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The Business Model Won't Fix Schools

September 03, 2000|Dorothy Shipps | Dorothy Shipps, assistant professor of education at Teacher College, Columbia University, and a Carnegie scholar, is co-editor of "Reconstructing the Common Good in Education."

NEW YORK — Looking to business is nothing new in education. Turn-of-the-century school reformers promoted the prevailing corporate governance models of their day: centralization, professionalization and scientific management--using management techniques to discover the "one best way." That quest for efficiency produced today's problems, notably the rigid bureaucratic structure of school systems. This history--and contemporary evidence--cautions that the long-term consequences of business experiments are less understood than their advocates imagine.

Education reformers today take for granted that ideas borrowed from business will improve schools. Some seek greater efficiency through decentralization. Others imagine that outsourcing the management and operation of schools to the private sector will lift educators' performance, because incentives are lacking in secure government jobs. Charter and voucher advocates take the business metaphor one step farther, contending that salvation lies in an education marketplace in which parents are consumers and schools compete for students.

Corporate leaders encourage such thinking. Hailed as victorious generals in the battle between capitalism and socialism, they use their increasing moral authority to define the goals and methods of public schooling. Many espouse a millennial vision linking education and global free markets. Education, they tell us, will hedge our national bets in the international competition for market share and predict which students will become good employees.

When politicians join corporate executives, schools are treated as engines of economic development. Mayors and governors, accustomed to maximizing incentives to attract jobs to their cities or states, add their support to the business model for schools. The management solutions proposed, in turn, reinforce the aims of market expansion; school policy becomes labor policy.

Chicago is a clear example. The city's corporate leaders backed the law that put the mayor in charge of the school system, and their access to him gives them strong influence over policy, like bottom-line, high-stakes testing and management training for principals.

This might benefit the economy if evidence suggested a downturn could be avoided by improving school management. It might benefit schools if we knew that management solutions could turn them around. But despite widespread acceptance by opinion leaders and policymakers, what researchers claim to know about the connection between education and the economy is mostly speculation. There is no clear-cut evidence that improvements in school efficiency protect against declines in the business cycle or increase economic productivity. Retooling the management of schools, despite its popularity, has never been shown to improve outcomes for kids.

Even if you accept the idea that adopting unproven reforms is a risk worth taking given the number of failing schools, troubling problems in the corporate reform strategy are already apparent. One is that the corporate strategy pits market against government and reduces education to its narrowest economic purposes, crowding out other important goals. According to a 1992 survey, corporate executives want schools to emphasize "a basic understanding of math and science" and "sound work habits such as self-discipline, timeliness and dedication to work." These are a small fraction of what other Americans expect of schools.

Building just and tolerant communities, reducing distrust of one another and our shared institutions, safeguarding democratic ethics and introducing children to the cultural wisdom of the world are but a few goals that Americans invoke when polled. All these are neglected in the corporate model of reform.

The corporate model also undermines what Americans want schools to teach. When competition is the guiding principle, high-stakes criteria of accountability trump everything else. We already see a rise in cheating; two-thirds of teenagers now report it is a serious school problem. Winning at any cost is an odd lesson to stress when most Americans agree that honesty tops all other values they want schools to reinforce and when many are genuinely alarmed at the increasing cynicism and mistrust youth have for our common institutions.

Another disturbing consequence of the corporate model is the anemic citizenship that the economic worldview encourages. Americans ask schools to turn out citizens who vote, pay taxes, join organizations and actively engage in civic life. Yet, the corporate model of reform encourages students (and their parents) to focus on immediate individual rewards at the expense of cooperation, collaboration and other shared experiences that build social cohesion and strong communities. Fostering extreme individualism through competition and strict management accountability exacerbates a pattern of civic disengagement that researchers are finding more widespread today than at any time in the last century.

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