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Joel Klein, Underdog: "The Real Losers Will Be Our Kids"

As I read Joel Klein's op-ed "The Case for the Private Sector in School Reform" in The Atlantic last week, I had the disconcerting feeling of agreeing with all of his arguments while simultaneously being somewhat revolted by them.

The former NYC schools chancellor expresses obvious frustration at the opposition he has encountered since taking the helm of Rupert Murdoch's Amplify venture, which is marketing a tablet computing platform and curriculum to schools.

Klein bases his argument on the fact that private-sector vendors have always served the education market, which is of course true. But he then equates this benign role—selling pencils, paper, and the like—with wholesale reform. While I can't say I think this conflation is completely invalid, his indignation makes me more than a little bit uncomfortable. Diane Ravitch recently told EdWeek "I don't approve of for-profit ventures in education other than companies selling books and school supplies," a statement that I think goes too far, but reflects my discomfort with Amplify.

Klein's op-ed is almost certainly a response to the Ravitch-led criticism of Amplify. He writes:

Yet such pragmatic problem-solving is threatened today by critics who condemn any private involvement in schools as a matter of "privatization," "profiteering," or worse. These ideological foes of business' contribution to the public good ignore history in their attempt to protect a failed status quo. If their campaign to quash educational innovation succeeds, the real losers will be our kids. link

Klein is certainly right that curriculum publishers have long been seen as benign for-profit players in the education sector, but I can't abide his whine that if people don't buy his products, "the real losers will be our kids."

The core of his argument, though, comes in the precise distinction he draws between school-supply vendors and today's companies like Amplify:

But the deeper reason is that the current generation of private sector innovators want to challenge traditional ways of doing things in schools. They see a system that's failing to equip America's children with the skills to compete in a global age, and they believe passionately that innovative products and approaches could help the country do better. This determination to shake things up is seen as a threat by many who hold power over schools today, and who act as if the status quo is working just fine.

And in case it wasn't clear who Klein is talking about:

The public shouldn't be fooled by attempts to slander today's private sector innovators. Just as Edison knew he was onto something big—the idea that electricity and lighting could improve our lives—today's education entrepreneurs know they can harness emerging technologies to reimagine teaching and learning. It's a story as old as change itself. The candlemaker's union wasn't cheering Edison on. Make no mistake: The attack on new entrants into education has at least as much to do with power as with profit.

In this analogy, Klein is Edison and teachers are...the candlemaker's union? And Klein-as-Edison is suddenly an entrepreneur, and an underdog in the struggle to do right by kids? Funny, I thought he was an executive working on salary ($3 million per year, if you care to know) for billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

I'm not sure I see the point of attacking teachers and unions in order to sell computer hardware and educational software. What exactly is he hoping will happen—that innovation and improvement will happen in spite of, rather than through, our nation's educators?

In painting himself as a victim of anti-corporate crusaders, Klein ventures into a few delusions about the state of innovation in education:

For too long, the education sector has suffered from a dearth of the R & D that has assured progress in every other sphere of human endeavor. Until recently, education entrepreneurs and innovators have largely steered clear of traditional public schools, deterred by their fragmentation as a market, as well as by the perception that decision-making seemed impenetrably "political."

This is patently false. Educational research is a vibrant and vast profession, with AERA's annual meeting drawing some 14,000 researchers each year. And entrepreneurs have not avoided education; they have simply had more modest ambitions than Klein's Amplify, or (like Pearson) have grown by acquiring already-successful ventures. Ask any principal or school secretary if there's a shortage of innovative products and services available to schools, and they'll bury you in catalogs and flyers.

Klein may be experiencing more resistance than he expected because Amplify is trying to sell an entire educational package rather than a more modest set of tools or services. This too is nothing new; Success For All and similar Comprehensive School Reform Models have been around for decades, and have always encountered fierce resistance. Klein should expect no less opposition, and probably more.

The truth is that a lot of people just don't like Joel Klein, don't like Rupert Murdoch, and don't like it when big companies act like they know everything and deserve the opportunity to ride into every school in America on a white horse.

His argument is fundamentally sound—the private sector has long been involved with public education in a wide range of ways, and this is often a very productive relationship. There is nothing wrong with companies making money by selling products and services to schools; indeed, schools could not operate without their vendors. But that doesn't mean anyone has to cut Amplify any slack.

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