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Published in Print: September 30, 1998, as The 'Business' of Reforming American Schools


The 'Business' of Reforming American Schools

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In 1988, I took a leave of absence from my public school teaching job to pursue a doctorate in industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. I had been a teacher of young children for 14 years. Although I loved working with my students, the environment in which we had to work was almost antithetical to the complicated job of teaching and learning. The seemingly arbitrary and often counterproductive edicts that came from the central office or the state education department often wasted precious time. They diverted attention from the important work of tailoring instruction for my students. There seemed to be a rift between my goal of educating youngsters and the reality of the organization's functioning that made me question whether I could continue to teach. I left for Cornell unsure of my future.

I would like to share some of what I learned during my years of doctoral research. On a personal level, this knowledge allowed me to write a book and to return to my young students becalmed and focused on their needs. From a policy perspective, my unique angle of vision may inform and guide practitioners, researchers, and policymakers in their efforts to create school organizations that foster serious teaching and learning.

When I did my research in the bowels of Cornell's Mann Library, reading books, articles, and primary sources written more than 80 years ago, I was stunned by the contemporary ring of the charges of school failure and the call for school reform. A 1905 example comes from Frank Vanderlip, a man who was to become the president of the largest bank in the nation. He tied the economic prowess of Germany to the German system of education, that is, vocational education for the masses. According to Mr. Vanderlip, the schoolmaster held the keys to Germany's economic success. The president of the New York Central Railroad, W.C. Brown, joined in this opinion by warning that, should the American schools fail to provide vocational education, "it is only a question of time when this country must surrender its place as a leader among the great manufacturing nations of the world." The National Association of Manufacturers and the elite old guard of the National Education Association championed this argument. In short order, vocational education was widespread throughout the United States, spurred on by the Smith-Hughes Act passed by Congress in 1918.

Does this sound at all familiar? Think back to 1983, when A Nation at Risk asserted that "our once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world." The report likened our "mediocre educational performance" to an aggressive act by an unfriendly foreign power. The message was clear: Unless we overhauled our school system, we were essentially sealing our doom. We would lose our economic standing in a world of global competition. In the 1980s, Japan was seen as the No. 1 challenger to our nation's economic status. Many a researcher has since spent time studying precisely how the Japanese schools operate--assuming a priori their operation is directly linked to the performance of the Japanese economy. Just as American schools at the beginning of the 20th century were told to adopt vocational education based on the German model, schools at the end of the century have been told to fashion themselves after the schools of our economic competitors--be it a longer school year, multifarious school-to-work programs, or national standards.

Throughout the century, seemingly different reforms have generally had the same purpose and relied on like means to fulfill that purpose. Most major reform proposals have had the overarching aim of producing graduates ready to be employed by our nation's businesses and industries. The efforts to meet this goal have been modeled on corporate attempts to root out waste and improve performance in industry. Many school reformers have had strong ties to the business world. Some, in fact, have been businessmen, from J.P. Morgan in 1905 to Christopher Whittle in 1995. Reformers' reliance on business models of management and production processes has been one of the most long-standing, powerful forces shaping the environment in which our children have been educated over the last 100 years.

Much has been written since A Nation at Risk about how our schools are similar to factories, turning out grown children rather than manufactured products. Today there is much lip service paid to the idea that this is an inappropriate model. But listen to the rather present-day sound of this statement by Ellwood P. Cubberley, one of this century's most influential school reformers, in his 1916 treatise, Public School Administration: "Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down."

Isn't this the very model that is in operation today?

Corporate forms of organization, roles and responsibilities, as well as manufacturing processes, have consistently been proposed for use in education.

While the "specifications for manufacturing" may have changed from those demanded in 1916, the model has remained vigorous. In the national crisis of confidence following the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the factory model persisted throughout the reforms that followed. The specifications were altered, however, to require a larger output of college-bound students headed for the field of engineering. In the recession of the 1980s, when Japanese quality circles, autonomous work teams, and Total Quality Management, or TQM, were seen as tickets to corporate success, the school-as-factory model changed a bit. Schools were told to decentralize operations via site-based management in the hope of creating a new output: graduates who could work as team players to solve workplace problems. If you were wondering where the impetus for cooperative learning came from, you need wonder no longer.

Throughout the 20th century, the business community has been certain that schools would become more productive places if school managers used "universal" management principles developed in industry. Corporate forms of organization, roles and responsibilities, as well as manufacturing processes, have consistently been proposed for use in education. Thus, 80 years ago Ellwood Cubberley confidently recommended the corporate hierarchical form of organization for schools and "captains of education," that is, superintendents, to run them. Frederick Winslow Taylor's scientific-management principles--complete with time-and-motion studies--were applied in the classroom.

In the 1960s, when teachers engaged in crippling strikes in order to become co-equal partners with school management in deciding how education would proceed, industrial-relations experts crafted legislation that allowed teachers to bargain collectively--like factory workers-- over their wages, hours, and conditions of employment. Relying on the industrial model, issues such as what work would be done and how it would be accomplished were left untouched by collective bargaining.

In the 1980s, business consultants aimed to transform public schools into "high-performance organizations" by flattening Cubberley's model of bureaucratic hierarchy and the use of TQM. Adoption of this latest management theory promised greater school productivity as we approached the new millennium. The look of the school-as-factory model may have changed a bit, but the underlying business premise is ubiquitous.

Thus, my research uncovered the fact that the contemporary discussion on school reform is not new. It is a replay of a scenario that occurred 100 years ago: Our standing in the community of nations is threatened by the nature and quality of our schools. To ensure our position in the world we must make schools more like our most productive business enterprises and turn out youngsters ready to be employed. It's a simple diagnosis and prescription for treatment. Unfortunately, it has little to do with educating and nurturing our nation's children.

When I completed my doctorate in 1993, I returned to the place where I could teach children from all ethnic, racial, social, and economic backgrounds--the public school system. It was clear that despite the latest wave of reform that had washed over it, the system remained terribly misaligned with the needs of individual, unique, and growing youngsters. Rather than dwell on that misalignment, I decided to focus my efforts solely on doing my best to make each day a good day for every child in my class: a day that would help them leave our classroom more accomplished, thoughtful, and self-confident than when they entered.

In wistful moments, I sometimes envision a publicly funded school organization structured to ensure that each adult's efforts would be centered on doing the right thing by the children; where the energy and resources would be spent on realizing each child's special gift and helping all children conquer the things that they as individuals find difficult or even painful. It's a simple wish, but one I fear cannot often be realized in the school enterprise we have--one that is organized as a quasi-corporation, whose primary purpose is to make children ready for their eventual roles in the workforce of the nation.

So, the next time you hear of the newest research or recommendation aimed at reforming schools, think about the way it corresponds to how the business world operates and to what business wants from our schools. But think, too, about how it will affect the little boy or girl who lives down the street, or perhaps under your own roof. I suggest that the efficacy of any proposal be measured by how well it will allow that child to be educated--not only for the world of work, but also for the arts, serious inquiry, exploration of the world about us, and democratic living with other complicated human beings. After all, isn't that what education in this country ought to be about? Isn't that what every child deserves?

Denise Gelberg has been a classroom teacher for 20 years and currently teaches in the public schools of Ithaca, N.Y. She is the author of The 'Business' of Reforming American Schools (Suny Press, 1997).

Vol. 18, Issue 4, Pages 30,33

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