Thursday, May 19, 2011

Let’s drive a stake through “stakeholder”

“Stakeholder” has become the fashionable word in education. Everyone from the local school superintendent to the President of the United States talks about the importance of stakeholder participation in educational policy decisions. (Check out this Google Ngram graphing the usage of the word over time.)

If, by “stakeholder,” people meant kids, their parents, and ordinary citizens, I would have no objection to it. But that is decidedly not what they mean. In fact, those groups seem to come way down the list, if at all. For example, some of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top proposals defined “key stakeholders” to include teachers’ unions, charter school organizers, business leaders, and grant-making foundations -- but completely omitted parents from the list.

I don’t doubt that, from a political science or sociology point of view, it makes sense to think of school policy as the result of a negotiation among various self-interested groups. But by using the term “stakeholder” in discussions about public policy, we legitimize the claims of those groups on the attention of policymakers. If President Obama talks about the importance of achieving “buy-in” by “stakeholders,” everyone nods. If he were to talk about the importance of placating his campaign contributors, we might react differently.

Are even teachers “stakeholders”? They certainly have a stake in educational policy decisions, but so do standardized testing companies, building contractors, land developers, and military recruiters. To call them “stakeholders” implies that serving their interests is a legitimate end of educational policy. I’ve made it clear (for example, here and here) that I think we should improve the pay and working conditions of teachers, but that’s only because I see that as an important means of serving the kids’ interests, not because it’s an end in itself. If the teachers’ interests ever genuinely conflict with those of the kids, it’s the interests of the kids -- the real stakeholders -- that should prevail.

“Stakeholder” is just a step away from “shareholder” and “stockholder,” and the connotations largely overlap. Instead of a model in which citizens control their public schools under the quaint system of one-person-one-vote, “stakeholder” connotes a model in which the schools are controlled by their owners, and implies that the owners with a greater financial investment will have more say -- because of their larger “stake” -- than others. This may be an increasingly accurate view of how our government works, but it’s one that we should be fighting, not aiding and abetting.

I vote we lose the euphemistic “stakeholder” and go back to the honest term: “vested interest.”

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