Business Goes to School
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. 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.Wait, before you go…
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