May 21, 2013
Business Goes to School
Posted on Sep 14, 2009
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?
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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