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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 08/25/2012

The creep of marketplace values into schooling

One of the biggest points of controversy in the modern school reform conversation is the role that business now plays in public education. While business involvement in schools has existed for a very long time, as shown in the following post by Larry Cuban, a former superintendent of Arlington Public Schools, the nature of that interaction has been changing.

In fact, now some school reformers insist that public schools should operate like for-profit businesses, a notion that critics say makes no sense for a civic institution and is damaging to the schools.

Here is a post by Cuban that was first published on his blog about school reform and classroom practice. Cuban was superintendent for seven years, a former high school social studies teacher for 14 years and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years.

By Larry Cuban

That big, middle-size, and small businesses were heavily involved in the Arlington public schools, an urban district across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. in the mid-1970s, was evident by the end of my first year as superintendent. The extent of business participation in Arlington differed little from that in other districts and mirrored arrangements made years before I was appointed.[i]

The Arlington School Board annually contracted for millions of dollars worth of items and services from local banks, food suppliers, and construction companies. From buying Worcestershire sauce to paying retainers to legal firms to using pest control companies, Arlington firms did business with the School Board daily.

Business leaders brought Junior Achievement programs into high schools annually. Local firms contracted with the district’s center for adult education to train and hire non-English speaking and low-income residents. Each of our three comprehensive high schools had vocational education programs that sent hundreds of students into local firms to work a few hours a day. The district’s Career Center enrolled 10th through 12th graders in over a dozen different programs that blended classroom and workplace training in construction, hospitals, motels, television studios, auto body shops, and beauty salons. A network of business-school contacts existed throughout Arlington that produced two-way traffic between classroom and workplace. The district celebrated local and national companies’ involvement with schools each June at luncheons at which I awarded prizes to top students while praising cooperating business firms.

There were also formal relations between school board and business leaders. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, which I joined in my first year as superintendent, represented small businesses, professionals, and corporate satellites’ in the city-county. Each year the Arlington County Chamber of Commerce presented at Board budget work sessions their views on next year’s expenditures and revenues. Their recommendations seldom varied in my tenure as superintendent: cut administrators, raise class size, reduce proposed teacher salary increases, drop bilingual programs, and get rid of “frills.”

For each of the seven years that I served, the Chamber of Commerce fought increases to the school budget, damned teacher salary raises, called for lower taxes, and criticized programs for non-English speaking children as costly extravagances. The Chamber did support the Career Center. After a few years of experiencing this pattern of treatment, I resigned from the Chamber. Adversarial relations between the Chamber, myself, and the School Board, however, had little effect on the richly textured relationship of the business community to the schools, as described above.

Finally, there was indirect business involvement through individual service of civic-minded corporate managers. Local business owners and executives often sat on board-appointed committees or served on advisory councils to neighborhood schools. Occasionally, firms would release employees to tutor students and participate in career days held in various schools.

Based on my Arlington experiences, I offer three obvious points about linkages between businesses and schools.

First, a school district is inevitably part of the business community as a tax-supported institution buying products and enlisting the help of companies to provide services.

Second, efforts to improve schools necessarily involves key business leaders because the school board is dependent upon the business community for tax-based revenues, expertise, and political support. Vital interests, however, clash when school officials seek more revenues to provide basic services by urging higher tax rates that clearly affect business profits.

Third, businesses’ direct and indirect involvement in schools may cause tensions simply because they differ in fundamental values. While schools seemingly behave as business organizations in many respects and even perform business-like functions (e.g., managing people, planning, providing services, and budgeting), they still are expected to meet public obligations and are held politically accountable for student outcomes — e.g., elections — an accountability mechanism absent from businesses.

Consider other distinctions between education and business. One difference resides in the values that attract individuals into varied occupations. What brings many people into teaching is serving the young. Like medicine, nursing, and psychotherapy, and social work, teaching is a helping profession. What keeps those who continue in their career as educators, however, is a complicated meld of private interests — job satisfaction, summers off, social status — and public values, one of which is influencing the minds, character, and lives of the next generation.

Those who enter and stay in business are driven by different values — not better or worse, just different. Love of competition, rising to the top of an organization, successfully building a business and reaping its financial rewards and helping others — all enter into the ineffable mix of motives and values that distinguish those who pursue business careers from those who stay in education. Rather than draw too sharp a contrast, there are educators who start businesses or join firms in sales, marketing, and managing. So, too, do corporate employees leave investment banking, marketing, and engineering to become teachers. A two-way traffic between business and education careers exists precisely because some people hold both kind of values and take risks to shift careers.

My experiences in Arlington with businesses, while revealing tensions and occasional conflict, have been bland compared to current back-and-forth criticism among policymakers and practitioners about “corporate reformers” and “privatization of public schools.” What is more disturbing, however, as I look back at my experiences as a teacher, administrator, and professor, is the gradual creep of marketplace values into schooling that go far deeper than charter schools, Teach for America, KIPP, and use of student test scores as the bottom line of schooling.

[i] I adapted this from Larry Cuban, “Corporate Involvement in Public Schools: A Practitioner-Academic’s Perspective,” Teachers College Record, 85(2), 1983: pp. 183-203.

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