The business school-trained are taking on education -- but what about the teachers and students?

Limiting ourselves to technical and methodological solutions to the problems in education misses the point

Published September 27, 2015 1:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Seth Wenig)
(AP/Seth Wenig)

Excerpted from "Class War: The Privatization of Childhood" (Jacobin series)

A year ago, at professional development training, I was asked to imagine what kind of school I would design if I had $5 million. I scribbled down a few ideas and shared them with the group. Most of us wrote things like “SMALLER  CLASSES! A BIGGER BUILDING! WORKSHOPS AND SERVICES FOR PARENTS!” Even “INTERNET ACCESS IN THE CLASSROOM!” Then, we were asked to consider how we might implement changes to address the problems without the money. We talked about using space efficiently, installing shelving on the walls, and the intent to stay organized and prepared even though there are never enough hours in the day.

The point, in retrospect, is this: Forget that time is limited. Forget cash, or the lack of it, and that American teachers spend a collective $1.6 billion a year—half  of the $3.2 billion spent in total—supplying their classrooms with materials. You can do anything you put your mind to. But can you? Can we, teachers and administrators, create utopian learning environments through sheer force of will and innovation? Can we think our way out of inequality?

Neoliberal  scholars and politicos who seized upon A Nation at Risk during the late 1980s and early '90s to argue that American schools were globally uncompetitive and in need of a lifesaving  injection of free-market principles succeeded in turning a controversial, unsubstantiated proposition into conventional wisdom almost overnight. Today many political officials, along with nearly every corporate philanthropist, take it for granted that a lack of accountability and rigor has left the education system in a state of crisis. This belief has, in turn, paved the way for those who are “socially conscious” but apolitical (for example, the rising figure of the “social entrepreneur”)  to frame education and poverty as bipartisan technical challenges in search of methodological solutions. Naturally, the solutions that spring from the minds of business school–trained advocates are rather more likely than those thought up by teachers or parents or students themselves to be based on the widespread adoption of a new technology or design or habit of mind, instead of something with as high an overhead as increasing or redistributing material resources.

In their book, The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers, CEO Paul Polak and Mal Warwick argue that government efforts to address poverty “have not reached scale because they lack the incentives of the market to attract massive resources.” One of the authors, Polak, a millionaire by way of oil and real estate, is the founder of two nonprofit organizations, International Development Enterprises and “design incubator” D-Rev, as well as a for-profit  social venture called Windhorse  International,  whose mission is “inspiring and leading a revolution in how companies design, price, market, and distribute products to benefit the 2.7 billion customers who live on less than $2 a day.” Warwick is a social venture capitalist. Together they outline design principles for the creation of new products and services based on “what [the poor] really want and need” plus “the ruthless pursuit of affordability.” The book won a 2014 Axiom Business Book Award and received favorable reviews from the Economist; Rajiv J. Shah, administrator for  the  US  Agency for International Development; former Obama administration official Van Jones; and from Bill Clinton, who called it original, ambitious,  and practical—“one  of the most hopeful propositions to come along in a long time.”

“Harness[ing] the power of free enterprise,” he wrote, may “be the key to reducing the number of people in poverty on a very large scale . . . while making a profit.” This is not a niche argument that appeals to a cult following, but a significant development covered regularly by Forbes,  CNBC, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Business Week, and other denizens of the culture. Capitalism  has acquired (another) new spirit: for-profit social entrepreneurs  aim to “do good while making money,” and corporate philanthropists expect to get a “return on investment” and shape the strategy and goals of the nonprofit organizations to which they donate.

In a 2010 talk with Massachusetts Institute of Technology students,  Bill Gates of Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—ranked as the richest man in the world for sixteen of the past twenty years—asked, “Are the brightest minds working on the most important problems?”

Gates’s intention was to  be provocative;  following the assumption that “doing good” and doing business are harmonious and interrelated ends, he urged students who might otherwise go into investment banking or the tech industry to consider “global development” instead. In the same talk, he identified what he sees as the two most significant issues of our time: improving the lives of the world ’s poorest  people and improving education, encouraging future research into the technology of open source learning platforms and what makes someone a good teacher. “I had no idea of how poorly the education system in the U.S. is working,” he added. Gates “envisions a system that brings together the best lectures and course materials, and blends them with interactive elements and user feedback and possibly the opportunity for accreditation,” reported MIT’s student newspaper, the Tech.

Whether or not Microsoft and Google will cop to it, every hope for and vision of the future is ideological,  because progress is subjective: Imagining what it should look like and how we ought to get there requires us to make judgments about what is desirable and what is not. “Design thinking” is a phenomenon embraced by the business community to determine priorities and arrive at simple, creative resolutions to the problems it has identified. Its most prominent evangelist, Tim Brown, CEO of global design company IDEO and a regular at Davos and TED talks, has described design thinking as a way to infuse “local, collaborative, participatory”  planning into the development of products and organizational  processes. IDEO, which first  became noteworthy for creating the Apple mouse, was recently hired to design an entire South American school system from the ground up.

The firm’s  mission to “create impact through design” encompasses consulting for private companies like health insurer Kaiser Permanente, as well as a nonprofit  side— Brown sits on the board—that has partnered with the Bezos Family Foundation to campaign about the importance of engaged parenting and developed an online “educational experience” (funded in part by a $3 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) that is now one of ten preferred institutions  Walmart directs its workers to for higher education. “practices human-centered design to solve some of the world ’s most difficult  problems,” says the organization’s home page, and “works to empower the poor.”

One of those problems is, perhaps not surprisingly, education. To that end, IDEO has published an 81-page “Design Toolkit” made available to teachers worldwide as a free download. It contains no physical tools but features attractive blank graphic organizers, fun neon yellow text boxes, and an array of vibrant photographs of groups of people sitting in circles surrounded  by hundreds of color-coded Post-its. “Responsibility” is used three times in the workbook, always in reference to teachers’ role to generate fixes and to develop what the firm calls “an evolved perspective,” guided by a series of prompts. (The word “funding” is used not at all—nor is the word “demand.”)

Problems presented in floating speech bubbles range from “I just can’t get my students to pay attention” to “Students come to school hungry and can’t focus on work.” All are defined as “opportunities” for design in disguise. We’re told faculty at one school embarked on a “design journey,” coming to an approach they call “Investigative  Learning,” which addresses students “not as receivers as information, but as shapers or knowledge”—without  further detail as to how exactly this was accomplished.

Of course, the idea of engaging students as experienced coteachers in their own education isn’t novel, nor is it an innovation brainstormed by a single group of teachers using graphic organizers to chart solutions. It has a long history, including Southern Freedom Schools and some of the educational projects taken up by the Black Panthers. Marxist educator Paulo Freire developed his critique of the traditional “banking model” of education (in which students’ minds are regarded as passive vaults for teachers to toss facts into like coins) in the 1960s and 70s, arguing that authentic education is a task for radicals, not carried on “by A for B,” but “by A withB.” His Pedagogy of the Oppressed helped reignite the progressive education movement during that era, and his call for  a  meaningfully  collaborative approach to  learning remains influential in American schools of education today.

Peter McLaren, who taught elementary and middle school in a public housing complex for five years before becoming a professor of education, has since further developed Freire’s ideas into an extensive body of revolutionary critical pedagogy, which encourages students to theorize about their own experiences and think about how they can fight against forms of exploitation, and which I was assigned in my first class as a master’s student in education.

Yet, here we are, a “nation at risk” with lower test scores than our international peers and children still arriving at school every day without eating breakfast. IDEO urges teachers be optimistic, to simply “believe the future will be better.”

Like all modern managerial philosophies that stake their names on innovation, “design thinking” has not actually been put forward by theorists or implemented by business leadership because its ideas are new.

What design thinking ultimately offers is not evolution, but the look and feeling of progress on the cheap, paired with the familiar, gratifying illusion of efficiency. It offers the illusion that structural and institutional problems can be solved through a series of cognitive actions—and finally, the suggestion that macro-level inputs (textbooks, teacher salaries) can remain the same, while outputs (test scores, customer service) improve. From the perspective of capitalism, this is magic, the only alchemy that matters.

Design Thinking for Educators urges teachers to be optimistic without specifying why, and to simply believe the future will be better. The toolkit instructs teachers to have an “abundance mentality,” as if problem solving is a habit of mind. Why not “start with ‘What if ?’ instead  of ‘What’s wrong?’” they ask.

There are many reasons to start with “What’s wrong?” That question is, after all, the basis of critical thought. Belief in a better future feels wonderful if you can swing it, but it is passive, irrelevant, inert without analysis about how to get there. The only people who benefit from the “build now, think later” strategy are those who are in power in the present.

It’s not surprising, then, that when Carlos Rodríguez-Pastor Persivale, the billionaire son of an elite Peruvian banking family, decided to expand his empire of restaurants  and movie theaters by buying up a chain of for-profit English-language elementary schools, his first step was to contact IDEO and commission them to design everything: the buildings, the budget, the curriculum, professional development opportunities for teachers. The network is called Innova, and it’s on its way to becoming the largest private school system in Peru.

According to “ed tech community” EdSurge, Innova is “more than just an example of how first-world ideas about blended learning and design thinking can be adapted in a developing country,” aiming to close the achievement gap, build Peru’s next generation of leaders, “and make a profit while doing so.”

Innova students use computer-tutoring programs designed by Pearson, the largest education company in the world, and Sal Khan, a protégé of the Gates Foundation. (By now, Khan’s  story is canonical among readers of the Harvard Business Review: In 2005, the former hedge fund analyst created a simple computer program for practicing math problems and some instructional videos to help tutor his cousins remotely. These went viral on YouTube among families looking for enrichment activities for their children at the end of the school day, one of which was Bill Gates’s.) In a photograph of one location posted to IDEO’s website, students sit in groups of six, each absorbed in his or her laptop. The school’s modular walls collapse to allow classes of thirty to be joined together into one large group of sixty students at various times throughout the day.

Khan said he was “blown away” after visiting: “It was beautiful, open, and modern. It was inspiring to see an affordable school deliver an education that would rival schools in the richest countries.” The question is, affordable for whom?

Tuition at an Innova school is $130 a month, which is certainly considerably less than the cost of your average American private school but would require shelling out over a quarter of the monthly income of a family living on Peru’s median household  income of $430 a month. Half of the families that attend Innova are led by two parents working professional jobs such as accounts, engineers, or entrepreneurs. For his part, Rodríguez-Pastor has been clear that the schools are targeted specifically  at Peru’s emerging middle class, but American education reformers have a different sense of what the schools represent.

IDEO interprets the fact that Innova students perform at higher than the national average on math and communication tests as proof that they’ve delivered on their mantra for the project, “affordability, scalability, excellence.” But if test scores are higher than the public schools’, it is not because of the soul-searching of teacher/designers. It ’s because  tuition is about a quarter of the national median income. After all, a consistent pattern in educational research of the past half century is that the socioeconomic status of a child ’s parents is one of the strongest predictors of his or her academic success. “Usually in Peru, our schools are like a jail,” says Innova founder Jorge Yzusqui Chessman. “But [Innova] schools . . . have big transparency, many colors, and bandwidth throughout.” Transparency and Wi-Fi for the middle class, while everyone else attends schools “like jails”?

Given the data, perhaps it would be more revolutionary, more innovative, and more forward-thinking if, instead of free idea toolkits, IDEO built a system that ensured every child, rich and poor, had access to these beautiful new schools. There is one simple, elegant solution: Make them free and public, and tax rich business owners like Persivale to pay for them.

On the other hand, American historian of education Larry Cuban has observed that even when innovations are well funded for mass use in public schools—during the Baby Boom, for instance, over $100 million was invested by the federal government and the Ford Foundation to promote the use of televisions in classrooms as a strategy for the alleviation of a teacher shortage—they rarely change the fundamental nature of schooling. When we think about the classrooms of the future, we have to ask what (as Marshall McLuhan has put it) technology like radio and television can do that the present classroom can’t.  That means asking, what ’s  futuristic about the future? And equally importantly—to whom will it belong?

Excerpted from "Class War: The Privatization of Childhood" (Jacobin series) by Megan Erickson. Copyright © 2015 by Megan Erickson. Reprinted by permission of Verso Books.

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