School & District Management Opinion

What Can Educators Learn from Business?

By Diane Ravitch — October 21, 2008 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I loved your last column. I really enjoyed your references to craft and tinkering. I admire hands-on work, especially since the only work I seem to do these days with my own hands is to type and occasionally to make a salad or scrambled eggs. I would only caution that handiwork, as satisfying as it may be, can never take the place of knowledge, the sort of knowledge gleaned from books and study of the experiences of others. One’s own direct experience of the hands-on kind will take you just so far and no farther. We can’t learn history except by studying it; we can’t learn science except by mastering the knowledge that has been hard-won by scientists; we can’t learn philosophy other than by reading and discussing what we have read with others. As one of my intellectual heroes, William Chandler Bagley, wrote many years ago, knowledge for understanding, knowledge for interpretation, knowledge in depth requires much more than hands-on experience. It requires study (as you suggest with your list of 100 books) and concentrated effort.

Nonetheless, I reacted enthusiastically to what you wrote. Like you, I have been despondent about the decline of craft, especially in the arena that I know best, which is publishing. I can’t tell you how dispiriting it is to pick up a book or magazine or newspaper and come across errors of syntax and grammar, as well as just plain sloppiness. There used to be more spelling errors than now, but I attribute that not to an improvement in knowledge of spelling, but to spell-checking software.

One cause of the loss of knowledge, as you describe it in the auto industry and elsewhere, was the last generation of corporate raiders. Last summer, while preparing to write the book that I am now working on, I began plowing through books about American business. One of the most interesting was Connie Bruck’s “The Predators’ Ball,” where she explains how Michael Milken, the junk bond king, perfected the art of taking over corporations, turning them over to wealthy friends who knew nothing about the industry, and then disposing of their assets, with everyone but the consumers getting fabulously wealthy. I highly recommend this book, as it tells a fascinating and horrifying story of the destruction of many well-known American household brands by corporate raiders, motivated solely by unquenchable greed.

Another fascinating and horrifying story is Thomas F. O’Boyle’s “At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric, and the Pursuit of Profit,” which tells how Jack Welch transformed General Electric. What was once a household brand known by every American was converted to a financial services business, with profit as the only goal and the only value. If you read this book, you will see how sad it is that Jack Welch is now considered a guru of leadership, even, startlingly, in the field of education! (He was chairman of the board of New York City’s Leadership Academy to train new principals, perhaps teaching them the art of ruthlessness, an art that does not come naturally to educators.) GE was a “leader” in exporting jobs and manufacturing overseas and destroying a large sector of the consumer products industry in this nation.

This profit-driven mentality has infected education with the recent introduction of programs to pay students to show up for school and/or to get higher test scores. The rationale for such innovations is that students, like adults, should be motivated by greed, not love of learning. The same rationale is behind the current enthusiasm for performance-based pay for teachers tied to test scores. If we listen to the champions of these ideas, education can be reduced to the profit motive, and test scores are the profit.

The people who advance these ideas never stop to consider that the tests now in use are totally unsuited for these purposes, and that these programs are unlikely to succeed for a variety of reasons. I wrote a piece for Forbes last week on this subject. Such programs are inherently flawed because when the money stops, the motivation stops. Furthermore, they are unsustainable and cannot be scaled up, not only because they are very expensive when they go beyond the pilot stage, but because they will consume vast resources that could be better used to promote better instruction, better teachers, smaller classes, better facilities, etc.

Now that our economy has been plunged into crisis by bad economic and business decisions, we must recognize that education is a distinct profession, like medicine and the law. It has its own ideals and values. It cannot, should not, be run “like a business.” Or it will fail “like a business.”


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.