05/23/2015 07:30 am ET Updated May 23, 2016

Poor Children Are Just Nails to Pound

I spend at least several hours every week reading about conflict over education reform. It is as fascinating as it is important. The forces amassed on each side are growing in size and ferocity, and much of the rhetoric is heated. I admit that my own rhetoric is pretty warm.

Despite my and others' criticism, I suppose many reformers are doing what they think is right or, sadly, what they think is necessary. Many critics accuse reformers of being in it for the money. There is surely plenty of collateral profit to be made. Hundreds of tech entrepreneurs are capitalizing on reform; creating Common Core apps, test prep materials, Common Core curriculum, tutoring services or other programs designed to capture a share of the $700 billion market. Large charter management organizations are not doing the work for the betterment of humankind. A lot of money is being spent on education reform and it is enriching some folks, to be sure.

But what about Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family members or other extremely wealthy folks who are the real forces behind educational reform? When assessing the interlocking pieces of the funding puzzle, as Mercedes Schneider has done so well in her book, Chronicle of Echoes: Who's Who in the Implosion of American Public Education, it is clear that the reform movement would be relatively toothless without their support. But there is no reasonable evidence to support the idea that these and other wealthy folks engage in this work to profit.

So what moves them? They claim to do the work because they want to help lift poor children out of poverty and give them an escape route from failing schools. I have no right to doubt the sincerity of that motive. (Unfortunately, that sentiment hasn't been returned in kind. Education reform folks have gotten very angry with me, characterizing me -- accurately -- as the head of an expensive private school, thereby implying that I am disqualified from the debate. I might argue that my position as the head of a private school provides some immunity against accusations of self-interest. Goodness knows I have nothing to gain. I also have nothing to lose.)

My sense, particularly when reading the sharp, frustrated tone of reformers' responses to criticism, is that they honestly believe they know what is best. Beginning in the '50s and '60s, America steadily moved away from intellectualism and toward business-focused pragmatism. Along with the rejection of idealism and intellectualism came a constant imperative to "run things like a business" and "focus on the bottom line." The Reagan-era emphasis on free markets produced an increased adulation of wealth. While it is not entirely a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st century, the nearly automatic pairing of money and wisdom is built into our culture.

In the late 1980s when I was the president of a performing arts school in Detroit, I experienced this first hand. I suspect most non-profit leaders could tell a similar story.

Members of the Ford family dominated the board of the organization. Some Detroit residents might know that there are "automobile Fords" and "chemical Fords." Separate families -- and we had both on the board, some of them products of Ford-Ford marriages. Most of these folks were kind and generous. Their support helped provide wonderful music and dance programs to thousands of kids, many quite poor. I remain grateful, all these years later. But the unconscious assumed relationship between wealth and wisdom was revealed in the meetings of the board. The wealthier "auto Fords" were invariably deferred to by the less affluent "chemical Fords." If that dynamic was amusing -- and it was -- then the relationship between "auto Fords" and "developer Taubman" was hilarious.

A. Alfred Taubman (who passed away recently) made a fortune, mostly developing upscale shopping malls. He subsequently bought Sotheby's and was briefly incarcerated for a price-fixing scandal. Forbes estimated his net worth before he died at $3.3 billion. He gave hundreds of millions to many organizations, including an estimated $141 million to the University of Michigan. When Taubman entered the boardroom, the level of deference shown by Fords, "auto" and "chemical" alike, bordered on obsequious. He would occasionally opine about something he knew little or nothing about, and all present would hang on his every oracle-like utterance. I report this to illustrate the phenomenon, not to demean the participants.

Invoking the post-Enron movie title, the wealthy men (and they are mostly men) behind education reform are convinced that they are "The Smartest Guys in the Room." Because things worked for them, they honestly believe they know how things work, or should work, in every other realm. Move the levers, let free markets yield optimal outcomes, develop models, define benchmarks, utilize the right metrics and make efficient use of capital. The recalcitrant, lethargic, failing education system will eventually respond, because that is the way their world works.

The problem: Education is not upscale shopping malls (Taubman), chemicals (Ford), automobiles (Ford), computer operating systems (Gates), insurance and finance (Broad), or retail behemoths with no conscience (Walton). Education is about children -- real, living, breathing, complicated, tender, diverse children. There is no model, no assembly line, no template or standard methodology that can serve them well.

This is a very important historical perspective and explains why the factory model of education is prevailing again in the 21st century. Business leaders and free market economic principles have gained increasing control over education, particularly higher education. Education has become highly dependent on philanthropy, as public funding has declined. Philanthropists didn't make their fortunes as cellists, so they bring their business perspective to bear on the institutions they support.

As the old saying goes, "If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail." Today's economist-driven version of education reform is the hammer that mistakes America's children, particularly the poorest kids of color, as nails to pound.

This post is excerpted from a book-in-waiting.