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Business Goes to School

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Posted on Sep 14, 2009
The New Press

By Mike Rose

This is an excerpt from Mike Rose’s book “Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us.”

Before the emergence of high-stakes accountability systems—and then developing in synergy with them—American business has been a major player in contemporary school reform efforts. The motivation is straightforward: to urge the preparation of a skilled workforce. Different segments of the business community have been involved in curriculum reform via blue-ribbon reports, or have fostered ties with schools leading to internships, or have donated money and equipment. Some, like the Gates or Broad Foundations, have launched major philanthropic initiatives aimed at creating particular kinds of schools. And some have donated and lobbied for overtly political causes like school vouchers.

Though each of these responses is distinct, they can all be seen—and are framed—as attempts to improve American education and create opportunity for young people. And many of them do. The language of business involvement often includes a criticism of (mostly public) schools, some deserved. But the tables are rarely turned. What might the business community’s culpability be for the state of American education? And what else would a more comprehensive discussion of the school-business connection need to include?


Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us


By Mike Rose


The New Press, 144 pages


Buy the book


I remember the occasion when these questions crystallized for me. It was early in 1991, and a friend, another teacher, showed me a photograph in the Los Angeles Times of financier Michael Milken standing before a blackboard in an inner-city school. He was teaching a math lesson to two African American youngsters. Milken is known now for his admirable philanthropic work in medicine and education, but at the time he was a bundle of contradictions: a financial innovator convicted of securities fraud, reborn after prison as a philanthropist. His visit was part of a “principals for a day” program that brought prominent business leaders into schools, so they could see classroom realities firsthand. Such field trips are common, then as now.

Schools are frequently the site of this brand of photo-op for the powerful: a politician reading to kids, a business executive conducting a lesson. What is telling to me is that we don’t see this sort of thing with other professions. A presidential candidate tours a hospital, but isn’t a “urologist for a day.” A philanthropist visits a women’s shelter, but doesn’t lead a counseling session. As a teacher all my adult life, I can’t help but be bothered by the familiar implication that anyone can teach. The symbolism of such events would be more on target if visitors did things in line with their expertise in finance: sat in on a budget meeting, or had to count out and distribute the servings in the free lunch program, or went door-to-door trying to convince fellow citizens to vote for a school bond.

Still, there’s nothing inherently wrong with business-school alliances, and a lot in favor of them. Many schools need dollars, materials, and repairs that business can provide. School-business alliances can lead to enriched internships and various kinds of mentoring relationships between promising kids and female and minority employees who could serve as role models. Beleaguered, low-status schools benefit from having the support of powerful community figures. And as we’ve seen over the last decade or so as billionaire philanthropists have become players in broad-scale school reform, business can spark major educational initiatives.

There are also reasons for skepticism.

Some businesses have a direct financial interest in matters educational, from textbook and test development to the delivery of goods and advertisements to classrooms. Less obvious is the fact that donations from business are tax-deductible, so, as policy scholar Janelle Scott points out, considerable tax revenues are diverted from the public fund and toward business-certified causes. These causes might well be laudable ones, but the channeling of revenue affects public policy and yet is not open to public deliberation.

A not-unrelated concern is the model of instruction and assessment that business involvement can foster. The 1910s and 1920s, another era of strong business influence, provide a cautionary tale. In an attempt to maximize educational productivity and efficiency, some districts advocated measuring teacher effectiveness by counting the number of arithmetic combinations or grammar exercises a student could perform in one minute. We haven’t gone quite that far, but industrial conceptions of productivity are spread throughout our educational policy, certainly in some high-stakes testing programs. And a number of big cities have adopted CEO models of the superintendency. Also, in one report and press release after another, business advocacy groups have been defining the purpose of schooling in economic terms. Kids go to school to get themselves and the nation ready for the global marketplace, and this rhetoric of job preparation and competition can play into reductive definitions of teaching and learning.

There is a tendency in all of this that is worth exploring, one rooted in the technocratic-managerial ideology that drives both business practice and policy formation of many kinds, from health care to urban planning to agriculture: the devaluing of on-the-ground local and craft knowledge and an elevation of systems thinking, of finding the large economic, social, or organizational levers to pull to initiate change. In the case of education, pedagogical wisdom and experiential knowledge of schools are dismissed as a soft or airy distraction. A professor of management tells a class of aspiring principals that the more they know about the particulars of instruction, the less effective they’ll be, for that nitty-gritty knowledge will blur their perception of the problem and the application of universal principles of management—as fitting for a hospital or a manufacturing plant as a school.

Though “qualified teachers” are praised in public documents and speeches, teachers are often pegged as the problem. And classroom knowledge is trivialized. Teaching or running a school is characterized as just not being that hard. And the field of education in general is bemoaned as bereft of talent. I’ve heard these phrases. The sad and astounding fact is that at the state and federal level there is little deep understanding of the intricacies of teaching and learning involved in the formation of education policy.

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By Usability Testing, March 9, 2012 at 2:40 am Link to this comment

I wonder if there is a motive behind all those businessmen going to schools to talks. I agree that they have a wealth of experience that they are able to share with students, but would it cultivate a sort of business-like elitist culture in the students? What I would hope for is for more people from charity backgrounds, social workers or people of the arts to give talks. They would offer a very different view of the world.

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By businessphoneco, December 8, 2011 at 6:57 pm Link to this comment

The education system in the America needs a complete revamp. Pointing fingers at the teachers, the businesses and the rising school fees will not solve any problem. A concentrated effort to analyse the problem from the roots is needed. Education will always be important no matter what era will are living in.

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By Atlantic Global, June 29, 2010 at 8:31 pm Link to this comment

Education in our school system to a significant degree should be focused on the formation of the fundamentals of English, Maths, Science, Politics, History and Geography. To impede the basic education with a vocational intervention destroys the freedom to explore and become. Emotional intelligence and social behaviors could be an important syllabus in our education as this will then prepare for our tertiary education where the formative years have achieved a base in which to develop and specialize in an area of the individuals chosen vocation.

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By jonahclint, June 14, 2010 at 9:23 am Link to this comment

Most of the time a student spends in the educational system is informative and too little of it is actually formative. Business owners are looking for students with certain skills and knowledge that are useful for them and they are not pleased with what the students have learned so far. That is why they tend to get involved in the educational system and pull strings for a certain kind of education that will later help students become their employees.
Voip phone systems

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By Outraged, September 17, 2009 at 10:47 pm Link to this comment

Business in not the only factor influencing our nation’s schools.  In Texas, one of the major textbook buyers therefore a major player, we see more events unfolding.  It’s about time!

“AUSTIN — Texas high school students would learn about such significant individuals and milestones of conservative politics as Newt Gingrich and the rise of the Moral Majority — but nothing about liberals — under the first draft of new standards for public school history textbooks….

....The first draft for proposed standards in United States History Studies Since Reconstruction says students should be expected “to identify significant conservative advocacy organizations and individuals, such as Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority….”

....Another board conservative, Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, thinks students should study both sides to “see what the differences are and be able to define those differences.”

He would add James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, conservative talk show host Sean Hannity and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to the list of conservatives. Others have proposed adding talk show host Rush Limbaugh and the National Rifle Association.”  (Rush Limbaugh…???? will they tell the students what a ditwad he truthfully is, or will they DEPICT him as a supposed “opposing voice”?)

There was also this:
“Americans for decades have struggled over religion in public schools. Today’s battleground is Texas, where six “experts” are making recommendations that could affect the religious content of textbooks sold in all 50 states.

The six experts hired by the Texas State Board of Education to review social studies textbooks used in the state include an evangelical Christian minister and the president of a Christian heritage advocacy group. These two, and another conservative Christian on the panel, are urging that Texas textbooks place more emphasis on the influence of Christianity in American history. They also want students to be taught that American government is rooted in religion, a claim that is historically inaccurate.

And this:
“David Barton, who critics call a “Christian nationalist history revisionist,” comes off more as smooth-talking history buff than fiery evangelist.

Among the panel of experts appointed to guide the Texas textbook standards writing process, Barton is probably the most committed right-wing activist. He served as vice-chair of the Texas GOP for many years. He was responsible for the uproar over deletion of a reference to Christmas that the chair of the board of education tried to tamp down first thing this morning…...

.....Board member David Bradley, last seen calling out President Obama for his indoctrination speech, gushed that Barton is able to identify every figure in a famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Another member, Barbara Cargill, decried the “reference to US imperialism—propaganda is the word used” in the draft of high school history textbook standards. “Our students have to learn about American exceptionalism and how unique our country is,” she pleaded to Barton, asking him to hold forth on how best to “take out the negatives.”

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By Jean Gerard, September 17, 2009 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Rose’s article is poorly captioned.  Businesses don’t “go to school.”  In fact, they deny all the important things schools try to teach:  Fairness, cooperation for the common good, consideration for feelings of others, honest research, how to detect propaganda, how to analyze what you read, how to separate truth from falsehood, relevant from irrelevant, how to put 2 and 2 together and get 4.

Businesses are always looking for a profit in dollars and cents.  They are quite happy if they can put 2 and 1 together and get 50.  Schools are always looking for a profit in learning and understanding, for tolerance and compassion.  Big businesses are overflowing with money; schools are starving to death. Businesses try to preserve the status quo as long as they are “winning.”  Schools often want to change the status quo because they can see that education is losing the battle for hearts and minds.
If business really “went to school” the entire economic system would become more humane.

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By bogi666, September 16, 2009 at 6:36 am Link to this comment

The purpose of the business community involvement in education is to train students from an early age the obedience required for the workplace. Business and law schools now teach their students how to get “to big to fail”.Sound familiar.

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By Outraged, September 16, 2009 at 1:57 am Link to this comment

Instead, what we have is an erosion of broad-based economic support and growth and, in its place, a selective philanthropy—which, I’ll be the first to admit, is better than a selfish, opulent capitalism. But such generosity is targeted and partial. There has been a dramatic increase in the involvement of large, private foundations in school reform. And some of this foundation involvement drives a particular ideology that might not mesh with the general public good.”

“Might not” is putting it mildly.  Small businesses, especially in rural communities many times donate funds, products or services genuinely, however when we start entertaining the notion of huge “philantropist” organizations, it’s quite another ballgame.  Large business entities (and their offshoots) NEVER do anything out of the goodness of their hearts.  Never. 

Think about it, big pharma, insurance companies,  oil companies…?, food companies….?  Do they clean up their pollution?  Do they make sure their products are safe?  Do they take initiatives, for the public good regarding their services?

No.  They scam fees off customers, they wreak havoc on the environment, they hide known dangers in their products, they market to toddlers, they break the law…. fraud, antitrust and others.  They never, ever do anything in the interests of the public.  Most of them won’t even pay their own employees a fair wage.  Yes, I see a great deal of danger in their “philanthropy”.

A word regarding Bill Gates’ “philanthropy”:

“Microsoft has created a new foundation, the CodePlex Foundation which claims to be about bringing open-source and proprietary software companies together to participate side by side in open-source projects. Yeah. Right…

.....Microsoft doesn’t mind stealing from open source, but any deals it makes are only good while there’s a clear, short-term benefit to Microsoft. The second that changes, or Ballmer decides to have an anti-open-source fit again, the deal is off.

Besides, just like the snake in the story, Microsoft is more than happy to poison open-source software even as it proclaims that it wants to co-operate with open source. Just off the top of my head there’s the revelation that Microsoft’s ExpertZone training for Best Buy and other retailers is stuffed with anti-Linux lies.

And, then there’s Microsoft’s patent attacks on open-source using companies like TomTom and its thwarted efforts to sell anti-Linux patents to a patent troll. According to Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, “The details are that Microsoft assembled a package of patents ‘relating to open source’ and put them up for sale to patent trolls. Microsoft thought they were selling them to AST, a group that buys patents, offers licenses to its members, and then resells the patents.” What actually happened was that Microsoft ended up selling the patents to the Open Invention Network, a pro-Linux intellectual-property organization.”

And this:  “But the weirdest one of the week involved Microsoft’s sale of a series of patents.”

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By herewegoagain, September 15, 2009 at 7:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The author writes: “Also, in one report and press release after another, business advocacy groups have been defining the purpose of schooling in economic terms. Kids go to school to get themselves and the nation ready for the global marketplace, and this rhetoric of job preparation and competition can play into reductive definitions of teaching and learning.”

It is really sad that we have our children’s attention for so many years, and these are the main things we are trying to instill in them. Unfortunately, this rhetoric is also taken up by every President we’ve had since I can remember.

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By oldhip, September 15, 2009 at 5:16 am Link to this comment


Sorry, I didn’t notice that Truthout already has the article posted today that I linked to in my previous comment.  In other words…  Never mind.

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By oldhip, September 15, 2009 at 5:11 am Link to this comment

This article…

It is seriously well worth one’s time to read this short article.  I personally think with only 39% of Americans actually believing that the theory of evolution is true…  That we are, as a nation, far further over the rails than I knew.

It’s the opposite of reality that is being “allowed” to continue to progress, behind the fogging white noise of all of the political yelling, from all sides, about the much more trivial aspects of all of our lives, as the extremely-very-few, who are now wealthy far beyond your ability to comprehend, are “allowed,” by you, to continue to gather even more protective wealth, to “protect” them from… us, and from the coming multi-leveled crisis of the long fall of current human industrial culture - That all of us are guilty of “allowing” to happen in the face of glaring undeniable evidence, and denied warnings.

The simple complexity of the complex simplicity is beyond most Americans.

The problem with the stupid and ignorant among us is that while they “proudly and patriotically,” allow their own self-destruction by fighting among themselves as they were programmed to do, is that they are destroying much more than just their environment, their livelihoods, their lives…  They are destroying us all.

Ignorance is curable, stupidity is forever.

Fight the stupid - Educate the ignorant.  Or stupidly pay the price.

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By ardee, September 15, 2009 at 5:01 am Link to this comment

I find this article to be, at the same time, enlightening and obfuscating. Perhaps it is my inability to grasp nuance, or perhaps it is the unwillingness of the author to delve deeper into the destructiveness of the system which puts capitalism and its need for endless profit above all else.

Truly the author does, to his credit, enumerate some the ills that corporate deregulation, greed, and avarice contribute to a failing education system. But, while he touches upon the contributions corporation make, if only for tax breaks and publicity, to the education of our youth, I think he doesnt go deep enough, doesnt make that final conclusion.

It should be mandatory ( there’s that word seemingly anathema to the right) for corporations to shoulder some of the education burden. Consider that our business community prospers because of the necessities the community provides, roads, rail and air, services of all kinds, tax breaks and protectionsim, and ,of course, employees educated to achieve success, both for themselves and for the business community.

I would want to see an end to the lack of collection of taxes from our business community, and the larger the business the seeming less its share of the burden. While the US imposes the highest tax rate upon its corporation, 35% in fact, the vast array of loopholes and dodges result in some not paying any taxes whatsoever and most paying far less than the aforementioned rate.

In a time of economic upheaval we need to focus on needed change, an end to corporate personhood, a collection of taxes if only in the form of contributions to needed services in lieu of tax collection, education foremost. Our business leaders seem a class apart, an aristocracy that believes itself apart from the nation, and its belief that it alone is responsible for its prosperity leads to the huge salaries and bonus structures independent of actual competency.

I see this nation as one people, with no class or segment more entitled than any other. To each according to need and from each according to ability.

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