Are Public Schools to Blame?

Unemployment, Recession, and Other Economic Ills

By Larry Cuban

In the last decade, a popular myth has been created: the declining economy in the United States is the result primarily of poorly educated workers who can’t compete in today’s high-tech world of international competition.

Top corporate officials and federal policy makers from both political parties have helped create this myth. They have repeatedly linked complex economic problems to our nation’s schools in a simplistic equation that can easily fit on a bumper sticker: bad schools equal a bad economy. On both a local and national level, corporate leaders have made headlines as they roll up their sleeves and plunge into the reform of public schools in order to help “save” the economy.

To claim that the decline in the international competitiveness of the U.S. economy is the result of poorly educated workers ignores other plausible, compelling explanations for the state of the U.S. economy. Uncritical acceptance of the myth is not only bad for our economy, but could have disastrous consequences for our public schools.

What has moved business leaders to center stage as policy reformers after their familiar role in the 1970s as bit players who gave the schools a few dollars or contributed a few volunteers?

Beginning in the early 1980s, groups of corporate executives, concerned about the lack of workplace skills of high school graduates, formed business roundtables to lobby local, state, and national policy makers for school improvement. In addition, national commissions chaired by chief executives of the country’s leading firms and national business groups began issuing reports (more than 300 had appeared by 1990) expressing the corporate view of what should be done to improve the public schools.

In 1983, the report A Nation at Risk warned us that mediocre schools were ruining the American economy. In 1985, the Committee for Economic Development declared that our education system was graduating too many students who lacked “the basic requirements for gaining productive employment” and that “this educational failure” was perceived as contributing to our “declining competitiveness in world markets.” 1

By the late 1980s, increasingly harsher tones were emanating from corporate boardrooms, mirroring dissatisfaction with the pace and direction of the many state school reform laws passed in the mid-1980s. Fortune magazine, for example, ran a series of advertisements in major newspapers and magazines that quoted corporate executives, such as John Akers, chairman of IBM: “Education isn’t just a social concern, it’s a major economic concern. If our students can’t compete today, how will our companies compete tomorrow?” Between these lines, in a different and smaller typeface, Akers says further: “In an age when a knowledgeable workforce is a nation’s most importance resource, American students rank last internationally in calculus and next to last in algebra.” 2

Entrenched Thinking

In the past decade, such thinking has become entrenched among top corporate officials. It has also come to dominate the pronouncements of federal policy makers from both the Democratic and Republican parties. Indeed, one of Presidents Clinton’s most consistent educational themes has been linking a revitalized U.S. economy to new vocational education programs and higher standards for all U.S. schools. Clinton’s educational program does not differ fundamentally from that of former President Bush, with the exception that Clinton has abandoned Bush’s support for using public tax dollars for private school “choice.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that there is a convergence between the educational assumptions of Bush and Clinton. When Bush unveiled his America 2000 strategy for revamping the education system, the Democratic Leadership Council (closely identified with Clinton) virtually rubber-stamped the initiative.

The group think of our corporate and political leaders goes like this: America’s competitiveness in the international economy has eroded. The shrinking buying power of the dollar, declining work productivity rates, and rising unemployment have combined to make the economy a major national problem. A primary cause of that problem is that students coming out of the public schools possess inadequate knowledge, limited skills, and poor attitudes toward work.

The evidence for the inadequacy of high school graduates is said to be found in the decline in standardized test scores. The solution is to equip students with the necessary knowledge, skills, and work habits that will make America competitive again.

Because these corporate leaders and top federal officials have easy access to the national media, television and popular magazines press home the message that America’s economic health is tied to radical changes in public schooling.

How best to make those radical changes? A cookbook recipe for school reform has begun to emerge from the policy talk of these private and public officials. Do what successful businesses have done, they say. Set clear goals and standards for employees. Decentralize operations so that the managers and employees who actually make a product decide how it is to be done. Then hold those managers and employees responsible for the outcome.

Reward those who meet or exceed their goals. Shame or punish those who fail. The public chooses the best product, and companies that follow these rules will attract larger shares of the market and so earn profits for their stockholders. The strategy, top corporate leaders claim, has worked for the Ford Motor Company, IBM, Xerox, Hewlett-Packard, and dozens of other businesses; it can work for public schools.

But how do we apply this formula to the public schools when there is no dividend to declare at the end of the quarter?

The answer from top corporate leaders, from the National Governors’ Association, from both President Clinton and former President Bush, and from the current and preceding three secretaries of education is set to the same tune, though the lyrics vary slightly. Establish clear national goals and standards. Create national examinations that all children will take as they move through the grades. Let parents and taxpayers know exactly how their children and schools are doing on these tests by issuing periodic report cards.

Recognize those staff members and schools that meet their goals, and reward them financially. Shame or punish those that fail to meet the standards. Restructure schools to place more decision-making authority in the hands of teachers and the principal. Then, like consumers everywhere, parents can choose which schools their children will attend.

The view that an improved economy rests primarily on restructuring of public schools ignores important factors behind America’s slipping competitiveness in the international economy. Consider, to cite a few factors, the fundamental changes that took place in the global economy during the 1970s and 1980s, steady shifts in the workforce in different sectors of the American economy, some corporate mismanagement, and a dollop of serious greed.

Other analysts have pointed out that the declining competitiveness of the U.S. in the world economy stems from other countries’ use of low wages, less educated workers, and new technologies to make competitively priced products; from American firms’ increasing tendency to go global in production and marketing; from the growth of the service sector over the manufacturing sector; and from just plain errors in judgement.

Yet it is the bumper sticker myth (bad schools equals a bad economy) that is central to conventional thinking about schools. This myth is not only wrong, I believe, but dangerous.

First, it is dangerous because it oversimplifies a complex problem (America’s eroding economic position) even as it turns public attention away from more fundamental factors, such as the globalization of the economy and lapses in corporate judgement.

Second, it is dangerous because it encourages the public to see schools as solely serving the needs of the economy. Thus it ignores other, more fundamental reasons for compelling parents to send their children to school.

Third, it is dangerous because, if the nation’s economy doesn’t recover its strength, if unemployment remains high, if the trade deficit persists, if interest rates flutter badly, then the schools will be to blame. Scapegoating the only social institution capable of inspiring a sense of civic duty — which is the primary obligation of tax-supported education — will only further weaken the already damaged credibility of public schooling.

Fourth, without examining them closely, it is dangerous to borrow methods which improve businesses and graft them onto the public schools, whose purposes differ from those of corporations. If such grafting takes place, then truth-in-advertising requires that the operation be called what it is: an experiment on children that has no scientific basis. Such experiments require an examination of the consequences, full disclosure to the parties involved, and informed consent.

Tell the Truth

Better to tell the truth: schools are important but not critical to economic competitiveness in a global economy. Better to say clearly that public education is the only social institution in a democracy that has as its central purpose the production of thoughtful citizens who have a sense of their individual rights and of their community responsibilities.

Better to speak now, when the President, corporate leaders, and academics call for such radical reforms in schools as national goals and exams; even as school districts are forced to cut teachers, reduce social service, enlarge classes, freeze salaries, and close schools.

Finally, it is better to point out now that the myth of a corporate formula to save schools, which currently dominates public policy, will do precious little for big-city schools that continue to hemorrhage one-third to one-half of their students to the streets. Better to say all of this now than later.

1. Quoted in Kent McGuire, “Business Involvement in Education in the 1990s,” in Douglas Mitchell and Margaret Goertz, eds., Education Politics for the New Century (New York: Falmer Press, 1990), p. 110.

2. New York Times Magazine, April 28, 1991, p. 21.

Larry Cuban is a professor of education at Stanford University in California and a member of the Kappan Board of Editorial Consultants. The above is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the Kappan,  October 1992.