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Contracts, Choice, and Customer Service: Marketization and Public Engagement in Education

by Maia Bloomfield Cucchiara, Eva Gold & Elaine Simon - 2011

Background/Context: Market models of school reform are having a major impact on school districts across the country. While scholars have examined many aspects of this process, we know far less about the general effects of marketization on public participation in education and local education politics.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article uses an examination of marketization in Philadelphia over a six-year period (2001-7) to explore its implications for public engagement—or the ability of individuals and groups to work with and influence the school district and hold officials accountable.

Setting: The research was conducted in Philadelphia, the sixth largest city in the country. In 2001, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over the School District of Philadelphia, citing on-going fiscal crises and poor student achievement. The resulting reforms included new leadership, new governance structures, and significant privatization.

Research Design: This is a qualitative case study of school district change in Philadelphia, focusing on the implications for public engagement.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data included over 50 interviews with education administrators, civic and political elites, and representatives of grassroots and community groups. Data also included six years of participant observation at public meetings and in reform coalitions. Analysis followed a grounded theory approach designed to identify district policies and practices related to public participation and to document how these practices shaped the ability of individuals and groups to engage productively with the district.

Findings/Results: We find that the marketization of education in Philadelphia had a major impact on the district’s institutional structure and practices for interacting with local stakeholders. Our data point to several changes that were particularly consequential in shaping the opportunities for engagement and the direction such engagement took. These are: a corporate governance structure, an emphasis on communication, widespread contracting out for services, an increase in school choice, and a focus on customer service.

Conclusions/Recommendations: These changes have resulted in channeling of public participation along individual lines at the expense of collective forms of action and, more broadly, undercutting of the understanding of education as a public good. Given the continued influence of market models of education reform at the local and national levels, it will be important for policymakers to pay close attention to the ways by which marketization can limit engagement and to develop strategies, such as increased transparency and new vehicles for public input, to address this tendency.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 11, 2011, p. 2460-2502
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16108, Date Accessed: 4/20/2021 6:45:34 AM

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About the Author
  • Maia Cucchiara
    Temple University
    E-mail Author
    MAIA CUCCHIARA, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Temple University. Her research interests include school reform in Philadelphia, middle-class families, and urban schools, and the intersections between education policy and broader urban social, political, and economic processes. Recent publications (with ERIN HORVAT) include, “Perils and Promises: Middle-Class Parental Involvement in Urban Schools.” American Educational Research Journal, 46(4), 2010.
  • Eva Gold
    Research for Action
    E-mail Author
    EVA GOLD, Ph.D., is a Founder and Senior Research Fellow at Research for Action. She has served as primary investigator for numerous local and national studies examining the dynamics between schools and communities, with a special focus on the role of community and youth organizing in school reform, and the building of civic capacity to propel and sustain reform efforts. In addition, her research interests include the privatization of public education, high school reform, and adolescent and young adult literacy. She is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania, where she leads seminars for dissertation students on data collection, analysis and writing.
  • Elaine Simon
    University of Pennsylvania
    ELAINE SIMON has an M.S. in Education and a Ph.D. in Anthropology. She is the Co-Director of the Urban Studies Program in the School of Arts and Sciences and Adjunct Associate Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in urban studies, ethnographic research methods, and urban education. She is a Senior Research Consultant with Research for Action. Her interests are in equity in urban education reform and the intersection of schools and community. Among the projects she has worked on at RFA are studies of curriculum and school governance reform, community organizing and civic engagement in public education, and the role of intermediary organizations in school improvement. She has contributed to published reports, articles, and books on such topics as qualitative research methods, civic engagement, and community organizing for public education reform.
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