In the next few days, my nine-year-old granddaughter will find out how well she did on the New York State Common Core standards tests she took back in April. She’s a bright kid and a good reader, but I spent weeks this past winter drilling her on multiplication tables and fractions and hovering over her as she labored over reading and math homework, trying to get her prepared for the new exams.
I hope she does as well as she thinks she did (she’s a confident girl.) But the 47 to 60 percent drop in test scores citywide reported in recent weeks has me worried. If she doesn’t do well, what will that do to her confidence? To her eagerness to learn in the classroom?
I applaud that the Common Core standards are about developing critical thinking skills. I taught as an adjunct professor in a state college sociology department for several years in the 1990s. Regrettably, few of my students had the critical thinking skills, much less the ability to write clearly (or even in full sentences), that one would expect from college students.
Yet, when I looked over the New York State practice guide on the Common Core standards handed out by my granddaughter’s public school, I was shocked by the difficulty of the questions asked and, more puzzling, the ambiguity of answers given. It seemed an awfully high bar to set for third graders like her. It was almost as if the tests were designed to make kids fail, especially poor kids (58 percent of the kids in my granddaughter’s school come from homes that fall beneath the poverty line.)
Who Benefits From Education Reform?
Educational testing experts like Diane Ravitch have criticized the Common Core tests for requiring the equivalent of A’s just to pass at the “proficient” level. She and others see a nefarious purpose behind the tests’ difficulty: justify the corporate-driven “reform” agenda of demonizing public schools to gin up the demand for more charter schools (privatized under for-profit or non-profit administration) and more testing, test prep and data management by for-profit companies -- like Amplify, Newscorp’s online learning division headed by former NYC school chancellor Joe Klein.
As quoted in the Washington Post, New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year Carole Burris, described the problem:
The bottom line is that there are tremendous financial interests driving the agenda about our schools — from test makers, to publishers, to data management corporations — all making tremendous profits from the chaotic change. When the scores drop, they prosper. When the tests change, they prosper. When schools scramble to buy materials to raise scores, they prosper. There are curriculum developers earning millions to created scripted lessons to turn teachers into deliverers of modules in alignment with the Common Core (or to replace teachers with computer software carefully designed for such alignment).
Big Bad Government
So what does all this have to do with social enterprise?
Social enterprise is the business model underpinning the educational “reform” movement, from Teach For America (TFA) to Jeffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone to the tens of thousands of charter schools that are siphoning off much needed public funds from public schools in poor communities – and increasingly replacing them.
I don’t doubt that many of these social enterprises began with the best of intentions – to bridge the achievement gap between poor school districts and wealthier ones.
"Twenty years ago, the nonprofit social entrepreneurs, like their for-profit entrepreneurial counterparts, saw that, even after the Great Society, even after a number of government efforts to address poverty, there were entrenched social problems that weren't going away that government had failed to address adequately. So you had people like Wendy Kopp [founder of Teach for America] saying, ‘The current system isn't working.'"
Unfortunately, neither have Teach For America and a host of other nonprofit and for-profit efforts. Most TFA teachers work in charter schools. But charters don’t generally do any better than public schools – and some do worse. As Levenson Keohane told CSRwire:
"We now have 20 years of data and results from Teach For America and it still has not been a silver bullet. We still have an achievement gap problem and educational problems that persist...The intentions were good but there may have been some hubris in the estimation of how readily some of these new approaches, both in education and social entrepreneurship, could solve these problems."
But government and public employees are still taking the rap for the problem. It’s as if to the multiple choice question, “why did government fail?” only one answer appears on the lines A through D: “government is bad,” while other more thoughtful answers are left off the sheet.
Doing Less With Less
When Grover Norquist famously said, “I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” he was prefiguring what has become government policy through Democratic and Republican administrations alike: eviscerate public goods like education, public health and infrastructure, while giving away a bonanza of subsidies to private interests.
Well meaning reformers saw that government was hamstrung, but instead of working to strengthening fiscal support for the public sector, they swallowed the free market hype. Levenson Keohane explains:
"Part of the enthusiasm for all these private sector solutions is this presumption that we need to do more with less. We've run out of public funds and resources and there's no money to make investments in human capital in the public sector. There's this presumption [that] we're in a bind fiscally. What that leaves off the table entirely are other revenue sources."
Like the “T” word.
Levenson Keohane points out that countries, like France and Germany, don’t rely on massive philanthropy to deal with social problems because the tax structure supports public investment.
In the U.S., as in other countries enamored by “fiscal restraint” - except for corporate welfare - the failure to invest public resources into solving public problems contributes to the very poverty that social enterprises and private philanthropy then try to fix. As Levenson Keohane told CSRwire:
"The flip side of philanthropy is that we also have extreme inequality. And that's a function of public policy choices"
Small Is Effective
Does this mean that social entrepreneurs should just hang up their hats and join the Occupy Movement? No. But they do need to stop painting government, unions and public workers as the enemy.
And they need to choose their bedfellows wisely.
The temptation to partner with large corporations and their deep pockets, prestige and social heft is powerful, especially when hitched to large-scale aspirations. It’s natural to assume that real solutions to poverty or educational disparities come in large packages, especially when those packages are getting millions of dollars of public and philanthropic funds.
But the nature of bigness is to concentrate power at the top, while those “stakeholders” who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of social enterprise can get lost in the decision-making process.
Children are not being served when parents and teachers are reduced to pleading for support for neighborhood schools as they are shut down in the name of reform, as is happening in Chicago, New York, Philadephia and many other cities. Nine-year-old Asean Johnson of Chicago knows this:
Social entrepreneurship was born out of a deeply held impulse to empower the powerless – something that is done from the bottom up. As social entrepreneur Dean Cycon (of Dean’s Beans) wrote in a comment on my last post:
"I believe in the success of a thousand flowers blooming at small scale everywhere, and do not believe that the highest good is to get big. That has been the downfall of every one of the original social good entrepreneurs, no matter how much their marketing departments or our friends who made a fortune off their rising stocks tell us. Real change only takes place at the bottom, not the top."
"Limiting the size of the social enterprise to 100 members and spawning thousands can be a better approach to scale than a few large enterprises."
These social entrepreneurs and thousands like them know that bringing business acumen to bear on solving social problems turns on the axle of democratic governance. Mission must drive the bottom line, not the other way around.