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Keep Business Leaders on a Short Leash in School Reform

When Geoffrey Canada urged business leaders at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce luncheon recently to get involved in school reform or witness the decline of the country, his remarks were considered gospel. Yet what he said is hardly new and certainly exaggerated.

As Larry Cuban wrote in The Blackboard and the Bottom Line (Harvard University Press, 2004), there has been a "century-long prickly relationship between educators and business leaders over school reform and their contrasting assumptions about what is needed to improve schools." Business participation in public schools is characterized by "many examples in which reformers have exerted various degrees of control over teachers."

In 1909, Ellwood P. Cubberley, professor of education at Stanford, said: "Whether we like it or not, we are beginning to see that we are pitted against the world in a gigantic battle of brains and skill, with the markets of the world, work for our people, and eternal peace and contentment as the prizes at stake." Echoing this view, in 1989, David Kearns, CEO of Xerox, said: "We can't have a world-class economy without a world-class workforce, from senior scientists to stock clerks. And we cannot have a world-class workforce without world-class schools."

Yet despite these voices of doom, the U.S. still is rated No. 1 in competitiveness by the World Economic Forum. How is this possible if public schools are as dreadful as critics, including Canada, claim? I keep coming back to what I consider the best answer: According to Singapore's Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the U.S. has a talent meritocracy, while other countries have an exam meritocracy. So, although our students test worse, they do much better in the real world. Which is more important in the final analysis?

None of this is to suggest that there are no execrable schools. Whether we can agree with Education Secretary Arne Duncan's identification of 5,000 such schools is beside the point. What is indisputable is that virtually all the failing schools are in communities populated by impoverished families, whether in the inner cities or in rural areas.

Their number is growing. The latest Census Bureau report said that one of five children in this country is living in poverty. This is an appalling finding. Finland, for example, whose schools are widely considered the best in the world, has roughly three percent in poverty. At the Denver luncheon, Canada said that close to 70 percent of black males who don't graduate are unemployed and 30 to 35 percent of them will end up incarcerated. What he didn't say is that manufacturing and construction, two industries which have been hardest hit by the Great Recession, employed many black workers. So is the problem economic or educational?

If it is economic, business leaders can certainly help by creating jobs and paying their new hires a decent wage. They can also help by not opposing the establishment of unions, which were responsible for the development of a robust middle class. By taking these steps, they will provide parents with the means to properly take care of their children.

Instead, what I see happening is the intrusion of large corporations into what is taught and how it is taught. On Nov. 22, for example, News Corp. announced the acquisition of 90 percent of ed tech company Wireless Generation for $360 million. Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO, said: "We see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching." Translation: Murdoch intends to get his hands on that pot of gold and make an obscene profit, even if it means destroying educational quality in the process.

That's why I urge hypervigilance to prevent business from taking control of public schools. As Jane Addams told a meeting of the National Education Association in 1897: "The business man has, of course, not said to himself: 'I will have the public school train office boys and clerks for me, so that I may have them cheap,' but he has thought, and sometimes said, 'Teach the children to write legibly, and to figure accurately and quickly; to acquire the habits of punctuality and order; to be prompt to obey, and not question why; and you will fit them to make their way in the world as I have made mine.' "

I hope that the modern version of Addams's remarks in the form of standardization and efficiency is not what Canada meant when he beseeched the business community in Denver to get involved in school reform.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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