Justified Textworks

A Profit without Honors

Against the Business Model of Education

Eric S. Piotrowski

[T]he correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling but wood that needs igniting no more and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth.

On Listening to Lectures

[T]he true college will ever have one goal,—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.

W. E. B. Du Bois
The Souls of Black Folk

Rewards and punishments are the lowest form of education.


It has become an article of faith among pundits and politicians in this day and age that the public schools in the United States are a wretched cesspool of failure. Everyone with access to a microphone agrees that public schools in this country are worthless; that they aren’t working; that this crisis of education is at the root of problems ranging from slow GNP to high crime statistics.

Although it can be traced back to Cotton Mather in 1690, this tidal wave of condemnation hit its stride in 1958, when Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (known as “the father of the atomic submarine”) lashed out at Dewey’s progressive movement and blamed it for the “chronic shortage of good scientists, engineers and other professionals” that resulted from “the destruction of traditional education” (Smoot).

In the 1980s, the outrage resurfaced when Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, T. H. Bell, convened The National Commission on Excellence in Education, which produced the alarming 1983 report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Dubbing itself “An Open Letter to the American People,” the report stated that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Since then, public figures have continued to wag fingers at the public schools, using ever-harsher language and calling for more drastic action. In 1991, President George Bush Sr. proclaimed: “The ringing school bell sounds an alarm, a warning to all of us who care about the state of American education. . . . Every day brings new evidence of crisis” (Berliner and Biddle 143). Bill Clinton was less hostile toward the schools, but pointed out in 1999 that “there is still a passionate sense of national urgency about school reform and about lifting education standards” (“1999”). And George W. Bush, even as he wondered “is our children learning?” and mused about how “reading is the basics for all learning” (“Gems”) also declared that ours is “a system that simply suckles kids through” (“Quotes”).

These official pronouncements from on high are echoed by a loud chorus of agreement from policy institutes and media pundits, all of whom are convinced that the public schools are a wasteland of failure. Of course, there is a vast body of research that shows that our schools are doing okay in general, and that the real problem is not the overall system of public education, but rather the unwillingness or inability of our society to provide quality education to poor communities, especially those containing people of color. Rather than detail this evidence, however, I will simply direct the reader to The Manufactured Crisis by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle; Ghetto Schooling by Jean Anyon; and of course, Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol. Besides, this nasty business of proving one’s damning rhetoric is no longer a requisite of American political discourse, is it?

No, the important question is not: “Are the public schools really ‘being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people’?” but rather: “What are we going to do about it?”

The most common recommendation being voiced in the 21st century is for schools to model themselves more like businesses and less like . . . whatever they currently see themselves as (socialist bureaucracies, warehouses for “those who can’t”). This has led to the development of a business model for education, which will shed new light on the crises noted above; impose market forces on the classroom; and generally dissolve our current scholastic woes.

To cite just one random example, David Klein, the editor of the Ad Age Group, says: “there is only one organized force in society with the resources, the technology, the skills, and the innovation-oriented culture needed to rejuvenate our enfeebled schools: corporate America” (Klein). More and more, politicians and business leaders are sending the message that schools must become more efficient, more effective, more economical — and that business can show us the way.

The business model of education, as I understand it, basically contains three components, which work together to create a paradigm of radical reform for the public schools:

  1. Rigidly defined standards of achievement, with severe consequences for those who do not meet them
  2. The imposition of market forces on the current system of education
  3. Commercialized school buildings and curriculum

I will dispel speculation and/or confusion about my own personal opinion before going further. I am opposed to the business model of education, as my experience (a scant three years in the classroom) and research have shown me not only that such a paradigm fits poorly into the confines of the school; but that it can be extremely harmful to the ultimate goal of student learning.

At the outset of our discussion, however, must be a look at why we bother with public schools in the first place. While my focus here is primarily on secondary schools, there are abundant and obvious connections and parallels to be made to both elementary and tertiary education.

1. The Purpose and Recent History of Public Education in the United States

The American public school can best be understood as a process; it is an institution of a most dynamic variety, which tends to evolve and congeal into its myriad selves. Its earliest roots lie in the mixture of common and normal and private schools of the post-colonial era, and only by the mid-1800s did the institution of the public school approach anything similar to its current incarnation.

By the end of the 19th century, elementary schools were coming into their own, but the same could not be said for secondary schools. Indeed, by 1889, less than 10% of children aged 14 to 17 were attending any school at all (Nasow 117). This was a result of — and factor in — a heated debate about the purpose of post-elementary schooling, a debate that continued well into the 20th century.

On one side of the debate were the “reformers,” the populists, the democrats (small ‘d’). They believed that the public school, having provided the basic foundations for citizenship and intellectual inquiry in elementary school, should help every student — from every social and economic background — to achieve as high a level of success as they desired. They urged that the high school be focused on traditional, liberal educational ideals and instill in the student the tools for independent thought and successful participation in many different levels of society. In short, public education could be a tool to help assist social mobility and bring home the promise of America to as many people as possible (of course this didn’t include blacks or American Indians or other racial minorities, so — as usual — the American dream wasn’t envisioned as being quite as egalitarian as some had hoped).

On the other side of the debate were the business leaders and the captains of industry. They envisioned high school as a place where the workers of tomorrow could learn the skills they needed for the jobs they would presumably graduate into. To their mind, the responsibility of the public school was to train students in the ways of the economic realities that would face them, to give them practical know-how and hands-on experience. Many business leaders were quite explicit about their opposition to the democratic ideal; one critic asserted that “Too much education of a certain sort . . . to a person of humble antecedents is utterly demoralizing in nine cases out of ten. . .” (Nasow 116).

Ultimately, the two sides were forced to come to a compromise, in the form of the “comprehensive” high school. A place that brought students of all socioeconomic backgrounds together (with the exception of the ultra-wealthy who sent their children to elite private schools; and of course the aforementioned uninvited racial minorities), the comprehensive high school was an experiment in balancing the dreams of the future with the realities of the present. Indeed, writes David Nasow, these schools “were called upon to do the impossible: to uphold the myths of the ‘classless’ community while at the same time preparing young people for their future lives in a society based on class divisions” (157).

Clearly, then, the current presence of business influence in the classroom is nothing new. Also obvious is the fact that this struggle between forces of economic and social democracy on the one hand, and the motives of business on the other, has neither diminished nor abated. The high school has changed radically throughout the 20th century, and the evolving nature of the university has had a profound impact on the world of work and the world of the high school. But the basic forces at work haven’t changed much.

Quite the contrary; it seems at times as though the public schools in the United States are one of the most powerful advocates of — and assistants for — social mobility and effective democracy currently operating in this country. Throughout the 20th century, the public schools — and the heroic battles to spread their promise to communities of racial minorities, destroy hierachies of gender discrimination, et cetera — have tried to keep alive a tradition of democracy and possibility.

And yet, every student inevitably will ask the question: “When am I going to use this?” Market viability is an undeniably urgent factor in the educational institutions of any capitalist society. All teachers want their students to succeed, and the tension between democracy and business is often the tension between the big picture and the small; the future versus the present; long-term versus short-term gains.

Paulo Freire addresses this dilemma in his landmark work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He points out that this dichotomy has to do with the very method of teaching: what he calls “the banking method” on the one hand, and “liberating education” on the other. As he points out, “reality is a process, undergoing constant transformation” (75, emphasis in original). Thus, while the banking method provides for some of the immediate needs of the pupil, it ignores the transformative potential of education and instead works “to turn women and men into automatons — the very negation of their ontological vocation to be more fully human” (74).

So it goes today. There are many other dimensions to this discussion, of course. (Should liberal education focus primarily on European traditions, or be more inclusive of diverse cultures? Which job skills are most appropriate for training the workers of tomorrow?) And as always, the truth is likely to exist somewhere in the middle; neither free-minded but unemployable citizens nor mindless robot workers are wholly acceptable options.

What must be made clear, however, is that the powerful forces of commerce are working, as they always have, to push the public school in one particular direction. Today’s corporate leaders and captains of business — aided by an incredibly powerful network of public relations firms, media conglomerates, and political action committees — want to shape our schools (and the students in them) in the way that best suits their own financial interests. Many times, these interests are those of the society at large, but often they are not.

If there is to be a countervailing force, it is us: the educators and believers in diverse forms of education. Obviously, we must support students in their quest for viable careers and jobs. Also obviously, there are many individuals and even institutions in the business world that wish to see democracy continue to flourish and temper profit with citizenship. But we cannot believe that the school can continue to exist as conduit of democracy on its own. We must insist that the classroom is more than a location for mere training; that educators have a responsibility to help students become human beings, not make them cogs in a machine.

2. Standards, Testing, Resources and Consequences

In 1995, Louis V. Gerstner Jr, the CEO of IBM, told the National Governors Association: “You are the CEOs of the organizations that fund and oversee the country’s public schools” (“Are We”). In his book Reinventing Education, Gerstner remarks: “Simple organizational ideas like . . . measuring performance and continuous improvement are notable by their absence in public schools. The issue is to run schools like other successful organizations. Just as businesses are results-oriented, so schools must also be.”

Therefore, if we wish to do away with “a system that simply suckles kids through,” we must carefully measure the educational analogue of profit, learning outcome. “After all,” Berliner and Biddle point out, “industries demonstrate their success by making profits. Why should schools be exempt from the need to demonstrate that they are succeeding in their tasks?” (195, emphasis in original) This begins with high standards; it is commonly understood that our schools have set the bar much too low, that the schools are producing swarms of dullards because that’s good enough.

Higher standards will, we are told, get lazy teachers off their backsides and push them to deliver the proper material to their students — just as production quotas and profit projections drive the machinery of business. Besides, as Thomas S. Dee points out in the conservative journal Education Next, “higher standards may benefit students (even those who drop out) by creating an incentive to work harder in school, an effort that is rewarded in the labor market.”

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with high standards. There are many teachers who don’t expect the best from their students, and there is a lack of consensus among educators as to what needs to be taught when and how. But the sky of standards is not, in fact, falling, as a close study of the TIMSS [Third International Mathematics and Science Study] data will show (see Berliner, “Our Schools vs. Theirs”). Furthermore, the phrase “high standards” alone doesn’t describe much — a distinction must be made as to which standards are being addressed (the three main categories for education are content, performance, and program standards).

Regardless of the facts, however, this drive for higher standards resulted in George Bush Sr.’s America 2000 plan, Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000 legislation, and Bush Jr.’s landmark No Child Left Behind [NCLB] program. Along the way, state legislatures and local school districts cooperated by ratcheting up their own standards, requiring more core classes for students, more training requirements for teachers, and more focus on achievement.

Of course, setting high standards is never enough; evaluation methods are required to make sure the schools are meeting the goals assigned to them. Thus, standardized tests have become a king of holy grail for modern education. Clinton’s Goals 2000 (basically a rehash of Bush Sr.’s America 2000) required that every state institute comprehensive standards and some form of assessment to measure them. It called for standardized testing in grades 4, 8 and 10 to measure progress. For Bush Jr., this wasn’t enough. “Children should be tested,” he declared during the 2000 campaign, “on basic reading and math skills every year, between grades three and eight” (“George”). The NCLB has now made this a requirement under the law (more about the NCLB in section five).

One major problem with the use of testing and outcome-based education is the focus on external evaluation. Piaget, Dewey, Montessouri — most every influential educational theorist of the 20th century — agreed that students have a natural inclination toward learning, that they are motivated by powerful internal motivators. The business model’s devotion to standardized tests attacks these internal motivations as early as possible, and replaces them with powerful and threatening external motivators for both students (passing a test to graduate from 3rd grade) and educators (performance reviews, financial incentives). Naturally, this is in some ways a philosophical discussion, and the evidence is far from clear as to how well these internal motivators can be relied upon, especially as students progress through the education system. (I know from personal experience that high school teachers are hard-pressed to find students with the internal motivation to learn about gerunds.)

What is not either philosophical or debatable is that outcome-based policies focus on results, rather than processes. And here, educators are nearly unanimous: to focus on results alone is not just naive, it is dangerous and stupid.

Many teachers have become familiar (usually via forwarded email or in union newsletters — the original ran in the March 6, 2002 issue of Education Week) with the parable of the teacher who teaches a guest business lecturer (the author, ice cream company executive Jamie Robert Vollmer) a lesson on management policy. After hearing about the need for a quality product and better results in education (to match the high quality of his own corporate enterprise), a teacher from the audience grills the speaker:

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap. I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie. “I send them back.”

“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”

Another frequently-reproduced story (originally printed in the June 2000 edition of The School Administrator, a publication of the American Association of School Administrators) tells of a patient (the author, Lancaster [South Carolina] County School District Superintendent John Taylor) who informs his dentist of a new policy to evaluate and regulate dentists across the state:

“It’s quite simple,” I said. “They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14 and 18 and average that to determine a dentist’s rating. Dentists will be rated as Excellent, Good, Average, Below Average and Unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. It will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better,” I said. “Poor dentists who don’t improve could lose their licenses to practice in South Carolina.”

“That’s terrible,” he said. . . . “[T]hat’s not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry. . . . So much depends on things we can’t control.

“For example,” he went on, “I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don’t bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem and I don’t get to do much preventive work.

“Also, many of the parents I serve have allowed their kids to consume way too much candy and soda from an early age, unlike more-educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay. . . .”

“It sounds like you’re making excuses,” I said. I couldn’t believe my dentist would be so defensive. He does a great job.

“I am not!” he protested. “My best patients are as good as anyone’s, my work is as good as anyone’s, but my average cavity count is going to be higher than a lot of other dentists because I chose to work where I am needed most. . . . In a system like this, I will end up being rated average, below average or worse. My more-educated patients who see these ratings may believe this so-called state rating actually is a measure of my ability and proficiency as a dentist. They may leave me, and I’ll be left with only the most needy patients. And my cavity average score will get even worse. On top of that, how will I attract good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to my practice if it is labeled below average?”

These stories are somewhat trite, but they nevertheless crystallize nicely the importance of distinguishing between results and process in the world of education. Because individual states are dealing with individual districts which oversee individual schools containing individual teachers managing classes of individual students, simple binary yes/no answers are not sufficient to answer the incredibly complex question “Is our children learning?” Nor do the facts and figures of standardized test results sufficiently represent what happens in the classroom during the school year. Such nuances, however, are of course too complicated for sound-byte political opportunities and too troublesome for most crusaders of business-model reforms.

As always, money only complicates matters. In Florida (where Governor Jeb Bush has, in his “A-Plus Plan,” laid the groundwork for much of what his brother envisions in NCLB), the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test [FCAT] has been tied to a system of evaluation wherein every school is given an actual letter grade based, not on their performance on the FCAT overall, but on the amount of improvement the school shows in its scores (Langley). Schools with high grades receive “school recognition” money, while low-scoring schools are sent teams of experts and assistance funds to deal with their problems.

The objections of teachers in Florida to this system are similar to those of educators in other areas where the stakes of tests are extremely high: the state demands results, but provides the resouces to attain them only after the school has shown the ability to earn them (or not). Whether or not the meager assistance funds recently allocated by the Florida Department of Education to so-called “failing” schools will achieve lasting improvements remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, teachers are being ordered to show improvement on these tests at all times, regardless of individual circumstances, and are not given corresponding resources to make it happen. Indeed, schools may be threatened with loss of accreditation and funding if their scores are low — and all manner of bribery if the scores are high (Kohn 20).

As bad as these high stakes are by themselves, they are compounded by what has come to be known as the uncertainty principle of sociology: “The more important that any quantitative social indicator becomes in social decision-making, the more likely it will be to distort and corrupt the social process it is intended to monitor” (Amrein and Berliner). This means that, when rewards (or punishments) of money and other resources are attached to the outcome of the test, it is often worthless as an indicator of the school’s progress. Curriculum is slanted; cramming predominates; and individuals perform ethical contortions to guarantee that they clear the bar. (Proof of this can be found in Audrey Amrein and David Berliner’s comprehensive research project “High-Stakes Testing, Uncertainty, and Student Learning.”)

And there are dozens of other complaints made against the dominance of standardized testing as a way to evaluate the schools. Increased testing causes increased anxiety among educators and students. (“Test anxiety” has become a recognized ailment among school-aged children.) Teachers tell of being forced to “teach to the test” (which Bush Jr. favors, incidentally — see “George”) and students learn accordingly. One especially poignant Calvin and Hobbes cartoon features the nine-year-old protagonist writing on an exam: “As you can see, I’ve memorized this utterly useless fact long enough to pass a test question. I now intend to forget it forever. You’ve taught me nothing except how to cynically manipulate the system. Congratulations” (Watterson 90).

Furthermore, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that white students have social advantages on standardized tests; that the tests are sometimes a better indicator of test-taking skills than of the actual material; and that economic factors play an overwhelming role (Kohn 35-41).

All of this is not to say that standardized tests have no place in American education. Testing can be effective if it’s done right and used for appropriate ends. But the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] cannot be used to give a “thumbs up” or (more usually) “thumbs down” to our public schools the way an earnings report is used for a corporation. Businesses and schools are wildly different institutions, and the yardsticks for each must be tailored to their nature.

3. Enron in the Classroom: Choice, Vouchers, Market Forces and Education

The reason that the public schools — those cesspools of incompetence — are so unwilling or unable to achieve better results, according to the pundits and politicians, is that they are a government bureaucracy, that most hated of noncapitalist institutions. Lou Gerstner, IBM exec-turned-education-crusader (the IBM website points out that he “was made an honorary Knight of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his efforts on behalf of public education, as well as his business accomplishments”), leads the charge in Reinventing Education, where he says: “the central problem for American public schools is that they have not been forced to continuously adapt themselves to the changes in their students and the demands of society and the economy. Operating outside the market, they have been insulated from the necessity to change. A business perspective not only sheds light on the nature of the problem, it suggests strategies for a solution.”

Warren T. Brookes, syndicated columnist and former business executive, went a step further. In a speech in 1989, he gave the usual warning that the United States was about to self-destruct in a supernova of economic decline — all because of public schools. “And the ironic cause of that demise could very well be our own reluctance either to privatize or radically restructure the most socialist enterprise in the Western world, that $180 billion near-monopoly known as U.S. public education.” While insisting that the notion of limited resources is hogwash because “wealth is primarily metaphysical,” Brookes declares that “it is unlikely that we are going to fundamentally alter the results of the American public schools unless we either move their funding and control back to the local level, or break their monopoly position with aggressive private sector competition.”

The most common suggestion for introducing “aggressive private sector competition” to “the most socialist enterprise in the Western world” is the innocuous-sounding concept of “school choice.” The idea is that, if given a choice between miserable public schools and excellent private schools, everyone will win. Students and parents will win, because they will have a viable alternative to the wretched cesspools to which they are currently assigned. And public schools will win, because they will be forced to compete and will therefore “continuously adapt themselves to . . . the demands of society.”

The basic theoretical foundations for the choice movement can be traced to the 1990 book Politics, Markets and America’s Schools by John Chubb and Terry Moe. The authors run through a laundry list of how the public schools have failed, give philosophical grounding for why democratic institutions of education are doomed to stagnate, and proclaim that “private schools produce significantly greater gains in achievement than public schools . . . equivalent to as much as a full year of learning” (Brookes). Again, this work has been roundly debunked and refuted, notably by Berliner and Biddle in The Manufactured Crisis and by Smith and Meier in The Case Against School Choice.

In recent years, advocates of “school choice” — particularly those who favor a voucher system, whereby parents of children in poorly-performing schools receive funds to be used at private schools — have insisted that their struggle is motivated by a desire to help the most oppressed members of our society. A cynic might find it odd that people like George W. Bush, Lou Gerstner, and David T. Kearns (the former CEO and Chairman of Xerox Corporation — more on him to follow), men who spent their entire lives ruthlessly pursuing money and power, would suddenly take up the cause of black power and/or class struggle. Such a cynic might suppose that these men have ulterior motives when they point out how badly the public schools have failed to deliver the American Dream to poor kids in Compton. Such a cynic might believe that these men call attention to such glaring inequalities only when it happens to suit their own corporate, political, or career needs. But as we all know, cynicism is a relic of a bygone era, and there is no reason to call into question the motives of our nation’s business and political leaders.

Besides, many parents and civic leaders — actual advocates for the poor and disadvantaged — are supporting vouchers and school choice. They see the miserable state of the public schools in their districts, and, wishing for the best educational opportunities available, believe that private schools offer an positive alternative. And there is no simple response from the other side of the discussion. It’s hard to compare a dilapidated public school in East St. Louis with a shiny new private school across the Mississippi in St. Louis proper and say that the poor black kids in East St. Louis don’t deserve better.

But the entire question of “school choice” rests on the assumption that private schools do a better job than public schools because of their market-based nature, when in fact, there is a wide variety of reasons why many private schools do better than public schools in poor neighborhoods. One immediate and obvious factor is total amount of income. Private schools have access to foundations, alumni, and corporate and religious support that public schools only dream of. What’s more, private schools generally have fewer students to serve; can turn away students with “special needs” or who don’t pass entrance exams; and find diverse ways to cut corners that aren’t possible in public schools. Besides, the research shows that public schools in wealthy majority-white areas of the United States do a fantastic job educating their privileged studentry (see Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and Berliner and Biddle).

However, all of the technical aspects of the public vs. private school debate overlook a very simple — but central — point, which Smith and Meier make elegantly: “Democratic control . . . provides a method of accountability that is absent from the market” (38). If we privatize our school system — or even privatize part of it, with the assumption that market forces will wash over and transform the other part — we will relinquish democratic control of this important institution. We will no longer be able to seek redress for our educational grievances through school boards or elected officials. Indeed, private schools need only satisfy their profit margins; so long as they make money, all other questions are moot. Advocates of “school choice” insist that the “invisible hand” of the market will provide the best for everyone, but is that enough?

Before proceeding, let us be absolutely clear about one thing: The history of big business in America during the first three years of the 21st century is saturated with fraud, greed, deception, scandal, thievery, and crime. Enron — where executives shuffled investments to disguise almost $1 billion of debt and drove the company into bankruptcy, destroying pensions and forcing thousands of layoffs, and where members of the Bush administration had close personal and business connections — was only the tip of the iceburg (“Enron”). The WorldCom debacle was said to be three times worse, and then revealed to be twice as bad as initially suspected. In that instance, company officials lied about almost $7 billion of profits; in reality, the company was deeply in debt (“WorldCom”). As with Enron, pensions were vaporized, investors lost everything, and thousands were laid off.

These are not isolated examples. Media giants Vivendi Universal and AOL/TimeWarner, pharmeceutical firm Johnon & Johnson, oil giant Halliburton — whose chairman and CEO, until 2000, was now-Vice President Dick Cheney — and a huge list of other companies, including Merck, Tyco, KMart, Adelphia, Qwest, and Global Crossing, have all been investigated recently by the Securities and Exchange Commission and/or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for possible criminal activity of the exact same variety that destroyed Enron and WorldCom (“Corporate”).

In a nutshell, here’s what happened: Wall Street’s insatiable thirst for profits convinced companies to post (in some cases impossibly) high profit projections. When it became clear that these companies wouldn’t — or couldn’t — reach their goals, executives looked for shady ways to make believe. Once the cat was out of the bag, scapegoats were offered, arrested, and charged with criminal conduct. In Enron’s case, finance manager Michael Kopper has plead guilty to charges of money laundering and wire fraud, while Kenneth Lay, CEO during the fiasco, has so far avoided the courtroom.

Do Americans really believe, as George W. Bush would have them believe, that this is a minor deviation from the status quo of corporate practice, that “America is ushering in a responsibility era” (“President”)? Or do we suspect that what has been found is only a small part of the normalized life of large businesses? Meanwhile, where was the “invisible hand” of the market while Enron executives were ruining the lives of its elderly retirees? Did the magic of the marketplace prevent, ameliorate, or punish the criminal actions of WorldCom’s leaders?

These scandals have serious consequences for the debate on public vs. private schools: If the recent lesson from private enterprise is that company executives will lie, cheat, and steal to satisfy the illusory promise of profit (unless constantly monitored by government oversight), then (a) what makes us think the same won’t happen with private schools; (b) is this singular lust for profits a flawed part of our economic system to begin with (and if so, why entrust our childrens’ minds to it); and (c) why does the myth of private sector superiority to public remain so firmly embedded in our national consciousness?

Another large company that was charged by the SEC for massive ($3 billion) fraud is Xerox Corporation. By sheer coincidence, a former CEO and chairman of Xerox is David T. Kearns, who — after leaving the company in 1991 — served as Deputy Secretary of Education to George Bush Sr., founded the New American Schools Development Corporation, and co-wrote a book entitled Winning the Brain Race, which advocates for market forces in education. Kearns is currently on the Board of Advisors of an organization called SchoolNet, which proclaims itself to be “a data warehousing solution for accountability; data analysis and reporting; curriculum alignment; lesson planning; collaboration; assessment; and classroom management” (“Welcome”). He is beloved by the private school-promotion crowd, especially for declaring that in education reform, “business will have to set the agenda . . . [we need] a complete restructure driven by competition and market discipline, unfamiliar grounds for educators” (Alliance 17). Most educators are also quite unfamiliar with grand larceny and criminal fraud investigations, so perhaps Xerox can teach us a thing or two when they “set the agenda.”

School choice policies and voucher programs are still in their infancy, so there isn’t a great deal of research or evidence to prove or disprove their value (not that any two people examining such evidence would agree on what to look for). However, certain small-scale experiments can shed some light on the question.

One frequently-cited example of successful “school choice” implementation was the 1974 decentralization of East Harlem’s school district into a collection of “concept schools,” offering academies of environmental science, math, and performing arts. Test scores rose and an overall improvement in the learning environment was reported. Of course, Harlem’s schools remained public; and on a per-student basis, it became the most expensive federally subsidized school system in the nation (Smith and Meier 32-33).

In 1989, the Richmond [California] Unified School District attempted to duplicate East Harlem’s success by adopting a school choice plan of its own. However, Richmond’s test scores did not improve; dropout rates remained stagnant; and desegregation made no progress. The program’s high cost plunged the district into bankruptcy, and the plan was abolished (Smith and Meier 33).

Since then, Oregon, Colorado and California have all voted against school voucher plans, each time by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. Meanwhile, Cleveland, Ohio and Milwaukee, Wisconsin enacted localized voucher plans, and in 1999 Florida became the first state to institute a statewide voucher program (more on this in section five). Colorado recently followed suit.

Curiously, many of those who support private schools and voucher programs, in the name of competition and market forces, do not wish to see the previously-discussed accountability measures instituted on schools participating in “school choice” plans. They insist that the market provides all the accountability necessary, and that government regulation and bureaucracy only stifle private sector efficiency.

For instance, David Salisbury, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, insists — without a hint of irony — that “Requiring private schools to give state-selected achievement tests would have harmful effects on the participating private schools. Some private schools would have to give up the curriculum they have designed for their own students and teach the state-sanctioned curriculum instead. That would kill the diversity and vitality of the private schools.” He further declares that “private schools are already more accountable than public schools, precisely because they are accountable directly to the consumers.”

Accordingly, Milwaukee’s voucher program, started in 1990, was stripped of its annual data-gathering requirement in 1995. The system moved to a report issued by the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau every five years. The evidence about whether or not students are doing better in Milwaukee’s private schools than they were in Milwaukee Public Schools [MPS] is inconclusive at best. The 2000 report from the WLAB states: “Choice and MPS pupils’ current academic performance cannot be compared because Choice schools are not required to administer standardized tests.”

Perhaps this situation represents a genuine split in the business community. Or perhaps the hard work required to enact voucher legislation simply hasn’t allowed advocates to push governments to require the same stringent accountability measures imposed on public schools. What seems likely, however, is that business model advocates want to have it both ways; they want to impose accountability and standards on public schools while allowing private schools to operate by whatever winds prevail on the seas of the open market. We are told to trust in the invisible hand and believe the unsubstantiated hype of the private sector.

I’m extremely unconvinced that private schools are a satisfactory answer to our nation’s inability to provide quality education to those who need it most. I feel strongly that relinquishing democratic control over the school system would lead to disastrous results. And I shudder to think of what could happen if the vile corporate fraud so prevalent today were unleashed on schools in poor neighborhoods; where would students go if their school went bankrupt? (Actually, this has, in fact, happened — see section four.)

However, some poor kids and students of various minority backgrounds do appear to be helped by some school choice programs, and for this reason I cannot dismiss them entirely. We must be careful, however, that minor successes — especially short-term ones — are not blown out of proportion, to seem like huge victories for those struggling against an unjust economic order. We must look carefully at how these different institutions perform, and meticulously explore the precise reasons for that performance.

As luck would have it, recent years have given us a large-scale test case of just how well public educational needs coincide with corporate profit desires. The results are both intriguing and important.

4. Edison Schools: McEducation meets Amazon.edu

In 1989, a plucky young businessman named Chris Whittle launched a controversial new corporation, cleverly titled Whittle Communications, which offered to school districts a package of free TVs, VCRs and satellite dishes, in exchange for their students as a captive audience. The product, Channel One, featured a twelve-minute news broadcast, stuffed with feature stories, sports highlights, and two commercial breaks. Although many teachers and students objected to Channel One because it required a contract whereby 90% of students were required to view the program every day, cash-strapped school districts were lured by the free technology and signed up. At present, Channel One is broadcast to approximately eight million students in 12,000 schools nationwide (“Channel”).

In 1994, Whittle Communications “crashed and burned,” according to the Australian research firm Caslon Analytics (“ketupa.net”). It was “broken up and sold for parts,” and publishing conglomerate Primedia purchased Channel One. But by then, Whittle himself was moving ahead with another vision — a huge chain of private schools called The Edison Project (Donaton). Originally, Edison planned to operate independent private schools to take advantage of the voucher programs that were being prepared in districts around the country. But when those plans were voted down, Edison changed their strategy — they would now serve as a way for districts to outsource the management of already existing schools.

Using independently-developed curriculum, intensive use of technology (it gives each student a computer to use), and a longer school day (2-3 hours longer than the typical public school day), Edison promises dramatic improvements for struggling schools. The company’s pedagogy is based on ten “fundamentals” of “innovative school design,” including “Teaching Methods that Motivate” (particularly direct instruction: “Edison teachers know that successful direct instruction engages students as active listeners and participants”); “A Professional Environment for Teachers” (“Teachers are paid more like professionals”); and “The Advantages of System and Scale” (“Every school automatically becomes part of the national system of partnership schools”) (Edison).

So far, Edison’s business plan has focused on offering to rescue low-performing schools, especially in poor areas, from their various states of emergency. They have assumed control of schools in San Francisco, Washington DC, Dallas, Philadelphia, Detroit, and the Bronx, among others. Stressing academic rigor and demanding long hours from teachers, Edison schools are presented as a fresh alternative to their public school counterparts. Edison currently oversees 110,000 students in 20 states.

Financially speaking, the project has been an unmitigated disaster. In the decade of its operations, Edison has raised over $509 million, and has never once posted a profit (Symonds). At the end of 2002, the company had a debt of $160 million (O’Reilly); and while he insists that the two situations are “totally unrelated”, Whittle — who owes the company $9.2 million of personal debt — recently put his house in the Hamptons up for sale (asking price: $45 million, reduced several months later to $39 million) (Wolfe). Because of its wretched financial state, Edison has been forced to scale back its expansion plans (including a new $125 million headquarters building in Harlem); close 20 schools; and even sell off textbooks for cash (Saunders).

To make matters worse, a February 2002 report from Bloomberg News called attention to Edison’s reporting of teachers’ salaries, student transportation, and utilities as “revenue,” when the funds for such expenses come from the school districts themselves. Intrigued by the similarities to Enron’s shady accounting practices, the Securities and Exchange Commission took note and, after a three-month investigation, concluded that Edison “failed to disclose that money it reported as revenue had never actually passed through its hands,” according to EducationWeek magazine (Walsh). Then, on 6 August 2002, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education announced an investigation into Edison’s $60 million, five-year contract to manage 20 Philadelphia schools (Gewertz).

Edison’s atrocious financial record (which rivals amazon.com, who posted their first profit ever in January 2002 after years of debt and plunging stock prices) has soured Wall Street on the company. BusinessWeek declared that the company deserves “an ‘F’ in Finance”; Fortune Magazine opined that “the verdict is clear: It doesn’t work”; and the editor of Advertising Age wrote in June 2002: “I’m glad my kids don’t go to schools under Edison’s management. Or that air Channel One, for that matter” (Symonds; O’Reilly; Donaton). Edison, Inc. stock is currently trading at $1.50 a share; in February 2001, it was valued at $36.

But economic problems are only part of the picture. Is Edison making good on its promise to teach better than the public schools? It depends on who you ask.

Edison will tell you that they’re passing with flying colors. The company’s Fifth Annual Report on School Performance states: “Eighty-four percent of Edison schools are achieving at higher levels now than when they opened or became Edison Schools.” John Chubb, co-author of the 1990 pro-private-education book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools and currently Edison’s chief education officer, proclaims: “student achievement is rising faster—much faster—in Edison schools than in any other similar system of schools in America” (Mathews).

But the American Federation of Teachers [AFT] tells a different story. In a February 2003 report, the AFT reports that “The majority of Edison schools ranked below average on student achievement in California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin” (Nelson and Meter). A previous AFT study found that Edison schools generally scored no higher — lower, in some cases — than their public-school counterparts (Sudetic).

Why the different results? Edison compares its schools to where they were before (or immediately after) Edison took over; the AFT studies look at how Edison competes with public schools in the same districts over the same period of time.

Chubb dismisses each AFT report as “political diatribe dressed up in the guise of science.” He says: “The AFT wants to know how we’re doing in relation to kids who are in similar schools. In the long run, I have no problem with that. But in the short run, a school should be evaluated by where it was when we started and where it is now.” (Sudetic)

Seeking to provide a fair, objective analysis of Edison’s performance, Western Michigan University researchers Gary Miron and Brooks Applegate conducted the most comprehensive study of Edison’s performance to date. They examined ten of Edison’s oldest schools — each in operation for at least four years — and compared test data with that from public schools in surrounding school districts, as well as state and national test data. “The results were rather mixed,” Miron concluded. Although the researchers point out that “we are far from having a true scientific experiment that can render a conclusive decision on whether or not students succeed in schools operated by Edison Schools Inc.,” the report concludes that “students in schools operated by Edison . . . progress at rates comparable to students in other district schools.”

Not surprisingly, Edison didn’t care for the WMU report. “They threatened to sue us and held up the release of the report for nearly six months,” Miron said (Smith 2002). In an article for Mother Jones magazine, Chris Sudetic reports:

Miron says he has attended meetings where Edison representatives have laid out the company’s program to parents and school officials. “They came up with beautiful pie charts and bar charts that show that they’re doing quite well,” he says. “But there are holes in their statistics. Once I got up and said, ‘You can’t do these overheads and graphs and leave out key information.’ They said, ‘The parents wouldn’t understand the complicated statistics that show Edison’s case.’ But the statistics aren’t complicated, and they don’t prove their case.”

Naturally, to the proponents of private education and voucher programs, none of this matters. If the results of the Edison experiment had been positive, we would assuredly hear about the unquestionable proof that market forces are better for schools, and that anyone who disputes them is merely a tool of “the most socialist enterprise in the Western world.” But — as with Enron and WorldCom and Xerox and Tyco and KMart and Halliburton and Johnson & Johnson — Edison’s failure to surpass public schools, compounded with its cataclysmic financial destruction, is merely a minor aberration.

“[E]ven in the midst of its problems,” insists Lisa Snell in the right-wing journal ReasonOnline (motto: “Free Minds and Free Markets”), “Edison demonstrates the benefits of markets.” Besides, she points out, Edison’s fiery destruction only shows that we need more privatization, not less — less regulation, not more. “One might be able to equate Edison schools with market failure,” she writes, “if Edison and its government contracts even remotely resembled an education ‘market.’ But there is no competition.” Once we have a real free-market school system, we’re told, disasters like Edison won’t happen. Besides, she notes, “Edison has a lousy business plan.” Other companies will do (and are doing) better; in the grand scheme of things, Edison doesn’t really matter.

But the Edison example does matter. “Edison is the bellwether for the entire for-profit school-reform movement,” says Peter J. Stokes, executive vice-president at Eduventures Inc., a Boston market researcher (Symonds). Edison’s mediocre existence has serious ramifications, not only for its own financial backers, but for the students in their schools; the parents who trusted — and at first celebrated — their appearance; and the school districts that must now repair the damage done.

In addition, the Edison experience shows that corporate America’s claim to do better at a lower cost only remains true so long as certain costs remain hidden. In Edison’s case, the hidden costs — which some critics estimate are as high as $1 million each year — include transportation, food services, and security (Fox). The case of Sherman provides an important example.

Washington Elementary, a 50% minority school in working-class Sherman, Texas, became the first school ever to be managed by Edison. In 1999, Edison gave up and pulled out of its contract. From the start, Edison approached the situation in the manner of Microsoft approaching its competitors. “When I go to a car lot,” said Phillip Garrett, the former assistant superintendent in Sherman, “I know the guy is going to exaggerate what he says about a car. These guys were doing it with schools. It wasn’t dishonest. But it was a sales pitch, a high-pressure, slick sales pitch” (Sudetic).

Apparently, everything went downhill from there. According to their own accounting files, the district spent $2.6 million more than it would have without Edison. Test scores failed to rise, teachers quit (the Dallas Observer notes that in one year Edison watched 23% of its teachers quit, twice the national average), and everyone in Sherman grew frustrated with the company. In 1999, Garrett co-authored a letter urging the superintendent to terminate the Edison contract, writing: “The history of the Edison Project in Sherman is one of promises broken, poor performance, and agreements violated.” It went on to call Edison’s record of low test scores “an embarrassment” (Sudetic).

The WMU report notes that even Edison’s own research found “that students are not being more successful with The Edison Project than they would be elsewhere.” The researchers from WMU found that achievement trends at Washington were generally negative. Edison, for its part, appeared unconcerned with Sherman’s problems. Garrett’s letter recorded their attempts to get help:

When we have expressed a concern to Edison officials about the performance of the schools under their control, their usual response has been to fly someone in from another part of the country to meet with us, fly back, follow up with a telephone call or two, and then ignore the problem. This may generate great revenue for the airlines, but it does nothing for the children of Sherman (Sudetic).

The letter came at a bad time for Edison; the company was about to launch its Initial Public Offer [IPO] on Wall Street, a chance for them to sell lots of stock and make lots of money. Edison, alarmed by Sherman educators’ hostile attitude, promised to pay the district $500,000 and cancel another $500,000 in debt owed to the company. Pleased, Sherman tentatively agreed to renew the contract, allowing Edison to claim in its IPO statements that it had never lost a contract. Several weeks later, Chris Whittle left a voicemail message for the superintendent notifying him that Edison was pulling out of Sherman.

5. NCLB: How Bright Our Children Is

“Laura and I,” George W. Bush told reporters during the 2000 campaign, “really don’t realize how bright our children is sometimes until we get an objective analysis” (“Gems”). Seeking to gain such an objective analysis for how bright the nation’s children is, one of Bush Jr.’s first acts as President was to enact into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2002, known as No Child Left Behind.

As noted, President Bush’s brother Jeb has, over the last few years, developed a program in Florida called “The A Plus Plan,” which can be seen as a kind of trial run for NCLB. Florida’s plan consists of four key components.

First, schools are graded on a scale of A-F. This grade is based on the aforementioned Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test [FCAT], weighted by the percentage of eligible students who take the test, as well as the amount of progress made in reading and math by the lowest 25% of students in the school. Once these grades are computed, results are reported in the media, published via “report cards” on the Department of Education’s website, and sent home to parents. It’s important to note again that this grade is based on the progress made by each school on the exam each year, not raw scores.

Part two is a voucher plan. If a school receives a failing grade for two of four consecutive years, parents of children in that school can receive a voucher (“Opportunity Scholarship”) worth almost $4,000 to use at a private school of their choice (or another public school that has received a grade of C or better).

The third component of the A Plus Plan is an end to “social promotion.” Each district is required to draft guidelines for each grade’s graduation; any student who fails to meet them cannot pass to the next grade. Additionally, any student who scores a 1 (of 5) on the reading section of the FCAT in third grade must be retained the following year. There is also a high school graduation requirement for the 10th grade FCAT.

Finally, A Plus requires increased certification standards and more stringent qualifications for entrance into colleges of education. Additionally, said colleges are rated on their performance, with the results published in college catalogues (Rosenthal).

When Jeb Bush ran for Governor of Florida in 1994, he proposed a much more comprehensive plan that would have abolished the Department of Education entirely and instituted a statewide voucher program. After losing that election, he toned down the package and found new support from various constituencies for his successful 1998 bid.

As noted, teachers object to the A Plus Plan because it encourages them to “teach to the test,” creating a de facto state-mandated curriculum; it introduces a system of sticks and carrots to an institution already suffering from poor funding and meager parental involvement; and since it does not measure students along their educational careers, it is measuring student results from one year to those of different students the following year. Ergo, schools wishing to receive high grades (and the reward money that accompanies them) must guarantee that each group of students learns more than the class that preceeded them (Billman). Furthermore, the A Plus Plan continues the long and colorful history of government demanding more from education without providing the funds needed to make it happen.

The sustainability of such a system is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the press. (It seems logical that at some point, a school will find the most efficient and effective methods of teaching possible; logic dictates that it will then be impossible to show improvement.) Nonetheless, the A Plus Plan has become a badge of honor for the accountability/voucher movement. Jeb Bush is lauded for his vision, and congratulated for the continual rise of FCAT scores.

Less often do we hear about Florida’s ranking in nationwide measures of student achievement. For instance, Florida ranks 46th in the nation on the Scholastic Aptitude Test [SAT], and in terms of per-capita education funding, Florida is 47th (Billman).

As Amrein and Berliner point out, the high-stakes nature of the FCAT and its consequences under the A Plus Plan make the temptation of ethical compromise financially irresistable. A principal in an Orange County elementary school was recently accused of changing test answers to raise scores (that year, her school went from a ‘C’ grade to an ‘A’, one of only 16 schools in the county to leap two letters). Researchers tell stories of low-achieving students who are advised to stay home on test day. Dwight Kiel, a political scientist and educational policy analyst at the University of Central Florida, notes that some schools were not reporting fights because doing so might hurt their grades (Billman).

A bit of personal reflection may be in order here. The 2000-2001 school year was my first in the classroom as an English teacher, and I spent it at Kanapaha Middle School in Gainesville, Florida. KMS is a lovely and relatively new school, with an excellent staff. The year before I arrived, the school had increased scores enough to earn an ‘A’ on the Department of Education’s report card. The “school recognition” money given to the school during my first year was passed along to the teachers. (Having had nothing to do with this process, I gave my share to the custodial and kitchen staffs.) At the end of the school year, we learned that our school had dropped from an ‘A’ to a ‘C’, since we had not made sufficient progress in improving test scores. The principal called us into an after-school staff meeting and explained that she was quite proud of our achievement, and that our scores hadn’t actually gone down.

Still, as happens with students’ grades, the ‘C’ that the school received stuck out in everyone’s mind. Regardless of our own egoistic visions of our quality as teachers (and as a young upstart renegade educator, I had plenty), we couldn’t help feeling as though we had failed to give our students the best. There would be no recognition money the next year; no celebratory accolades from local newspapers or politicians. We had supposedly become average (a ‘C’ is, after all, in the middle of the scale), but it felt worse. I could only imagine how a hard-working teacher at a school that received an ‘F’ must feel.

But sentimental melancholy cannot be a part of any Presidential candidate’s platform, so George W. Bush took his brother’s program to the next level and brought it to the nation in the form of NCLB.

Like the A Plus Plan, NCLB requires testing — lots of testing. In fact, NCLB requires every student to be tested every year in grades three through eight. Furthermore, the previously voluntary National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] is now required by federal law every two years in grades four and eight. (Berliner jokes that the program should be called No Child Left With A Behind “because we’re going to test their butts off.”) As with Florida’s program, NCLB tabulates test scores and issues reports based on school progress. In response to some of the complaints in Florida, however, President Bush focuses on getting schools to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” [AYP] instead of labelling them as “passing” or “failing.”

However, the consequences are very similar to Florida’s; in some cases, they are more strict. Any school that fails to make AYP must be placed in “school improvement status,” with requirements as to how federal money is spent, and — like in Florida — allowing for school choice vouchers (if the state allows them). Continuing failure to make AYP in successive years brings even more penalties, including “corrective action” and mandatory restructuring (National Education).

In January 2003, the Center on Education Policy issued a comprehensive report on the NCLB’s first year. Although generally very supportive of NCLB, the report warns that Bush and his colleagues “have made lofty promises for the success of this initiative, while generally underestimating the magnitude of change that must occur in American public education to bring about those promises.” The CEP notes that the law’s many requirements may kill support for Bush’s policies if they are imposed too strictly.

The report goes on to point out that most states are facing dire economic straits, and are therefore ill-suited to meet the NCLB’s many requirements:

If federal education funding for fiscal year 2003 provides only the modest increase proposed in the President’s budget, states and school districts will be hard pressed to carry out the many new demands of NCLB. Without substantial new federal funding in the coming years, it will be difficult for states and school districts to meet the ambitious goals of the Act. . . (Center).

If NCLB has found a lukewarm reception among educators and policy analysts, it is winning political points for President Bush. A CBS News/New York Times poll in May 2003 found that 38% of Americans though the GOP was the party most likely to improve education — not typically a selling point of Republican candidates. To help increase these numbers, the Department of Education has spent $500,000 to assemble an eight-member public relations team to cheerlead for the NCLB initiative. Among other activities, the group sends out daily NCLB “extra credit” reports with positive factoids about the legislation and its effects.

Ultimately, arguments for and against NCLB mirror closely those for and against the business model in general. Proponents insist that public schools are in crisis and must be brought to task through accountability and punishments; opponents declare that resources and community involvement are key to success in the schools.

There can be no question that teachers must expect the best from their students. Some teachers and schools don’t demand as much as they should. Educational structures of grade point averages and tracking can lead to lowered expectations among teachers, parents, and students; obviously this is unacceptable. But, as Donald B. Gratz points out in a recent EducationWeek commentary, “there is an enormous difference between expecting every child to succeed and requiring that success. . . . Standards and expectations, while often used interchangeably, are not the same thing.”

Legislation that mandates high student achievement often becomes punitive, as the NCLB does when it denies thousands of high school seniors the right to graduate — even though they fulfilled all other graduation requirements — on the basis of one standardized test. The irony of this law and others like it, notes Gratz, “is that they assure that many children will, in fact, be left behind.”

6. A Word From Our Sponsor: Commercial Classrooms

As we all know, the main priority for business institutions is to make money, and advertising is the best way to make it happen. For businesses that target children, this is especially hard to do. Kids are surrounded by individuals and institutions that get in the way of advertisements, and children themselves seem to be developing a kind of immunity to commercials.

At the same time, reaching young people is especially important to advertisers. “If you own this child at an early age,” explains Mike Searles, ex-president of the retail clothing outlet Kids-R-Us, “you can own this child for years to come” (Ruskin). A residual benefit of advertising toward kids is that they will influence their parents. “We’re relying on the kid to pester the mom to buy the product,” says Barbara A. Martino, a vice-president in Grey Advertising Inc.’s 18 & Under division, “rather than going straight to the mom” (Leonhardt and Kerwin).

In an effort to reach these kids, advertisers have begun setting their sights on one of society’s last bastions of non-commercialism: the public schools. Through a wide variety of tactics, businesses are finding innovative ways to “own children at an early age.”

One common tactic is for businesses to create Sponsored Educational Materials [SEMs] for use in the classroom. Nike has developed a “sneaker-making kit,” which guides teachers and students through the academic rigors of footwear construction. In February 2000, McDonald’s announced the launch of its “McEducator Tool Kit,” which is designed to “help high school students further their education and find work,” presumably at McDonald’s (“McDonald’s”). McDonald’s also guided students at Pembroke Lakes elementary school in Broward County, Florida through a series of projects designed to help students further their education. The seven-week course taught kids how to design a McDonald’s restaurant; how a franchise is run; and how to apply for a job at McDonald’s. Ten-year-old Travis Licata summarized the benefits of the program by saying: “If you want to work in a McDonald’s when you grow up, you already know what to do” (Wechsler).

Corporate sponsorship also appears in general course materials. One math textbook from McGraw-Hill presents this question: “The best-selling packaged cookie in the world is the Oreo cookie. The diameter of an Oreo cookie is 1.75 inches. Express the diameter of an Oreo cookie as a fraction in the simplest form.” Other problems in the book feature product placement for Nike, M&M/Mars, and McDonald’s. Amazingly, McGraw-Hill did not receive compensation from these companies (Molnar).

Another powerful tactic in the schools is the advent of exclusive contracts for certain products. Soft drink manufacturers have charged into public schools with these agreements, under which a school district agrees to stock only one kind of beverage, in exchange for funding assistance or free machinery. Rhode Island high school student Kelly Mullen points out that this causes a massive increase in soda consumption because “there’s really nothing else to drink” (Molnar). Reebok and other apparel manufacturers have also signed such agreements with schools’ athletic departments.

Then, of course, there is the matter of straightforward advertising in the schools. Cover Concepts, a company launched in 1989 and purchased by Primedia (who also owns Channel One) in 1997, produces advertisement-laden book covers and distributes them, free of charge, to schools. Advertisements also appear on bulletin boards (my own high school featured such ads); on school websites; and in student planners (Molnar and Reaves). When objections were raised to such advertisements by parents in the Grapevine-Colleyville School District in Texas, a district communiqué noted that “a managed advertising program safeguards student exposure to ads” (Molnar).

Companies also offer economic incentives to school districts for pushing their products. Coca-Cola, for instance, sponsored a national contest in 1998 which offered $10,000 to the high school that developed the best way to market Coke-sponsored business discount cards (local Coke bottlers offered additional incentives). Greenbrier High School in Evans, Georgia, dreamed up an elaborate schoolwide plan to win the contest: it sponsored “Coke in Education Day,” which included economics lectures by Coke executives; a home economics project featuring a Coca-Cola cake; and a Coke-related chemistry assignment. I swear I’m not making this Education Day up.

The apex of this corporate celebration, however, was a photo opportunity wherein every class was ordered to stand in a special formation to spell out the word “Coke;” seniors were the ‘C’, juniors the ‘O’, et cetera. When the cameras began clicking, however, senior Mike Cameron unveiled a Pepsi shirt and caused a near-panic. The principal, Gloria Hamilton, whisked Cameron to her office and chastised him for potentially costing the school a lot of money, then suspended him (Molnar).

But the award for most effective advertising strategy in the public schools must go to Channel One. Because Channel One requires a contract assuring that at least 90% of the students watch the entire broadcast — commercials and all — the program actually does what regular TV ads cannot. “The advertiser,” notes Joel Babbit, former president of Channel One, “gets a group of kids who cannot go to the bathroom, who cannot change the station, who cannot listen to their mother yell in the background, who cannot be playing Nintendo, who cannot have their headsets on.” Channel One, of course, carries hidden costs, particularly in the form of lost instruction time; one estimate puts this as high as $1.8 billion each year (Ruskin).

But is this really such a big deal? Students are becoming less and less sensitive to ads, so who gets hurt if a company wastes money slathering their logo on school walls and textbooks and televisions and book covers and football fields and websites and planners? In truth, there are consequences, some of them very serious.

One immediate concern, especially as regards the type of advertising being done, is that of adolescent health. Fast food companies, soda manufacturers, and candy producers are among the most active participants in the advertising blitz of recent years, and this is having a significant impact on child health. A recent USDA report to Congress noted: “The USDA invests a significant amount of money in the school nutrition programs. The Committee is concerned about the effect foods sold in competition with the school meal programs may be having on the integrity of the programs” (“Foods”). The constant stream of ads in schools almost certainly contributes to child obesity, a serious problem that costs the United States almost $100 billion every year, according to a recent study (“Coalition”).

Furthermore, this onslaught of advertising takes away from the supposedly objective nature of the classroom. By allowing companies like Channel One and McDonald’s in, educators are in some ways giving up their control of the curriculum. What’s more, schools can be seen as supporting a company simply by allowing its ads. As Steven Kaplan, president of Sampling Corporation of America (which distributed 110 million product samples to 76,000 schools nationwide in 1994) puts it: “There is an implied endorsement from a trusted institution.” And the backdoors of school-based advertisements often bypass systems designed to protect young shoppers (Consumers).

One intriguing development in recent years is the decline of media reporting of commercialization in the schools. For the first time in ten years, media coverage of the trend went down during the 2000-2001 school year, leading to two possible explanations. Either students, parents and educators are getting used to seeing ads everywhere, and therefore it’s no longer newsworthy; or anti-commercialism activists have been successful in stopping the onslaught. Either way, Molnar and Reaves declare, “marketers almost certainly will return in greater numbers to concentrate on courting students — inside the classroom and out.”

7. The Big Picture: Context and Resistance

As with any institution, public education cannot be viewed in a vacuum. No discussion of our schools can be separated from the important issues of history, economics, politics, race, and gender. We must be mindful of where we’ve come from and where we are; only then can we get a clear picture of where we’re going (and where we might prefer to go).

Before I actually began teaching, I entertained visions of blasting my students into high gear with an energetic style and real-world applications of the material. I had high hopes of easily turning around low performance, especially for so-called “at risk” kids. What I found, however, was that these problems go much, much deeper than the surface of the classroom.

My high school students are surrounded by a vast carnival of pressure known as 21st century capitalist America. Most of my juniors and seniors have jobs (sometimes out of necessity, often not); the students are encouraged as soon as they enter high school to prepare for the high-stakes “real world,” since their grades and test performance will be recorded for future review. Nearly every decision is presented as in some way impacting their future career prospects (or lack thereof).

Very early in their lives, students become acutely aware of the true nature of reality in the world beyond the schoolhouse: Most adults in the U.S. do not read many books. A majority of eligible Americans don’t vote. Computers allow us to relinquish many of our mental responsibilities. Personal wealth is the standard measure of an individual’s value to society. Concern for others is a distant second priority to personal gain.

Thus, I have come to believe that the only way to effectively deliver high-quality education to those who need it most is to change the schools as we change the society as a whole. This is especially true of schools in poor neighborhoods and communities of color. How can I convince my economically disadvantaged students to work hard in school, when the only prospects facing them after graduation are minimum-wage service sector jobs?

Jean Anyon, in her book Ghetto Schooling, puts it this way:

The ultimate goals ought to be to redress the effects of destructive ghettoization of cities and their poorer residents, and to reduce or eliminate the political and economic isolation that produces such ghettoization. . . . To really improve ghetto children’s chances, then, in school and out, we must (in addition to pursuing school-based reforms) increase their social and economic well-being and status before and while they are students. We must ultimately, therefore, eliminate poverty; we must eliminate the ghetto school by eliminating the underlying causes of ghettoization (164).

Of course, public school educators have enough on their hands (especially with the increased testing standards imposed by NCLB) without also taking on the task of eliminating poverty and destroying institutional racism. Fortunately, individuals and organizations of conscience are showing a tremendous willingness to oppose the business model and defend the public school as a place where democracy comes first.

When asked what young people who believe in his vision of free-market education can do to promote it, capitalist guru Milton Friedman replied: “I think that the best choice talented young people can make is to teach. Those who have an entrepreneurial streak can set up private schools, which will be able to attract voucher students” (Kane). The obvious corollary, then, is that by choosing to teach in the public schools, we are by our very profession voting against greed as a driving force in the student mind.

Many teachers go further and declare their classrooms “profit-free” arenas, excising advertisements and turning down offers for corporate involvement. Some teachers find ways around Channel One; others lead media study units to make students aware of commercialism and its damaging effects.

Many administrators and politicians are also rallying to the defense of public education. The San Francisco school district has terminated its contract with Edison schools, citing its high cost and poor results (Sudetic). in 1990, New York state passed a law announcing the “Prohibition of commercial promotional activity in the public schools” (State). And a host of states including Georgia, Maine, South Carolina, and Iowa have adopted a set of eight “Principles for Corporate Involvement in the Schools,” which states in part: “Corporate involvement shall not require students to observe, listen to, or read commercial advertising;” “Programs of corporate involvement must be structured to meet an identified education need, not a commercial motive;” and “Corporate involvement programs should not limit the discretion of schools and teachers in the use of sponsored materials” (“Milwaukee”).

Teachers’ unions, too, are helping to stop the onslaught of business supremacy. Indeed, privatization advocates are especially spiteful when discussing the role of the union in impeding their desired reforms. The NEA has proposed to Congress a series of changes to NCLB, and continues to fight for more funding to schools struggling to meet its requirements. The AFT, meanwhile, keeps tabs on Edison, Inc. and issues frequent reports on the ups and downs of “school choice.” These national organizations are complemented by dynamic and impressive state and local unions, which reflect the reality of public education from those who are best fit to speak.

Even students — though they are derided as slackers in the media and branded as supposedly “apathetic” — are resisting. When Stonington High School in Connecticut sponsored a program very similar to Greenbrier High’s “Coke in Education Day,” featuring representatives from the McDonald’s corporation, sophomore Tristan Kading — a committed vegetarian — volunteered for a “mock interview” at a required assembly and announced “I hate large corporations like McDonald’s.” When the company rep explained that his response wouldn’t get him a job at the fast-food restaurant, he said: “Good, I don’t want to work at McDonald’s because they lied to Hindus and vegetarians about the beef flavoring in their French fries.” Kading was told he could either apologize to McDonald’s and the school, or be suspended (Kading).

Without question, there are people on the side of the business model who want the best for America’s students. But if a choice must be made between profits and quality education, such a paradigm dictates the former. Educators should never have to make such a choice.

While educational reform may be an election-year gambit for politicians and an ideological battlesword for pundits, those of us in the trenches know that the stakes are extraordinary. We see the enormous potential of the young minds entrusted to us, and we fear the damage that can be caused by the avaricious lust for profits. We wince when we see our hard work co-opted by the lords of corporate dividends, and we cringe when we watch them seduce the neediest students in order to launch successful IPOs.

We know that the fight for public education cannot be resolved in a single meeting, a lone ballot initiative, or an informational pamphlet. We continue to support public schools because they have a potential unlike any other institution in modern society — to help make America the place we know it can be. Only by remaining active in the fight against business dominance can we keep the focus of education on democracy and provide the opportunity that every child deserves.

The struggle goes on.

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