The Business Lobby Takes a Beating

By Sean Cavanagh — February 06, 2009 3 min read
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Since I write about math and science education, I spend a good amount of time reporting on topics where elected officials, influential advocacy groups, and big businesses seem to speak with one voice—agreeing, to a large extent, about middling U.S. performance on international tests, unfocused math and science curriculum, poorly trained teachers, and the need to help prepare students for crucial subjects, like algebra, which are springboards to more advanced studies. The general thinking on a lot of these issues is that schools can and should be listening to the business lobby. After all, employers presumably know what skills students will need for the workplace, and where high school graduates are falling short now.

But as the nation’s economic crisis worsens, it sure looks as if the public’s resentment over a seemingly endless succession of business scandals, corporate bailouts, and investor rip-offs is spilling over into the world of education.

You see it in the blogosphere, in comments to this blog and others, when somebody touts the supposed wisdom of the business community in promoting one K-12 innovation or another—and you’ll find a response along the lines of, who’s the genius who thought of that?

You read it in commentaries like this one, from Carl Glickman, in a recent commentary in Phi Delta Kappa:

“We feel compelled to report to the American people that the business and financial foundations of our society are currently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—companies that extolled themselves as models of excellent practices have deceived the American people with sloppy, undisciplined, and greedy practices that are driving Americans out of their homes, threatening their retirements, and dashing their hopes of a financially secure future. Indeed, if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre corporate financial performance that exist today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

“Business has allowed this to happen, with greedy CEOs and upper management taking enormous benefits for themselves while preaching and dictating to schools the need to adopt their “sound” business practices of unbridled free markets, privatization strategies, and the notion of competition as the force for change. Taxpayers are now bailing out some of these companies, whose CEOs have been actively involved in dictating to policy makers that America’s schools should model the management style of the private sector.

“God forbid that our schools become more like these kinds of businesses! Our business and financial communities have, in effect, been committing rash, thoughtless acts of unilateral financial disarmament, dragging our citizens and their children into economic insecurity while having many of these same citizens pay the bill.”

If the language sounds familiar, that’s because Glickman is riffing on the tone of A Nation at Risk, the seminal 1983 report that said U.S. schools were in crisis.

You could take issue with Glickman’s ideas or his execution, but he’s expressing a point of view that, from my reading of things, is increasing as public anger grows. My question for readers—if you buy my premise—is this: Think back to previous periods when this country was slogging through a major economic downturn: the late 1970s, early 1980s. Was there any spillover, in the public’s or the education community’s view of the perceived wisdom of the business lobby’s K-12 ideas? Did it matter then? Will it matter now?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.