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The Businessification of Public Education

Our educational leadership is failing our schools

· Leadership

There’s nothing new about the influence of business in education. Industry has always had an effect on what’s taught in the classroom. But one thing is ensuring education has ongoing reality checks to ensure the curriculum responds to contextual evolution. Another very different one is letting corporate leadership define educational priorities. Even worse is having educational leadership cater to business priorities when defining policies and priorities for public education.

The vision of the Virginia Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction

is to create, in cooperation with their partners, an excellent statewide system of public education that derives strength from our diversity and that ensures equity of opportunity for each student in a safe and healthy learning environment that prepares all students to be capable, responsible, and self-reliant citizens in the global society. Its mission is to develop, in cooperation with their partners, policies and provide leadership that improve student achievement and prepare students to succeed in postsecondary education and the workplace, and to become engaged and enlightened citizens (cursive is mine).

Indeed, partnerships with colleges, libraries, parent and community organizations and local businesses are important for the purpose of exchanging resources, services, and other forms of support that can benefit both partners. These partnerships can improve the educational opportunities of our children.

Unfortunately, it seems the vision and mission of Virginia's Capitol has become warped by the world view of business. Although the public education system must necessarily interact with various sectors of society and the general public in numerous ways, no outside force should move inside the system with vested interests. But that is exactly what seems to be the case: business has become the leading “silent” partner in our public education system.

The decision making process within the system is largely a political one. Legislators play a dominant role regarding curriculum, and decisions at all levels of government are, logically, influenced by varied concerns that can, unreasonably, lead public officials to use their position to influence or advance particular reforms. Within this “canvas”, governors have acquired increasing authority and influence regarding governance of state-level education. At the same time, corporations and their representatives have become increasingly involved in influencing education policy at local, state, and federal levels. In their pursuit of employees who possess the skills and knowledge needed by a productive workforce, businesses, individually and through organizations such as the Business Roundtable, habitually offer advice to elected officials regarding educational policies.

There is nothing wrong or reprehensible about business supporting better education and working with schools to improve the labor force. Education and employment readiness are key factors for sustainable and competitive business performance in benefit of economic growth. There’s also nothing wrong with educators encouraging partnerships with business as a way to diminish increasing conflicts between resources and educational goals.

What is wrong and reprehensible is for the “guardians” of equal and equitable education – legislators and public officials - to be “captured” by business interests and let them exert undue influence on the education system directly.

At last week’s business breakfast hosted by the Education and Innovation Committee of the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, the key note speaker was Dr. Megan Healy, Chief Workforce Development Advisor at Office of Governor Ralph Northam. This new Cabinet-level position was created by the General Assembly in 2018 to address the state's top economic development concerns. Her message: education should be driven by business.

I left the breakfast quite out of sorts. Education may be the greatest key to the success of both the individual and the business community. But that does not mean it should be driven by business or that the “business” of education is work. And I say this as a business owner and an educator.

Education and business have connections between them, of course, and share commonalities that in many ways overlap with each other. They both involve exchange but in different ways and for different purposes, because the nature of their function in society and the economy are different. Business engages in economic and contractual exchange of anything useful for benefit of the business and its shareholders. Education engages in intangible and benevolent exchange, transferring knowledge, skills, culture and values for the benefit of society.

Both business and education are also a means for achieving and maintaining social coordination and cooperation. But while business promotes coordination and cooperation with measurable value (e.g. wages, fixed assets, branding) through a market-pricing exchange, education promotes order over time through the exchange of knowledge, skills, culture, and values concerning subjects that enable cooperation and coordination both at a given time and between past, present, and future.

However, just as education has no business defining business policies and strategies, business has no business defining public educational policy and strategy. Nor do public education institutions have any business applying business goals in school to shift the purpose of education to labor force preparation or to promote top-down management and weaken unions. It is this type of policy that has increasingly reduced the curriculum to what is tested; has objectified teaching in a way that has demoralized teachers and degraded the teaching force; and has left schools with the social burden of poverty, drug abuse, violence, and hopelessness.

Although “partnerships” have become the new status quo for school-business cooperation, they have little to do with the volunteer programs of the fifties and sixties. Whether casual or formal, today’s partnerships are driven by business interests to generate better educated workers for the specific needs of business, not society in general. Business is going into schools with its agenda, and government is catering to that agenda by facilitating early business intervention in the educational process.

It is widely recognized that business support is often most effective in the area of vocational education. But that is not the typical area of support provided by businesses. The majority of programs supported by business are focused on math and science, with career awareness and civic education receiving the next greatest attention. Nothing's wrong with that, as long as it supports the curriculum. But few concrete programs can be found in reading, arts and humanities, drugs, dropout prevention, and assistance to the disadvantaged, all areas that become barriers to employment and that business complains about.

This is not to say that schools should turn away much-needed pragmatic support from businesses. They can donate or loan much-needed equipment and supplies. They can share employees and executives to help with school management. They can open up their doors to help teachers upgrade or develop new skills and learn about the labor market in their fields or to provide students with real-life applications of what they’re learning in school so they can make more informed decisions about their futures.

This is all well and good. But it’s too easy to forget that a presence in schools helps businesses improve their public image and strengthen their branding through a better understanding of their products and services. It also helps orient education towards the gaps that business itself has been unwilling to dedicate effort and resources to even as the gap between CEO and worker compensation has continued to grow. According to AFL-CIO Executive Paywatch. CEO pay for major companies in the United States rose nearly 6% in 2017 with the average CEO pay of an S&P 500 Index company is 361 times greater than what the average U.S. rank-and-file worker makes.

Public education is a mainstay of American democracy. But when a force as powerful as business moves into education territory, it’s not to volunteer or just “share” knowledge or in pursuit of a vision of education grounded in equity and respect for teachers. It does so in pursuit of its own goals and interests and, in doing so, pollutes the educational process.

It’s time federal, state and local government lead with faith in the value of public education by acting in the national interest. It is their responsibility to ensure that education makes a contribution to the well-being of society and the economy as a whole.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC,

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