind to these initiatives, and has committed $40 million to a new Promise Neighborhoods program that seeks to link family support services to schools. But, the Education Sector report notes, that initiative is unlikely to receive the $150 million the Administration requested for 2012, given that its 2011 budget request of $210 million was cut down to $30 million.

Thinking structurally about social ills, rejecting excessive individualism for community-based, it-takes-a-village-style responsibility, has been out of favor in America for a long time. In education reform, what’s been in style instead is vilifying teachers and their unions. For some schools, making the grade has meant cooking the books to show results. Let’s hope that the time to reform this business-modeled mindset has finally come.


The trouble does lie with the families but I can't say we are going to fix it in school.  It is the basic idea of what people want to spend their time and money on against what they are 'told' to spend their time and money on.  Our society in large has lost  the balance between supporting curiosity, creativity and ambition with the showing of wealth and pursuit of pleasure.  What do we support more as a society?  What does every bit of social media, music, television and advertising promote more?   Half of my coworkers view their children as a burden, and complain constantly about how much money it takes to buy all of the things they 'have' to have.  I hear so few interested in learning or making anything for themselves outside of buying a package at the store and watching the latest television show.  How can we teach our children to be self-sufficient and self-motivated learners when the norm around them is scoffing at the idea and promoting a 'buy happiness at the store' mentality at them 24/7?   School cannot fix this... at this rate, I am not sure anything can short of changing how our whole society perceives wealth and worth.

ShelleyW like.author.displayName 1 Like

No amount of money can fix this problem.  The problem with our educational system is the decay of the family.  These kids come from chaotic, often single-parent led homes.  Parents are too busy trying to make ends meet, they don't have time to worry about homework and teacher conferences.  We keep demanding more money when we spend more on education than any other country in the world.  Politicians and CEOs who don't even have children in the public schools (Bill Gates) should not have a say in the matter.  I think we should give vouchers a try.  Notice the quality education our politicians' children are receiving.  They are all succeeding just fine, why can't the rest of our children do the same?

bseipel76 like.author.displayName 1 Like

There are several factors that have been identified empirically to affect student performance. These include (with some caveats): nutrition, native language status, special needs classification, SES (broad term for income level, quality of neighborhood of residence, resources in the home, etc.), classroom size, and teacher quality.  Of these factors, several are accounted for and "fixed" through school programs (i.e., nutrition, special education, English as a Second Language course, classroom size reduction). Of the remaining two factors, teacher quality is one thing can be regulated and addressed (usually by politicians, etc.).  SES, however, will remain as a significant indicator of poor performance in school and on standardized tests. (Of course, there will always be individuals who "beat the odds", but beating the odd is neither motivation nor a proved method of improving group-level performance for individuals who identified as low SES.)  Additionally, politicians cannot "fix"/ legislate changes to address SES levels (other than change the definition of the poverty level which will practically do nothing; or through wealth redistribution which rarely is well received by the general public in the United States). So, ultimately this boils down to a "equity (high democracy/low capitalism)  versus individual responsibility (high capitalism/ low democracy)" argument that is unlikely to be resolved.

joe1016 like.author.displayName 1 Like

The rich are interested in ruining education for the middle class..period.  They want to feel good about themselves so they rant about "social injustice" and then support programs that do one thing.....give opportunities to poor, minorities etc.. at the expense of the tax paying middle class.  Neither they nor their children will ever have to sacrifice such opportunities...they can afford to stay out of the public system.  The middle class needs to wake up....we are footing the bill for everything and it's wrong.


@joe1016 Yes, and something this article left out was the fact that these billionaires are making money from our kids.  The Charter School is a money-making scheme, many times hedge funds are behind these schools.  The rich man has learned to profit from the middle class and poor.

westello like.author.displayName 1 Like

You forgot to mention that Wendy Kopp (TFA) and Richard Barth (KIPP) are married.  Each of their organizations have received $50M from the government (but they love to cry poor).  

Nearly 25% of American children live in poverty and there is no teacher on earth who can change that.  Schools CANNOT and should not do it all.  To lay the woes of public education at the feet of teachers is unfair and unwise.

These self-appointed non-educator types like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and now, unbelievably, the film director M. Night Shymalan, should back off and shut up.  Unless they want to consult real educators and talk about spending money on what we know works, they need to stop.

Add Arne Duncan and Jeb Bush to that list, as well, because they are two of the top offenders.

Folks, there's money to be made in public education and, if you can get rid of the teachers' unions - the largest unions in the country - all the better.  Follow the money.

And let's consider what Bill Gates has said about class size (he says with a good teacher, it doesn't matter) - he went to the most elite private high school in the Seattle area, Lakeside:

2005 speech to Lakeside students: “Our foundation’s work in high schools is based on principles that happen to be deeply ingrained in Lakeside's culture. We call them the new three R's—the basic building blocks of better high schools. …The third R is Relationships – making sure kids have a number of adults who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve…Classes were small [at Lakeside]. You got to know the teachers. They got to know you. And the relationships that come from that really make a difference.”

2011 article in Washington Post, Bill Gates talks about teacher pay, class size: “Lately, Gates has been advocating…ending costly investments in class-size reduction…Gates contends that the K-12 education industry has been steered for five decades by a misguided belief that the way to higher performance is smaller classes"

 His own children attend private schools, including Lakeside, that emphasis small class sizes. Charter schools?  They echo that in their own websites, touting class size.

RekkaRiley like.author.displayName 1 Like

I think the biggest problem in public education today is the attitudes of the parents, regardless of income level.

Adults often severely underestimate how much their children are listening to what is NOT being said out loud, or what is said behind closed doors or muttered under their breath.

Children reflect the attitudes of their parents.  If their parents constantly complain about how expensive college is, the children start thinking "college isn't worth it, I should avoid it at all costs by not bothering with my grades."

When parents complain about how horrible all teachers are, the children think "My parents don't respect my teachers, so why should I?"

When you complain about your job in front of your children, remember that school is their job, and you are presenting an image that says "The end result of school is a future full of nothing but misery and hopelessness."  Your children hear this and start thinking that school isn't worth the effort because it just means that same future of misery and frustration.

It's okay to be frustrated and complain about stuff, just try not to do it in front of your children.  Because if they think you don't care about education, they see no reason why they should care either.

Low-income parents who demonstrate to their children that they firmly believe education is important, that teachers deserve respect, that education is the road to a happier, more successful life, usually end up with children who do much better than their equally low-income peers because they understand the concept of "I need to concentrate on doing well in school because my parents think it's important and will help me have a happier future."

The attitude problem is rampant in all socioeconomic circles, but I think for low-income families (speaking from personal experience) there's the added pressure of children watching their parents struggle and wondering "Is this what I have to look forward to after I graduate school?"


"This message flies in the face of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-boostrap individualism, the extreme emphasis on private (read: teacher) responsibility that has animated the school reform movement in recent years. It demands a complete rethinking now of what our public response to the perennial crisis of public education in America should be."

Um, yeah .. the concept is personal responsibility.


@hollandaise.dhGood point. Those seven- and eight-year-olds have only themselves to blame for living in poverty, fear, sickness, pain, instability, and despair. They just need to exercise some more personal responsibility. They blew it by choosing the wrong parents. They deserve their fate.

LisaClouse like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Interestingly enough, recent "reforms" aren't really focused on what is best for the student which would be helping them achieve to their full potential. Recent movements have taken us away from creativity and critical thinking and toward standardization that is dumbed down and out of focus in all areas not test focused. The rich are involved in promoting these approaches and "reforms" because true change for equitable access and meeting one's full potential would disrupt the status quo in which they are on top. Imagine the society we could have if everyone truly had equitable opportunity and access. I imagine a lot of wealthy folks would have to work for what they have and those willing to work would reap more of the benefits. For more information on maintenance of the socioeconomic classes through education, check out Patrick Finn's Educating Working Class Children in Their Own Self Interest. Eye opening reading and really connects to this conversation. 


@LisaClouse I think you have an overly romantic view of teaching in the last generation.  When I went to public school in the 80's, there wasn't a whole lot of creativity and critical thinking being taught.  I agree that we can improve the way kids are taught, but that sort of false nostalgia is just as counter-productive as conservatives being nostalgic for the "good ol' days" of the 60's. 

HankMachtay like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

Can we please "reform" the vocabulary here. What Ms. Rhee and the hedge funders are pushing is NOT School "Reform." It's School Privatization, School Commodification, Exploitation of our Education System. For those who blindly worship the free market for education, take a look at what the free market has done to the cost and quality of American health care.

CynthiaA.Burnham like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 6 Like

The rich are invested in public school reform because of the A.L.E.C. privatization agenda.  They do not invest in schools to "do good", but rather to make ever more profits.  They want to privatize the huge public education tax dollar and use it to make more private profits, hence the charter schools and voucher plans, which enrich investors hugely.  Public school reform is not about students, teachers, or schools.  It's about greed.  It is a myth that our public schools are failing if you know the facts behind the international testing.  That myth is necessary in order to push for the corporate reform on which the school reform movement rests.  


@CynthiaA.Burnham What are your authorities to support you assertion that it is a myth that public schools are failing?

EowynKay like.author.displayName 1 Like

@DavidLevinsn @CynthiaA.Burnham International testing that shows when scores are dissaggregated for poverty, American schools are at the top of international testing (we won't go into whether those tests are valid and actually measuring what we are interested in - that's another issue).  Since the US has one of the highest poverty rates for children in OEDC (economically developed countries) are scores are dragged down compared to other countries.  Please do some more research.  Look at our own testing schemes.  It's really quite easy to predict which schools and areas will test the highest- the ones in wealthier districts.  


Another program that works:

Helen Neville, Director of the Brain Development Lab, at the University of Oregon, discusses BDL's groundbreaking paper, "Family-based training program improves brain function, cognition, and behavior in lower socioeconomic status preschoolers."



@califather This is why while we spin our wheels talking about standards, testing and STEM other countries are moving into a "whole brain" understanding of learning.  Mind, brain, and education leaders like Kurt Fischer and Donna Wilson have had it right for over a decade!

incikaya like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

This right here is the problem: Thinking structurally about social ills, rejecting excessive individualism for community-based, it-takes-a-village-style responsibility, has been out of favor in America for a long time."

Can the 1% or the smart consultant types think beyond their own self interests and short-term gains, and instead open their minds to the greater good for the long term for once please? We will all benefit in the end, trust me.

Read more: http://ideas.time.com/2011/12/09/why-are-the-rich-so-interested-in-public-school-reform/#ixzz2ZJQkqIBc

marcwut like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 6 Like

Great. Schools in the corporate model.  Done with ruining the economy, the environment, and a lot of people's lives, corporate interests are now turning their attention to destroying public education and critical thinking abilities.  This is an imperative for the corporate ilk so that their transgressions go unchallenged.

DkMich like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

They're over looking socio-economics because all they care about is money.  They want to put our kids into factory schools and crank out employees paid for with our tax dollar.     They could care less about the child or its needs.   

WinstonChristie-Blick like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

As the non-teacher author of this article sits in the Time newsroom, gazing at her degrees from two different Ivy League universities, I'm sure she feels the deep sense of reward that comes from helping to keep educators in the trenches from "overlooking the socioeconomics" of their low income students -- who come to school suffering from hunger, poor health, familial issues, and a range of other challenges every day. While informing educators that it is, in fact, the poverty of their students that is keeping them from success, she pats herself on the back having effectively redirected our blame to something schools and their communities have far less control over: distributions of wealth. 

Wrap-around services, as described above, would certainly alleviate some of the most pressing daily pangs of poverty – a promising start. But these represent just one of many short term approaches that are necessary, but not sufficient, to affect long term change. Suggesting that the best way to approach the challenges of low income students is to cure poverty is at best mildly unhelpful. Coupled with the argument that education is being influenced by too many disconnected outsiders from elite schools and we realize the insulting absurdity of this article. I hope our author is able to find another "feel good hobby."

JasonRodgers like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@WinstonChristie-Blick I don't see where she said the things you alluded to at all.  I think she was merely trying to point out that where there is poverty, school achievement is lower.  As any teacher can tell you, poverty is NOT a guarantee of failure but poverty definitely acts as an anchor around our students.  I believe the answer to most of our education woes is the rethink our end position.  Why are we obsessed with 100% of our kids being college ready when historically only about 25% ever see the inside of a college classroom and only about 20% ever graduate.

In Florida for example, 25% this year meant over 30k freshman in college.  Whatever would our university system do with 80k freshman when we can barely find enough qualified professors for the ones we have.

As for the wealthy investing in education, well that is certainly about the money.  Corrections and Education are the last 2 major taxpayer funded entities that the corporate world has not made major inroads into.  Having worked for a short time in a privately run prison, I can tell you that you don't want them in education.

JamesHayes-Bohanan like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Thank you! As the Walton/WalMart family jumps into the fray, I am delighted to see push-back against the teaching-to-the-test poison that has been touted without question by politicians of both major parties. It is good to see Paul Reville finally applying some critical thought to this question, though he seems to be suggesting even more of the same. Thank goodness he is no longer in office.

I teach future teachers, and see them caught in a nasty, expensive web of high-stakes testing, sending no less that $750 each to ETS, just to get INTO teaching programs. 

Both student tests and teacher tests invariably test the wrong stuff, and the reliance of local politicians (including school-board members) on meaningless metrics pushes them to ever-increasing levels of educational malpractice. When students arrive at college, we are teaching them critical thinking only after a period of deprogramming from the bubble tests.

JanParker like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

I appreciate - very much - the tone of the article you have written. It's been a tough decade to be a teacher. That said, I'm going to take issue with something you wrote. You said:

"Striking a serious blow to the contention that it’s bad teaching — not bad luck in life — that makes some American students perform much worse than others (and all of them much worse than students in other countries), Ravitch noted that on a recent international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, “American schools in which fewer than 10% of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan and Korea. Even when as many as 25% of the students were poor, American schools performed as well as the top-scoring nations. As the proportion of poor students rises, the scores of U.S. schools drop.”

Not sure how you can say, "...and all of them much worse than students in other countries" in the same paragraph where you point out the PISA results: "American schools in which fewer than 10% of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan and Korea. Even when as many as 25% of the students were poor, American schools performed as well as the top-scoring nations."

Normally, I wouldn't nit-pick because I believe the tone of your post is spot on; however, the lie that American schools and American students are "failing" is a lie that has been said so many times it has become the unquestioned perception - and it's a perception that need to be questioned.


For the wealthy, everything is simple ... which is why they don't understand the 98%, and why they make poor leaders for education reform.

amachead like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

What a surprise!! Who would think that things like receiving good nutrition, having a safe home environment, having a stable home environment, getting a regular nights sleep, having regular attendance, speaking English at home, and having adult parent(s) who believe eduction is important, could have any effect on how a student performs? - Other than NEA and local teachers have been trying to tells us this for 12 years.