Counterbalancing the Education-Industrial Complex

by Hap Aziz

In an opinion piece published in the November 4th issue of the Orange County Register online, columnist Brian Calle writes about the lack of advocacy for students themselves in the education landscape. There are a whole host of actors involved in what Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, terms the “educational-industrial complex,” and these include teachers’ unions, testing companies, text book publishers, and the like. Lost in all of this is any direct representation for the students directly, and Calle asserts that as a result there has been disappointingly little progress in student outcomes, especially compared to the progress being made in other countries.

Interestingly, if you take a look at the report’s call-out data on its home page within the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) website, a much more positive picture is presented than is revealed through a deeper reading of the report. (The tone of the public message is another issue entirely.) Michelle Rhee, an education reformer who was formerly chancellor of the Washington, DC, public schools argues that because there is no advocacy group for students, laws and policies have been twisted in favor of the lobbyists representing the various constituencies within that educational-industrial complex. There is no particular impetus in these constituencies to actually improve student outcomes; in fact, conditions favor maintaining the status quo, especially among teachers’ unions (as Rhee experienced during her tenure in DC).

As part of the counterbalancing movement, Rhee founded Students First to push the agenda of student reform. It’s certainly worth checking out, and its stated mission “to build a national movement to defend the interests of children in public education and pursue transformative reform, so that America has the best education system in the world” is very well intentioned.

I’d argue that there’s a much more fundamental component of student education advocacy, and that’s parents and parent participation and awareness of what’s going on in their children’s schooling. What makes this grass-roots type of advocacy difficult from an engagement and leverage standpoint is twofold: 1) the lack of a collective and strong voice, and 2) the unwillingness among active and engaged parents to continue to place their children in under performing education settings, hoping for improvement in any sort of time frame that would actually benefit their children. As a result, those parents that are able therefore find alternative educational infrastructures such as charter schools, private schools, home schooling co-ops, or whatever else will provide immediate relief. Certainly as a parent, I’m not willing to keep my child in a less-than-ideal setting waiting on the public system to “get it right” when I can do something about it on an individual level.

As a result, though, I’ve removed nearly all of the incentive for me to press for improvement in public education. Grouping parents into a larger advocacy group, then may not be the best lever to press for change. Rather than creating an artificial construct with the intent to put desired pressure on public institutions, we should be looking to release the constraints on the market, allowing it to influence change through natural economic pressures. Charter schools, access to vouchers, and merit pay are all elements of this approach, and, perhaps not coincidentally, these are elements that experience tremendous push-back from the constituents within the educational-industrial complex. The concerns to be addressed–an there are many valid concerns on both sides of the issue–are too extensive to be covered in this single blog post. But if you do have thoughts in this direction, I’d appreciate your sharing them here.


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Filed under accountability, education

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