Indentured servitude 2.0: What we’re up against


How is it that in spite all the decades of wisdom, research, experience, and knowledge created to the contrary, that corporations are dominating the educational landscape with bad educational polices?

Of course the corporate reformers have power to sway public policy. They have a long standing skill set that we as educators don’t possess. They are master marketers. What are they good at? They are great at making shiny, glossy, appealing looking “reports” and programs. In a consumer society, pretty packaging suggests legitimacy or quality. They co-opt language that appeals to consumers. Advertising companies know this. Appeal to people’s insecurities, and then offer the brilliant solution that will solve their woes. Take for example the latest marketing blast by McKinsey and company.

I beg my readers to log on this and read the document carefully. It is a blue print for what we are going to see happening in k-12 and universities within the next few years.

In the first few pages of their report they launch with their fear-based language:

“These examples hint at two related global crises: high levels of youth unemployment and a shortage of people with critical job skills. Leaders everywhere are aware of the possible consequences, in the form of social and economic distress, when too many young people believe that their future is compromised.”

Wow. I wonder if they aligned this “crisis” with the Mayan Calendar. It sounds so “end of the world” ish. Did their study account for other eighty billion other causes for an economic recession or rise in unemployment? Do they account for the corporations that “down size” or refuse to hire full time (more costly) employees, favoring instead larger amounts of part-time (cheaper) employees?

The report claims:

“Before 2000, policy makers, educators, parents, and students had little understanding of how to improve school systems.”

OK. Now that’s just total bullshit. But it doesn’t matter. They’re gonna say it anyway simply because….well….they can.

They are great at manipulating language. They use buzz words on their packaging, trusting that few consumers will actually read the ingredients on the back or investigate the truth about how or where their products are produced. In a society of sound bites we blindly accept their claims as truths.

A cover of a box of Fruit Loops might claim it has 10 essential vitamins and minerals. It says “it’s part of a nutritious breakfast.” And who can resist that cute little toucan on the front awash child-appealing colors?

And like certain other products. McKinsey is selling the American a bad bill of goods in education “reform” using all of these tactics.

What the McKinsey report performs is a bait and switch, difficult to catch by the naked eye. They identify a problem. They create a public insecurity. Its classic marketing 101: Create a NEED. Never mind that the product for sale cannot ever really fill that need.

Drinking brand XYZ beer will NOT ensure that you hook up with the choicest babes at the trendiest bars with a band of new attractive and witty friends. The company doesn’t need to prove that their beer will do that. All they need to do is create the illusion in the mind of the viewer, which, when paired with the viewers’ own insecurities, insinuating how much better their life COULD be if only they drank more of this brand of beer, is enough.

McKinsey’s report creates insecurity in the public, especially students and perhaps parents who might be funding their child’s college. Now they might worry, “Am I prepared? Maybe I’m not. Maybe this is a waste of my money.” They use their colorful and easy to read charts to create in the minds of business owners that “Gosh now that I think about it, those darn college kids AREN’T prepared for work…”

And then they offer their solutions. Never mind that they cannot prove they will work. All they need to do is create the illusion that their products and market-driven corporate-style solutions will put our fears (the same ones we didn’t realize we even had before reading their reports) at ease. The report states:

“…most transformative solutions are those that involve multiple providers and employers working within a particular industry or function. These collaborations solve the skill gap at a sector level; by splitting costs among multiple stakeholders (educators, employers, and trainees), investment is reduced for everyone.”

Notice though that they claim such measures will “reduce costs” but not once do they (nor can they) prove that such “innovations” will be better at preparing students for their future careers. (Later on I write about what they’ve done to cut costs at other universities.) They add:

Coupling technology—the Internet and other low-cost outlets—and a highly standardized curriculum can help to supplement faculty and spread consistent instruction at a modest cost.”

There is no mention of studies that can show that such measures improve the QUALITY of education. A standardized curriculum is delightful for data crunchers. It makes managing education as a profit-driven industry much more manageable. McKinsey loves big data. They’re the hedge-funders darling. But no research suggests that it makes for a BETTER education.

“One proven approach is to combine customization and scale by offering a standard core curriculum complemented by employer-specific top-ups.”

Translation: corporations will create and oversee all education from womb to tomb, manipulating education to serve their own worker-needs. Never mind educating the whole child. That’s so touchy feely humanist. It’s much more cost efficient to track them at birth and ensure their place in society, as deemed necessary by the corporations they will serve.

Only a mere few paragraphs from each other I found two contradictory statements. First they claim:

“Employers cite work ethic and teamwork as the most important skills in almost every country;

education providers give similar weights across the board.”

Yet, then in another sub category they write:

“We also found it intriguing that young people consider online or distance learning to be as effective as traditional formats.”

Riddle me this Batman: How is creating online university programs, where students spend their days reading a computer screen alone in a room going to increase students abilities to develop a work ethic and teamwork skills?  And please don’t tell me that webinar style “chats” are a solid replacement for face-to-face interactions. In the least, I cannot imagine they will improve the delivery of the aforementioned needed skills. But never mind that. McKinsey insists in online “solutions” anyway. Why? Because it’s profitable:

“…scaling up distance learning could be a cost-effective way to provide more educational opportunities.”

And what’s they’re solution? Indentured servitude 2.0:

“Year Up is a 12-month US program that targets vulnerable low-income young adults. Students spend the first half of the program in hands-on classes to develop both hard and soft skills, and the second half in a corporate internship. Year Up students are required to sign a “contract” at the beginning of the program that spells out in detail what is required in terms of conduct and the consequences of non-adherence.”


“And that is the question that Egypt’s Americana Group has been answering. When the restaurant, food-processing, distribution, and retail company recognized that it was not getting the talent it needed, it joined up with the Ministries of Education and Higher Education to train people to work in their restaurants and food businesses. Students spend up to half of their time working (and earning wages) at Americana during the program. Americana also pays for their tuition and guarantees a position to graduates at the end of the program.”

But wait. It gets even better. Now your child can dream real big before they even exit high school:

“Given the potential difficulties in setting up large numbers of apprenticeship opportunities, providers are also using physical simulations, such as setting up a faux hotel (India) or creating a startlingly realistic coal mine (Australia).”

But some of us DO read the small print.

Some of us DO investigate the origins of the good being peddled to us, to the tune of billions of tax payer dollars:

“It is for this reason that programs like Americana (discussed earlier) or Apprenticeship 2000 (see box at the end of the chapter) make sure that students spend considerable time (up to 50 percent) at the employer site, applying their classroom learning to real-life problems.”

That sounds like cheap labor to me. I’d be laughing at this point at the sick absurdity of this right now if it weren’t for one thing. McKinsey has a powerful toe hold in education reform, locally and globally. So instead I am deeply frightened.

And here’s what the McKinsey Report so eloquently OMITS from their report. I have no shiny and glossy hand outs (sorry folks). I won’t bend or wholly distort the meaning of words like “innovation” and “proven.” I will provide detailed accounts of how McKinsey and Company have all ten fat fingers in the pie of edu-profits. How? Because they have relationships, as close as kissing cousins, with some of the most influential individuals who are spread out like chess pieces across the board strategizing how to privatize public education to serve their own ideological, political and economic interests. This has been published elsewhere already but I will recap some of the highlights. See here for the full original report.

McKinsey & Company has been paid millions of dollars nation-wide for their consulting “services” to places such as Seattle and Minneapolis, which often result in research claims that public schools are “failing” and which catapults system-wide public school turn-around into private hands. Current and former McKinsey consultants now invested in corporate-model education reform are influential across the spectrum of US gatekeepers in education and in politics.

These alumni include: Louis Gerstner (co-chair of Achieve-the group that helped sponsor Nation Common Core), Rajat Gupta (financial backer of the Harlem Children’s Zone), Marshall Lux (on the Board of the Harlem Children’s Zone), Andrés Satizábal (Volunteer Consultant at Harlem RBI / DREAM Charter School), Michael Stone (Chief External Relations Officer at New Schools for New Orleans), Terrence McDonough (English Teacher and Department Chair at Edward W. Brooke Charter School and 5th Grade Teacher at Teach for America), Luis de la Fuente (with the Broad Foundation, who develops and manages a portfolio of grants to school districts, charter management organizations, and innovative non-profits), Shantanu Sinha (COO of Kahn Academies), and Jerry Hauser ( who served as the Chief Operating Officer at Teach For America). One final player of note is Bobby Jindal, former McKinsey consultant, and now Governor of Louisiana. He is forming policies to privatize public education for the entire state of Louisiana. Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana Superintendent of Education, hired Sir Michael Barber to help redesign the Louisiana Department of Education.

David Coleman, once an associate at McKinsey & Company  was a chief architect of the National Common Core Standards. Coleman was recently appointed as the President of the College Board.

Pearson, the largest educational publishing corporation world-wide has Sir Michael Barber as its Chief Educational Advisor. Sir Barber was a former McKinsey partner, and served as head of McKinsey’s global education practice.

They are the darling consultants of choice for Mayor Bloomberg and former presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

What’s their track record so far working with universities? Well, according my previous research:

In 2007 McKinsey worked for the Minneapolis Public Schools, where the firm recommended that the district cut “high costs” such as teacher health care, and recommended converting the 25 percent of schools that scored the lowest on standardized tests to privatized charter-school status (a plan under which schools receiving public funds are run by independent charter associations, or for-profit entities, and operate outside the authority of local school boards).

In Seattle, McKinsey was funded by a $750,000 gift from local philanthropists (hmmmm, who could THAT be?) to conduct a comprehensive study of data collected in Seattle’s education system. Teachers in Seattle passed a resolution of non-compliance with McKinsey’s study of the Seattle Public Schools in protest.

At McGill University in Canada, McKinsey provided their services to McGill senior administrators for free. Awww, they’re so nice.  According to one report  “McKinsey has a reputation for prioritizing profits over people, and for doing so opaquely and without public accountability.” They impose austerity measures like cutting the institution of tenure which is being replaced by a system that relies on less-costly sessional professors and course lecturers.

Having read volumes of their documents I have to conclude noting curious one thing I observed. McKinsey and Company adores using two words associated with data: hard data and big data. Hmmm….maybe they’re the ones with insecurities that need addressing-perhaps with a red corvette or a bottle of Viagra.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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