June 17, 2013
Business Goes to School
Posted on Sep 14, 2009
By Mike Rose
Now, we all know that there are a lot of mediocre and downright awful teachers out there, and a number of schools and school districts are in desperate need of managerial shake-up and rebuilding. No question: perspectives and procedures from the world of business can be valuable here. But once you’ve swept clean, what will you put in place? Here is where pedagogical knowledge is essential. The reform superintendent in a district whose story I’ve been following addressed the terrible problem of dropping out by creating a special school for young people who have failed repeatedly—a continuation school of sorts. Classes are small; there’s a good ratio of adults to students; and there’s increased counseling. These are good moves. But the curriculum is deadly, a repetition of the skills-and-drills approach that these students have encountered for years, and without success.
Teaching and learning are not simply a management problem. Reformers need to incorporate rather than disregard the rich wisdom of the classroom, for the history of policy failure is littered with cases where local knowledge and circumstance were ignored.
In all the public discussions I’ve heard, the focus of school-business alliances is solely on the problems with the schools and what it is that business can do to help remedy those problems. The discussion never seems to include business’s contributions to the conditions that have limited educational achievement. And it’s here that the image of Michael Milken before the blackboard begins to take on powerful added meaning.
Milken is a financial genius and a major philanthropist. He also represented, in his earlier incarnation, an ongoing, damaging trend in American business that pushes short-term interests over long-term prosperity and the social good. Although clearly not representative of all American business leaders, figures like Milken bring into stark relief a fundamental contradiction in American business practice: its mix of boardroom rapaciousness and public generosity.
Business must examine this contradiction if it wants to affect educational reform in any comprehensive way. It is a good thing for business to give money to the schools, but the schools also need business to consider broader issues of economy and culture.
To take one point, various elements of the business community lobby, litigate, and proselytize against tax increases, minimum- or living-wage laws, and a whole range of policies that would help poor and working-class families better prepare their children for school through decent housing, health care, and educational resources. Just think of what regular eye exams and proper glasses alone would do for academic achievement.
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.
If business is to help inner-city schools and schools in depressed rural and transitional areas, it will have to understand school failure within a socioeconomic context. It will have to ask itself hard questions about the way national economic policies and local business decisions have limited the development of communities, and the effect these policies and decisions have had on schooling. Schools in a number of cities have deteriorated as decisions by major industries have devastated their local economies.
The hope of a better life has traditionally driven achievement in American schools. When children are raised in communities where economic opportunity has dramatically narrowed, where the future is bleak, their perception of and engagement with school will be negatively affected. We must ask whether, for example, donating a slew of computers to a school will make kids see the connection between doing well in the classroom and living a decent life beyond it when all they feel is hopelessness the moment they walk out the schoolhouse door. From what I can see, after surveying the position papers of advocacy groups like the Business Roundtable, the business community, perhaps because some of its members so cherish a Horatio Alger mythology, has not thought deeply about the profound effect economic despair can have on school achievement.
The business community needs to take a hard look as well at its apparent willingness to create virtually any product and marketing campaign that will turn a profit and at the negative influence business interests exert on entertainment and news media. So many of the commercially driven verbal and imagistic messages that surround our young people work against the development of the very qualities of mind the business community tells the schools it wants the schools to foster. Our new economy, we are told, requires people who are critically reflective and can make careful distinctions, who can troubleshoot and solve problems, who have an interpretive, analytic edge, who are willing to stop and ponder.
Yet young people grow up in an economy of glitz and thunder. The ads that shape their needs and interests champion appearance over substance, power over thought. Their entertainment, by and large, makes easy distinction between right and wrong, the effective move and the blunder, and it trivializes intellectual work, from medical science to archaeology. The news they see highlights glamour and poise over knowledge and blurs fact and “simulation.” And all this is crafted from the titillation of quick movement.
Such tactics make money in the short run, but what effects do they have on youth culture over time? The relationship of mass culture and individual habits of mind is complex, to be sure. But there is a significant disjunction between the kind of youngster business says it needs from the schools and the kind of youngster one could abstract from the youth culture that is so powerfully influenced by business interests.
If business truly wants to have a positive effect on the education of our children, the discussion must extend beyond the problems with our schools to the economy and culture in which those schools try to do their work. Business-school alliances will not result in fundamental, long-range educational change if the terms of the alliances essentially have the powerful passing judgment and bestowing dollars on beleaguered classrooms. A more complex and self-critical discussion will have to evolve. We’ll need more than the one-directional reforms symbolized by a billionaire standing before a blackboard.
Copyright © 2009 Mike Rose. This excerpt originally appeared in “Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us” by Mike Rose, published by The New Press. Printed here with permission by The New Press.
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