A case study of Sylvan Learning Centre partnering with the Baltimore School District

Sylvan Learning Centre partnered with the Baltimore public school system despite resistance surrounding privatization. Malen et. al. (2005) investigated how this was accomplished in their article, “Legitimating privatization: The politics of Sylvan Support Centers in the Baltimore Public School system”. Even more importantly, Malen et al. (2005) suggest that this case highlighted the “complex process through which particular types of organizations might establish and maintain legitimacy in new markets and challenging environments.

In the 1990s the Baltimore Public School Board faced financial challenges like underfunding, lack of resources, poor student performance etc. How did Sylvan win a contract for providing tutor services for that district? Sylvan, important political figures, educators and the public all had a role to play.

At the end of the first year, the superintendant of the district used test score results to promote the program in a public campaign. So the program expanded. Sylvan hired school administrators for organizational positions, tailored programs to meet school needs, and provided staff development to teachers. In 2000, Sylvan was involved with almost thirty percent of Baltimore`s schools before the program ended.

Scott (2001) as cited by Malen et al. (2005) argued that private businesses need to meet one or more of the three pillars of social institutions as outlined to be accepted as legitimate partners with public organizations. Sylvan was able to align with all three pillars.

Regulatory Pillar
“An organization may be perceived as legitimate, if it’s actions ar legal, authorized by relevant officials and subject to the ‘suveillance and sanctioning power’ (Scott, 2001 in Malen et al., 2005) of those officials.” Sylvan secured relationships with district officials, the mayor and the superintendent.

Normative Pillar
Does the organization model society’s values, beliefs, and expectations? In this case, Sylvan tried to exemplify the values of educators and the surrounding community.

Cultural-Cognitive Pillar
“This pillar directs attention to widely and deeply held assumptions about social realities, roles and responsibilities. It exposes the taken-for-granted understandings that shape how actions and events are interpreted.” (Malen et al. 2005) For example, Syvan agreed to tutor a group of students instead of trying to reform the whole education system. Also, they were subject to reviews and accountability for their practices.

Sylvan’s flexibility, important connections, publicity, educational values, employees and the fact they first began working with a small cohort, Sylvan was able to work in partnership and influence public domain. Are we in danger of this happening again? Could the Fraser Institute in British Columbia (or other examples of private business near you) continue to reform education in an exceeding amount?

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