Worlds of Education

The New Democratic Professional: Confronting Markets, Metrics, and Managerialism

published 14 August 2018 updated 14 August 2018

By Gary L. Anderson, New York University & Michael Ian Cohen, University of Northern Colorado

The United States is witnessing a revival of teacher activism. Wildcat strikes and walkouts in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, and Arizona have challenged austerity policies as teachers are demanding better wages, but also more voice and respect as professionals. In post-austerity and post-hurricane Puerto Rico, teachers are fighting a bill that would turn all of their schools into charters, much like New Orleans after Katrina.

Teachers are fed up, not only with degraded salaries, but also with a degradation of their professional identities. And the public seems to support them. An April 2018 AP-NORC poll asked 1,140 adults their views of teacher pay and recent protests advocating for more school funding. 78  percent of adults said that teachers are underpaid for the work they do, and 52 percent approved of teachers striking to protest low teacher pay and cuts to school funding. While giving a host of tax breaks to business, Arizona has cut education spending per student by 36.5 percent since 2008.

Degradation of professional identities

Unfortunately, the threat to teachers is deeper than low wages and attacks on teachers’ pensions. As schools and districts increasingly are absorbed into a market, profit, and efficiency logic, the professional identities of teachers and leaders are being radically reshaped (Ball, 2001; Brantlinger & Smith, 2013; Cohen, 2013; Gillies, 2011; Montecinos, Ahumada, Galdames, Campos & Leiva, 2015).

While professionals have always been ‘managed’ to some extent, they are experiencing a new managerialism that relies on the discipline of the market and high-stakes outcomes measures.

In education, a new generation of teachers, counselors, and principals has already been largely incorporated into this new professional identity (Stone-Johnson, 2014). The same could be said for nurses, doctors, social workers, police officers, and other public-sector professionals. Private-sector professionals in the new mean, lean corporations and the gig economy also are being reshaped in similar ways (Sennett, 2006).

Our 2018 book The New Democratic Professional: Confronting Markets, Metrics, and Managerialism (Anderson & Cohen, Teachers College Press), seeks to understand how this has occurred, who made it happen, and how collective resistance to this new managerialism might forge a new democratic professional.

Evetts (2011) conceptualizes the shift in professionalism as one from “notions of partnership, collegiality, discretion and trust to increasing levels of managerialism, bureaucracy, standardisation, assessment and performance review” (p. 407). This new professionalism is largely the result of a transfer of private sector logics into the public sector and the replacement of an ethos of public service with the discipline of the market and outcomes-based external accountability (Evetts, 2009;).

Scholars of market-driven reforms and privatisation of public education have produced an impressive body of work on global new policy networks and the ways education has been commodified and profitized (Anderson & Montoro Donchick, 2014; Exworthy & Halford, 1999; Riep & Machacek, 2016; Robertson & Verger, 2012; Ward, 201), especially in low-income communities of color (Scott, 2011).

Yet, we know less about how these reforms are reshaping the professional identities of teachers and school leaders. In our book, we have attempted to connect the dots among the two waves of business influence in the U.S., new national and global networks of policy entrepreneurs, the emergence of New Public Management, and the effects of these developments on public sector professionals.

Corporate involvement in education

New Public Management (NPM), a term that emerged first in Europe in the 1990s, was used to describe how the governance of organizations in the public sector has been transformed by networks of corporate “reformers”.

A few of the most common ideas and practices transferred from the corporate sector are the introduction of markets within and between public organizations; closing low-performing schools and creating “start ups” that are often outside of local democratic control (e.g., charter schools); less emphasis on public investment and greater emphasis on outcomes and their measurement using quantitative data; contracting out public services and the increased use of consulting companies; anti-unionism; and treating the public sector as an emerging profit center (Hood, 1991; Bottery, 1996; Ward, 2011).

But the corporate involvement in education that began in the 1980s in the U.S. is not the first time business that has shaped our public education system.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large industrial firms served as the model for the new bureaucratic structures of large urban school systems in the U.S.  Progressive Era reformers argued that a school system fit for a modern industrial society could not be administered democratically by a series of local neighborhood councils. Rather, they claimed, it ought to be managed centrally by a hierarchy of professional administrators—much like the corporations of the day (Tyack, 1974).

And the new class of administrators were quick to adopt fashionable business practices—most notably Frederick W. Taylor’s efficiency science. Boards of education were composed primarily of business leaders after 1900, and when district administrators spoke the language of efficiency, it was a register that board members readily understood.

Raymond Callahan (1962), in his famous study of the “cult of efficiency” in public school administration, noted that one of the more tragic consequences of this trend was a drastic oversimplification of the teaching and learning process. Efficiency had become an end in itself, Callahan argued, and administrators based many important decisions on financial calculations rather than pedagogical values.

Business-minded reformers also believed that corporations ought to set the standards for what children learn in public schools. Concerned about the economic competitiveness of the U.S. in world markets, groups such as the National Association of Manufacturing saw the production of human capital as the chief purpose of schooling and lobbied successfully for state and federal funding of vocational education (Kantor, 1988).

In the segregated South, however, White business leaders from the North funded a decidedly inferior form of vocational schooling for Black children, ensuring that Black students could not compete with their White counterparts for skilled jobs (J. Anderson, 1988; Watkins, 2001).

Private sector & the State, parasitic relationship

Today, like then, public schools and the public sector have been positioned as needing guidance from business to be innovative. One reason given for president Trump’s victory was that he was a businessman. Yet, some economists have debunked the notion that the private sector is more efficient, effective, or innovative than the public sector (Locke & Spender, 2011).

Mariana Mazzucato’s book The Entrepreneurial State (2015) demonstrates that virtually every innovation in the development of computers, smartphones, and tablets was funded almost exclusively by government agencies, mostly defense-related agencies, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This includes the Internet, microprocessors, the multitouch screen, Siri, GPS, liquid-crystal display, lithium ion batteries, and many more.

The vaunted entrepreneurialism of Silicon Valley is largely limited to creating apps and commercialising innovations produced by the federal government.

And this is not just the case in the IT industry; almost every major technology has been the result of large-scale and long-term investment by the State, something venture capitalists seldom have the patience for.

The growth of the biopharmaceutical industry was not, as often is argued, the result of venture capital or other business finance promoting innovation in the private sector, but rather the result of government investment and ongoing support of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) labs.

Although the government often is accused of stifling private-sector innovation, according to Mazzucato (2015), the private sector, in fact, has a parasitic relationship to the State. Many charter school franchises, meant to harness the innovativeness of the private sector, have given us some of the worst characteristics of the traditional Catholic schools.

Regaining public trust

Unless we can challenge the new corporate funded, global policy networks and the manufactured common sense that a business mindset (Abrams, 2016) is needed in education, educators will continue to have little influence over their own profession. But it would also be a mistake to seek a return to some golden age of professionalism.

Teaching and school administration as professions have been under attack for a long time and many of the criticisms have merit (Friedrich, 2014; Levine, 2006). Traditional factory-model bureaucracies and the older model of professionalism were notorious for resisting change and failing to meet the needs of many children, especially in urban districts (Payne, 2008).

Furthermore, claims to professionalism by school personnel have often marginalised the voices of low-income parents and communities (Driscoll, 1998; Green, 2015: Podair, 2002). The task ahead is not to merely reassert “traditional” professionalism wholesale, but rather to better understand how to resist the most egregious assaults on professionals, while acknowledging the weaknesses of traditional models of professional training and professional accountability [i].

Such resistance would insist on a professional ethos with democratic participation and the public good at its center.

Luckily there are alternative pathways to professionalism that do not involve de-professionalisation and the elimination of academic training and certification, but rather involve building greater professional and social trust and greater inclusion of those we serve, whether they are patients, students, soldiers or inmates.

Democratic professionals do not yearn for a reassertion of what many view as their lost sense of status and authority. Instead, they seek to democratise their practices and their organisations. Movements in bioethics, public journalism, and restorative justice are examples of professionals seeking to regain public trust (Dzur, 2008).

Most reforms that attempt to improve education have been imported from business, but there are other sectors that are far more appropriate for seeking ideas. For instance, the concept of restorative justice has been imported into education from criminal justice. Community schools and wrap-around services are influenced by social work. The importance of mindfulness comes from religious spirituality, and the importance of caring and wellness, from nursing.

Our obsession with the efficiency principles of NPM have blinded us to the very kind of cross-sector borrowing that we need to successfully care for and teach our most vulnerable students. We can forge a new democratic professional, but first we have to better understand the forces we are up against and develop better strategies to fight them, even as they attempt to colonise our very common sense.

This is a difficult time to be an educator for those who view their job as keeping their head down and allowing the reformers to define them professionally. But for those who are committed to their students, families, communities, and democratic public schools, and are willing to struggle to change policies and practices inside schools and join with those trying to make changes outside schools, these are exciting times to be an educator.

[i] [i]By “traditional” we mean relatively recent university-based professional preparation as opposed to previous apprenticeship models.


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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.