Most educators, as well as much of the general public, can describe the broad contours of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), first signed into law in 2002 as the eighth reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The law’s spirit, which is to close “the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children” (NCLB 2001, Sec. 1001 ), and its major tenets—expanded local control and flexibility, educational practices based on scientific research, accountability for results, and more options for parents—have become the basis of reform in states, cities, and districts across the nation. As the law comes up for reauthorization, the national conversation has been about the enactment of NCLB’s mandates and what, if any, revisions are necessary. In this conversation, Jill P. Koyama’s book Making Failure Pay: For-Profit Tutoring, High-Stakes Testing, and Public Schools
is a necessary addition. It illuminates—in both a thoughtful and thought-provoking manner—how one particular aspect of NCLB participates in the construction of school failure.
Koyama zeroes in on supplemental educational services (SES), a seldom-written-about component of NCLB. The passage of Title I, an amendment to the 1965 ESEA, provided funding to school districts to ensure that all children, particularly low-achieving children in high-poverty schools, have equal opportunity to obtain a high-quality education. According to NCLB, school districts must set aside 20 percent of their Title I funds to pay for SES, provided by for-profit tutoring and testing companies, as well as the costs of transferring students out of failing schools. Nationwide, only 1 percent of eligible students choose the transfer option. In New York City, the local context of Koyama’s inquiry, the majority of these funds are paid to SES providers—an average of $2,000 per child. With 81,347 New York City students enrolled in SES programs in the 2005–2006 school year (out of 223,387 eligible students), Koyama’s assessment of SES reads almost as an understatement:
By mandating failing schools to contract with private tutoring companies to provide afterschool tutoring, SES blurs the boundaries between government, schooling, and commerce and brings the associations between public and private entities to the fore. SES explicitly expands the role of the private sector in public education . . . schools and their SES-eligible students become “consumers” over which commercial marketers and enterprises compete. (p. 6)
Counter to the very spirit of NCLB, which demands research-based practices and accountability for results, SES providers do not have to use curricula based on research and evaluation, nor do they have to demonstrate improved student performance. Ironically, public schools designated as failing are required to allocate federal funds to for-profit companies with no guarantee of reducing failure.
This, among many other shocking facts, is what makes Koyama’s book an engaging—and enraging—read. Readers are drawn into this ethnographic study of policy through vignettes and rich dialogue. Koyama takes us to SES provider fairs designed to attract school “customers,” to SES afterschool classes, to SES management meetings, to principals’ offices, and to parent meetings. Throughout, the focus is on institutional failure. Unlike other ethnographies that document how failure happens in local contexts, Koyama’s work asks us to shift our failure-seeking gaze from teachers and students to the actors and actions beyond classrooms and schools, to situations, events, and relationships that include public settings, government authority, and market forces. For example, at a meeting for SES account managers, Koyama documents the market-driven discourse of the participants where, to be successful, it is a significant advantage to be assigned a school with very low test scores and with many “failing” children; in both of these cases, there can be a high likelihood of showing steep improvement.
Deeply grounded in detailed accounts of actual events, Making Failure Pay also deepens our understanding of actor-network theory. Drawing on the work of Bruno Latour, Koyama utilizes actor-network theory to explore “the continual flow of actions, the movement of actors, the temporary associations, and the localization in policy appropriation” (p. 39) to show how policy makes reality and creates conditions, just as people and situations enact and construct NCLB policy. This theory is used throughout the book, both as a frame to understand policy and as an analytic tool to dissect Koyama’s rich data; in this regard, she makes a significant theoretical contribution.
Making Failure Pay belongs to the rich tradition of education ethnographers and theorists, like Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne, who have questioned the notion of failure—where and how it is constructed, for what purposes, and to what effects. Koyama’s analysis of failure is grounded in the classics, such as Erving Goffman’s concept of performance and Ferdinand de Saussure’s focus on meaning-making through participation. This is in part what makes this book such an important, albeit depressing, work. Times have changed, but educators and policy makers encounter the same problem: they create, maintain, and reproduce failure even as they strive to erase it.
The book’s seven chapters are named for the various actions educators and policy makers take with failure—they engage it, frame it, supplement it, accentuate it, neglect it, and fabricate it. For readers who need evidence that our educational policy needs reform, for readers who want to understand how agency and structure interact, and for readers who have a lived experience of SES—this book will resonate. Readers who want to abandon failure, as the last chapter entices, might be disappointed. Koyama calls on anthropologists and educational researchers to have a more direct role and a louder voice in policy analysis and policy making. In this chapter, she also makes important, if not original, critiques of NCLB and SES mandates. Ultimately, Making Failure Pay succeeds in its intent: to be read as “a generative and confrontational rendering of NCLB and school failure” and to challenge our cultural regard of failure as a thing “so common as to be positioned as the American condition” (p. 158). With the reauthorization of ESEA on our national agenda and with the rhetoric of American failure on our elected politicians’ lips, Koyama invites us to a different understanding of federal efforts to improve education.