Giving Education the Business

By Stan Karp

Billy Tashman teaches science in an East Harlem junior high school. As he wrote in an article for New York Newsday, “Where I teach science, we have no microscopes, scales or dissection tools, and our future chemists must make do with the oxygen they breathe.”

But Tashman had an idea. He had been hearing a lot lately about increased interest in the schools by the business community. “Thinking that our large corporations, so disturbed by the educational inadequacies of recent graduates, might be helpful where the Board of Education has not, I called 20 corporations that according to many articles I turned up, were involved in ‘saving our schools.’” Despite his evident need and the companies’ professed concern, however, Tashman couldn’t drum up so much as a smudged slide.

This experience gave Tashman, who is also a part-time journalist, another idea. “Rebuffed as a science teacher, I decided to find out in my role as freelance writer exactly how corporations were helping the public schools. When I called these same companies back and identified myself as a journalist seeking information about their programs for aiding schools, the same companies couldn’t have been happier to hear from me. Courteous public relations people patiently answered my questions and sent me shiny brochures detailing their companies’ generosity.” When he finished thumbing through gushing accounts of corporate benevolence, Tashman’s science lab wasn’t any better off, but the experiment had taught him something. “The business world has certainly learned to put its mouth where its money may not be.”

Tashman’s experience runs against the grain of media and public relations hype about a new partnership between schools and business. In most accounts of this growing collaboration, there is a largely unchallenged assumption that those who own and manage our economy hold answers to what’s wrong with our schools and, likewise, that the job of educators is to prepare students for the world these interests own and operate. Sometimes this pro-business bias is out in the open, as when school officials welcome with open arms direct corporate sponsorship of their activities. At other times it’s slightly more subtle, as when reforms are proposed to introduce the “discipline” of the workplace and the market into schools. At any rate, corporate influence is growing over the country’s most inclusive public institution—the public schools.

Pizza Partnerships

The Department of Education says the number of school “adoption” or partnership programs, usually involving corporations, rose from about 40,000 in 1983 to 140,000 in 1988. Nine million students and about 40% of all schools are involved in some sort of business partnership. Many of these programs amount to token appearances by executives at Career Days and slices of pizza for kids with good attendance. Others involve management training for central office personnel and development of entirely new schools and curriculums. Although less than $15 million a year (a microscopic fraction of school spending) goes directly from corporate treasuries to public schools, and total corporate donations to education, mostly to colleges and universities, have risen a meager 4 percent in the past two decades, contacts between businesses and public schools have never been more extensive or more glorified.

At the national level, corporate voices have been at the center of the effort to restructure educational policy and practice. Edward Fiske, education columnist for the New York Times, has written that the current wave of “school reform began in the early 1980’s, when corporate leaders and state governors began worrying that schools were not turning out the kind of workers needed for an increasingly sophisticated economy.” Two of the loudest corporate worriers have been David Kearns, CEO of Xerox and coauthor of Winning the Brain Race: A Bold Plan to Make Our Schools Competitive, and Owen B. Butler, the retired chairman of Procter and Gamble who heads the Committee for Economic Development (CED). The CED has prepared well-financed and widely publicized studies offering corporate America’s blueprint for how school reform can help restore U.S. economic health.

It should be mentioned in passing that arguments about how educational failure is a primary cause of economic decline are hardly worth the glossy corporate paper they’re usually printed on. The schools crisis, particularly in urban areas, is an effect of economic stagnation and disinvestment, not a cause. In fact one of the main reasons that educational problems have been allowed to get as serious as they now are is that effective schooling for the majority of citizens is not a major economic imperative for capital. Schools serve important social and ideological functions, but there was never any “golden age” when investments in education serve s the basis for economic expansion. The expansionary 50s, for example, were a time of “separate and unequal” schools when only about 50% earned high school diplomas, as compared to 75% today.

A system that annually graduates 700,000 functional illiterates, and sends an equal number of drop-outs into a sluggish and highly stratified job market certainly has high social and economic costs. But these costs are largely borne by the victims. Corporate concerns about education-related issues, such as labor supply problems, particularly at the lowpaid, unskilled ends of the job market, and the projected $25 billion annual cost of remedial training for employees are real enough. But dressing them up as part of an educational crusade to restore America’s rightful place in the world economy is just so much jingoism designed to put corporate interests at the head of the school reform agenda.

Commercials in the Classroom

In addition to local partnership programs and national policy proposals, corporate influence in the classrooms has grown through what amounts to commercial penetration of the public schools. Extending the marketing mania that has commercialized every available open space in our culture, Whittle Communications, a Time, Inc. company, now places wall-mounted poster displays in 10,000 schools. These displays combine trendy coverage of youth issues with advertising for products from pimple cream to potato chips. Whittle is currently piloting a cable TV project for high schools called “Channel One,” which will broadcast a daily 12-minute news show targeted at teens that will include two minutes of commercials. The company is prepared to supply TVs, satellite antennas, and VCRs to schools in exchange for a captive youth market that will generate a projected $75 to $100 million in annual advertising revenues. In an age when it’s hard to find a rock concert or a piece of clothing that doesn’t have a corporate logo stamped on it, it’s not surprising that billboards and commercials are turning up in schoolrooms. Another cable network, Sportschannel America, is negotiating with a national scholastic sports federation for a multi-million dollar deal to televise high school basketball games. According to Whittle’s chairman, this trend heralds the “development of partnerships between business and education in which each party receives direct and immediate benefits.”

The logic of the bottom line also permeates much of the recent research that has framed discussion on what’s wrong with the way schools educate kids. Even influential liberal studies like the Carnegie Institute’s A Nation Prepared, have had a “single-minded focus on the economic purposes of education,” to borrow the words of educator Deborah Meier. Preoccupation with the economic implications of school problems has generated such ground breaking research as the Brookings Institution’s report, “How America’s Educational Failings Will Hurt Real Estate.”

Business solutions are the inspiration for a host of school reform plans now in various stages of implementation. Teacher accountability schemes, merit pay differentials, and career-ladder proposals are drawn largely from private sector personnel policies, as are proposed changes in teacher and administrator licensing—which, for example, would let business executives without teaching experience become principals, but not necessarily allow teachers without supervisory credentials to do the same. “Educational bankruptcy” plans that would permit state authorities to take over local school systems, and the reorganization of school finances by corporate managers “on loan” from their companies reflect efforts to implement more businesslike management strategies in education.

“Choice” and Equity

The current wave of “choice” reforms also reflects a trend towards “market solutions” for educational problems. While choice plans have both positive and negative possibilities for parents, students and teachers, their promotion by business advocates stems from a zeal to apply market principles to yet another key area of social services. And if market mechanisms do for education what they’ve done for health care, housing and other social services they will bring neither quality nor equity to the majority of those affected. Market approaches to schooling could simply reinforce and extend the already growing gap between privileged areas and neglected ones.

Business influences have even worked their way down to the level of classroom instruction and student motivation. The reduction of education to basic skills drill suggests a sort of “scientific management” approach to learning borrowed from the factory floor, with standardized testing as a kind of “quality control.” Guaranteed entry level job programs for graduates have been replacing open admission to college as the goal of public high schools. Some schools have even seen experiments in paying students cash for good grades or attendance.

There has never been more emphasis on the notion of education as job-training. “Cooperative education” (i.e. work-study programs) has increased tenfold in the past decade and now covers not just narrowly vocational skills training, but total preparation for the business world, including personal habits, employer expectations and job search skills. The problem with this is not simply that schools are more closely linking study with work, but that they are doing it almost totally on corporate terms.

The message being conveyed is that career success or failure is essentially a matter of individual responsibility, and if students internalize the values of prospective employers they may get lucky and be “adopted” by a corporation. Daily experience teaches students that large numbers of people are not going to find secure places in this society, but their schools tell them that any single individual can rise above the lazy, less deserving or luckless competition and get ahead through discipline, obedience and hard work. At the very time that a lack of social purpose and an absence of community identity is contributing to the isolation and alienation tens of thousands of young people feel in lifeless classrooms, the educational system, with corporate prodding, is rededicating itself to competitive, individualistic themes for motivation. Moreover, aside from references to competitive pressures which increase student anxiety, there is virtually no talk about the class-divided realities of the job market, about strikes, unions, job insecurity, labor history, unemployment, race and gender discrimination, job safety, or about social and political struggles in response to these problems.

Taken together these developments reflect a major conservative thrust of the current school reform movement—the increasing introduction of corporate ideology and market relations into schooling. As a CED report states, “Accountability and responsiveness in public education cannot be legislated, regulated or achieved by fiat or good intentions alone. They require both incentives and disincentives. The system that best meets these objectives fairly, efficiently, and rapidly is a market system.” Xerox chief Kearns adds that it’s time for experienced corporate planners to take the lead: “The business community has treated the schools with kid gloves…business and education have largely failed in their efforts to improve the schools, because education set the agenda. To be successful, the new agenda for school reform must be driven by competition and market discipline, unfamiliar ground for educators. Business will have to set the new agenda….”

While these corporate representatives want to make sure public policy serves business interests, they’re not necessarily interested in paying for it. The CED report, Investing in Our Children, concludes that “the business community cannot and should not be viewed as a significant source of funding for public education beyond its important role as a taxpayer.” Though some corporate planners do support higher funding for schools, it’s hardly a rallying point at stockholders’ meetings. As reporter Fred Hechinger noted in the Harvard Business Review, the business community has been “supporting the local schools while simultaneously instructing, or at least permitting, its lobbyists to support cuts in state and federal expenditures for public education….”

What corporate America really thinks it has to give to the schools is leadership and “management expertise.” Even more than direct involvement with specific schools or recruitment of future employees, corporate managers want to chart the larger course of reform along paths compatible with corporate values and goals. If they succeed, the current round of school reform may well make things worse instead of better.

Stan Karp teaches English and Journalism at J.F.K. High School in Patterson, New Jersey.