Giving Schools The Business

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Since the turn of the century, the corporate world has guided American education. Is that best for kids?

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. When I did my research in the bowels of Cornell's Mann Library, reading books, articles, and primary sources from more than 80 years ago, I was stunned by the contemporary ring of the charges of school failure and the call for school reform. One example comes from Frank Vanderlip, a man who at the turn of the century was poised to become the president of the largest bank in the nation. In 1905, he tied the economic prowess of Germany to that country's educational system, which was essentially vocational education for the masses. According to Vanderlip, the schoolmaster held the keys to Germany's economic success.

The president of the New York Central Railroad, W.C. Brown, shared this opinion. He warned 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, too. Spurred on by the Smith-Hughes Act passed by Congress in 1918, vocational edu-cation quickly spread throughout the United States.

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 researchers have since spent time studying precisely how the Japanese schools operate--assuming a priori that 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--either through a longer school year, multifarious school-to-work programs, or national standards.

Throughout the century, seemingly different reforms have generally shared the same purpose and relied on similar means to fulfill that purpose. Most major reform proposals have aimed to produce graduates ready to be employed by our nation's businesses and industries. And these blueprints have been modeled on corporate attempts to root out waste and improve performance in industry. Indeed, many school reformers have had strong ties to the business world, 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 powerful forces shaping the environment in which our children have been educated over the past 100 years.

In 1916, Ellwood P. Cubberley, one of this century's most influential school reformers, wrote in his 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."

The school-as-factory model has flourished ever since. In the national crisis of confidence following the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Cubberley's "specifications for manufacturing" required that schools produce more college-bound students headed for the field of engineering. During the recession of the 1980s, when Japanese quality circles, autonomous work teams, and Total Quality Management were seen as tickets to corporate success, the 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.

Indeed, throughout the 20th century, schools have been urged to function like businesses. Over the years, the business community has held 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. And in the 1960s, when teachers engaged in crippling strikes in order to become 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.

What my research uncovered is the déjà vu quality of contemporary school reform. 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 envision publicly funded school systems structured to ensure that educators' efforts be centered on doing the right thing for the children, where the energy and resources would be spent on realizing each child's special gift. It's a simple wish, but one I fear cannot be realized within the existing school enterprise, with its quasi-corporate organization and its primary goal of preparing children for their roles in the nations' workforce.

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 how business interests influence our schools. But think, too, about how it will affect the little boy or girl who lives down the street or even 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 around us, and democratic living with other complicated human beings. After all, isn't that what education in this country ought to be about?

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

Vol. 10, Issue 3, Page 48

Published in Print: November 1, 1998, as Giving Schools The Business
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