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Why education activists are furious at ExxonMobil’s CEO

Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of ExxonMobil. (Bloomberg News)

Some education activists are furious at Rex Tillerson, the chairman and chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, for remarks he made about public schools — and one activist teachers organization is calling for a boycott of the petroleum giant.

Tillerson’s 2014 comments were part of a new Fortune magazine article about the Common Core State Standards, titled “Business Gets Schooled,” that details the involvement of big corporations in the Core initiative, saying, “In truth, Common Core might not exist without the corporate community.” In the article, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is described at one point as attempting to persuade Charles Koch to stop funding right-wing groups who were fighting the Core — an expression of how surprised business leaders were when the right began to oppose the Core.

[How Bill Gates pulled off the Common Core revolution]

The article, by Peter Elkind, is subtitled “When Exxon Mobil, GE, Intel, and others pushed for the education standards, they incurred the wrath of Tea Party conservatives and got a painful lesson in modern politics.” It says in part:

It was a strange thing indeed to hear Rex Tillerson, CEO of Texas-based Exxon Mobil, bemoaning his impotence at a 2014 panel discussion in Washington, D.C.  But such is the frustration of serving on the frontline in this war. Like other CEOs engaged in education reform, Tillerson sees high national standards as a “business imperative.” Companies simply can’t find enough skilled American workers.
But Tillerson articulates his view in a fashion unlikely to resonate with the average parent. “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer,” said Tillerson during the panel discussion. “What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation.”
The Exxon CEO didn’t hesitate to extend his analogy. “Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?” American schools, Tillerson declared, “have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.”

Activists were swift in their condemnation. The job of public schools is not, they say, to supply a workforce for Big Business, but, rather, to educate young people to participate fully in American democratic society.

The Badass Teachers Association issued a press release that called for a boycott of ExxonMobil products. It said in part:

“As a public school teacher, let me be clear: my students are not products. Education is not about turning children into widgets for big business. It is about readying children for life, and that includes so much more than the tiny and inhuman vision of people like Rex Tillerson. Hands off my students, my daughter, and my country!” demands Steven Singer, parent, teacher, and public education activist.

I asked ExxonMobil if Tillerson would comment. He did not (nor did he speak with Elkind), but William F. Holbrook, corporate media relations senior adviser at ExxonMobil, sent an e-mail that said:

We’ve focused on education standards and Common Core implementation because students in the U.S. rank 31st in the world in math, 24th in science, and 21st in reading. Those results demand attention. To underscore what we’ve been saying publicly for some time, all children, regardless of where they live, must receive the best education possible for the United States to remain competitive globally, and the Common Core standards provide a clear and consistent expectation for what students should learn at each grade level to prepare them for high school, college, and their careers.

The comment refers to U.S. rankings on international standardized tests that critics point out have always placed American students in general at no better than average — even years ago when the public school system was not under attack as it is today. They also say the exams are flawed in many ways and that direct comparisons from country to country aren’t valid.

[PISA’s potentially dangerous problems — and what to do about them]

Holbrook also pointed to several pieces on the ExxonMobil website that speak to the company’s commitment to the Common Core and to improving public education by supporting math and science programs, including three speeches by Tillerson:

He also pointed to information about ExxonMobil’s support for education beyond Common Core standards, including being a  founding sponsor of the National Math and Science Initiative. He said that in 2014, ExxonMobil provided more than $50 million worldwide to colleges, universities and other organizations that support higher education.

In the next post, you can read a letter to Tillerson from Carol Burris, who is the executive director of the non-profit Network for Public Education Fund.

Dear Mr. Tillerson of ExxonMobil: ‘Please leave our children alone’

She retired this year as an award-winning principal at a New York high school and is the author of numerous articles, books and blog posts (including on The Answer Sheet) about the botched school reform efforts in her state.

(Correction: Fixing Bill Gates’ title)