This is a fascinating paper published in the peer-reviewed Education Policy Analysis and Archives in 2018. It explores the question of how Forbes magazine selects the “edu-preneurs” who are recognized as education leaders. It is quite a plum to receive this recognition, as it supposedly confers recognition on those young people who are “the best hope for revolutionizing and reforming education.” This recognition sets them apart as “experts,” despite their youth and meager experience.

The authors are T. Jameson Brewer, Nicholas D. Hartlep, and Ian M. Scott.

They see this selection process as a means of advancing privatization and the market-orientation of education, given the composition of the judges and the winners.

The marketization of public education in the era of neoliberalism elevates buzzwords like “innovation,” “investments,” “return on investments,” and “technology integration.” Moreover,  within the context of education and schooling, the professional status of educators is challenged in an effort to exalt the logic and norms of the business class. President Trump, a businessman, appointed Betsy DeVos to be the Secretary of Education despite the fact she and her children have never attended public schools. The message the White House sent to Americans is that experience in education is not a necessary component of administrating education. Education reform, both Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education 5 domestically and internationally, has been led by a consortium of organizations and individuals who have expanded market-oriented reforms throughout schools. Those market-oriented reforms have included charter schools, school vouchers, and alternative certification training for teachers. The logic, as it were, is that government based training, organization, and control of schooling is woefully inefficient and would benefit from market competition. Finding roots in Milton Friedman, market-oriented education reformers seek to inject competition (note the business terminology) into the public sphere of public education. And, despite a growing body of research that suggests that charter schools underperform traditional public schools (Miron, Mathis, & Welner, 2015) and exacerbate segregation (Author & Lubienski, 2017; Frankenberg, 2011; Frankenberg & Lewis, 2012), and other research raising concerns over alternative certification programs like Teach For America (Brewer, 2014; Anderson, 2013a, 2013b; Redding & Smith, 2016; Scott, Trujillo, & Rivera, 2016), these reforms continue to expand. And these reforms are not conducted within a vacuum. The disproportionate number of TFA alumni who have received the Under30 and the shared language of neoliberal education reform highlight the common understandings and aims of market-oriented reformers (Lahann & Reagan, 2011)…

Given Forbes’ s ideological commitment to promoting business-oriented reforms in education, the Under30 award itself—using the language of industry—highlights the role that neoliberalism continues to play across education reforms. Grounded in the assumption that government is both too ineffective and inefficient to oversee schools (Chubb & Moe, 1990; Friedman, 1955, 1997, 2002; Greene, Forster, & Winters, 2005; Walberg & Bast, 2003), neoliberalism asserts a solution of free-market competition and individualization (Ball, 1994, 2003, 2007, 2012; Giroux, 2004; Harvey, 2005). As explicated in our findings, the individuals who receive the Under30 not only lack degrees in education, but the judges of the award and the majority of the awardees have direct connections to organizations that operate along an ideological commitment to competition, deregulation, and privatization (often, for-profit). In their discussion of alliances and divisions within the policy landscape, DeBray-Pelot, Lubienski, and Scott (2007) outlined how  various types of ideological groups influence policy outcomes. Our analysis here adds to that work by contributing further empirical evidence that the market-oriented landscape has become more complex in that support for such reforms have shared connections across the ideological (and often competing) stances of “Centrist/New Democratic,” (e.g., National Alliance for Public Charter Schools) “Center/Left,” (e.g., Center for American Progress) “Neoliberal,” (e.g., Center for Education Reform, Walton Foundation, Broad Foundation, New Schools Venture Fund, etc.) and “States’ rights” (e.g., American Legislative Exchange Council) groups presented in their findings

If we were to apply social closure theory to Under30, we might ask ourselves: “Who are the judges, and who are the recipients?” The four judges for the 2017 competition were: (1) Stacey Childress, the CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, (2) Arne Duncan, the Managing Partner of Emerson Collective, (3) Wendy Kopp, the Co-founder of Teach for America (TFA) and Teach for  All, and (4) Marcus Noel, the Founder of Heart of Man Ventures and a TFA alum (see Howard & Conklin, n.d.). We might also ask, “Who were the recipients of the award?” If the award recipients  were found to be mostly from the organizations that were connected to the judges, then we might be able to discern whether social closure is occurring. By nominating and awarding Under30 to people like themselves, the judges effectively act as gatekeepers to the resources and benefits that come to those who receive such a designation. Those benefits are national recognition, marketing of the individual and the individual’s organization or business by Forbes , and networking connections made during the Under30 Summit (a multi-day event of speeches and networking). Given that the purpose of the Under30 is to identify and celebrate those who are leading in their industry, receiving the Under30 designation stands to help recipients expand their business ventures.

Raymond Murphy (2001) points out that social closure is really about monopolization of opportunities. What this means is social closure and closed networks lead to protecting power and maintaining the same messages and signal ideologies. Within the realm of the Under30 network, those ideologies are ones that elevate ideologies of pro-privatization and pro-marketization of schools and education. These ideologies support the de-professionalization of teacher preparation.  The manifestation of social closure increases and is an outcome of echo chambers whereby members of the closed network not only engage in self-congratulations but rely on the growing network information and resources to further its shared ideology. Social closure is not a new area of study; it has been documented to exist in higher education award systems, such as the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Fellows program (Hartlep et al., 2017). However, the present study contributes new knowledge to how social closure can lead to moving forward policies that are pro-market and pro-privatization and that lead to bolstering edu-preneurship.

The authors reviewed the resumes of five years of recipients of the 30Under30 award. Few of them had studied education.

Only four of 192 Under30 recipients over the last five years have had an undergraduate degree that focuses on education. While 23 have master’s degrees in some field connected to education, many of them completed that training through partnerships between universities and Teach For America (TFA), which has some control over the courses their corps members take...

Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA, and Stacey Childress, the CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, both have served as judges for the majority of the years that the Under30 award has included the education industry. Additionally, other judges alongside Kopp and Childress have direct ties to the individuals and organizations being recognized through the award. While there is no way to know the academic background and connections of all of the Under30 nominees—that is, we do not know if the majority of nominees are, for example, TFA alumni—it is clear from our analysis that the majority of the recipients of the award have very close connections to the judges and their organizations. And while we explore the specific connections below, because the judges are so closely connected to the individuals that receive the award the Under30 serves as a mechanism through which judges are able to highlight the individuals and alums of their organizations.

Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education 13 recipients can, in turn, use the platform the Under30 award affords to further market and promote their specific brand of education reform. This process feedback loop becomes reciprocal. For example, Marcus Noel, who, having connections to TFA was awarded the Under30 in 2016, became a judge in 2017. Additionally, Joe Vasquez, a judge for the newly announced 2018 cohort of Under30, has direct connections to TFA and was, himself, a recipient of the award in 2017 when Kopp was a judge (Kopp was also a judge in 2018).

The paper goes on to describe the networks within which most of the awardees are embedded, the most prominent being Teach for America. Although TFA comprises less than 1% of teachers in the nation, TFA alums comprise 22% of the 30Under30 awardees. It helps that Wendy Kopp is often one of the judges of the competition.

The paper has some very illustrative sociograms that show the connections among the organizations, the judges, and the awardees.

They conclude:

Our findings suggest that the Forbes  Under30 award, its judges, and the growing network that the award creates both benefits from and reinforces social closure. The theory of social closure examines the myriad ways in which individuals and institutions are able to restrict access while simultaneously protecting the resources, power, and influence that members on the inside have and share among each other. If we believe the Under30 award to be a prestigious award, as Forbes suggests, then we should equally expect that those recommended for the award undergo a rigorous  Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education 19 and unbiased selection process. Yet, our findings suggest that the judges of the Under30 award systematically select individuals who are either directly associated with the organizations that the judges represent and/or those who share the same ideological commitments to education reform— ideological homophily. Such a reality is suggestive of an echo chamber where individuals within, or close to, the reform network are selected for the award as a means of self-congratulating the ideology fueling their reforms and, in short, self-congratulating the judges since the recipients of the awards largely come from the judge’s organizations.

In short, the 30Under30 competition is an echo chamber where the judges select members of their own or similar organizations and complete a closed circle. The judges use their influence to enhance their power and promote their proteges. In normal terms, this would be considered a conflict of interest.