Public Schools—the “Feel Good Hobby” of the Rich?

December 9, 2011; Source: Time MagazineThis article from Time Magazine asserts that for the past ten years philanthropy and a small number of high-flying and well-connected nonprofits have been playing at school. That is, the rich have taken up the public schools as a kind of laboratory complete with human subjects. Judith Warner, the author, says that their promise appears to be that they may be able to remake poor children in their own images but—wait for it!—results have been “mixed at best.”

By now we all know that Bill Gates has apologized repeatedly for his five-year foray into the no-apparent-results small schools initiative, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame has become embroiled with parents in New Jersey, who feel that the large donation he made—and subsequent donations that have been brought in to augment it—have displaced the voices of the community. From the article:

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.

Warner suggests that schools are more and more metrics obsessed but that studies show that the focus might be misplaced, pointing out that it may be poverty itself that is causing children to underperform rather than any particular problem with teachers or the educational system.—Ruth McCambridge