Going Corporate

Over at Brookings Darrell West has an interesting new analysis of the treatment of corporations in law school and b-school curricula. Basically, he finds that the idea of shareholder profit maximization as the most important corporate good is the dominant idea students are exposed to.  There’s more though so read the report.  A lot of implications for how corporations treat and are treated in American life, but two education ones worth mentioning.

First, I expect that in education benefit corporations or B-corporations will start to play a bigger role in the coming years.  It not only makes sense given the dynamics of much of the education industry (high barriers to entry, low-margins, etc…) but is just a better fit with what a lot of education businesses and innovators are about.

Second, for all the rhetoric about corporations and their influence in American education (and you’re sure to hear a lot of that this weekend) the impact is actually pretty modest.  Outside of infrastructure, publishing, and some service provision there is still relatively little for-profit activity.  Education still isn’t even a big focus of venture capitalists. The reasons for that are pretty obvious.  In fact, despite the rhetoric when you get below the big issues like standards or accountability I’d argue that one could level the exact opposite critique about business involvement in education – in no small part because of what West identifies.

At the state level there are some great business coalitions pushing for reform (CO, CA, and MA are three good examples) and obviously some current and former business leaders investing their own money in education reform, but in general businesses have a lot of items before state legislators and state government – various tax and fee issues, regulatory issues, etc… – and are strongly disinclined to antagonize state officials over schools at the expense of any of these other issues. In other words, business leaders are there for the top-line issues but when you get to the tough and more granular issues that really drive things – changing funding formulas to create more equity for low-income students, shutting low-performing schools, changing teacher evaluations etc…those issues are less of a priority relative to more immediate corporate concerns.   In an environment where corporations don’t see the special place they occupy in American law as anything special in terms of broader societal benefit that’s not surprising but also not a great state of affairs.  Unfortunately, in all the kill the corporations rhetoric in education today these issues get scant attention.

10 Replies to “Going Corporate”

  1. As a teacher attending the Save Our Schools Conference and March this weekend, I’d like to point out that a lot of us ARE concerned about the impact of business-minded people on education. But I, and many people like me, are far more concerned by the neoliberal ideology driving school reform than by greedy people getting rich off of poor children (although that is definitely happening too).

    The idea that merit pay, the elimination of unions, standardized test accountability, vouchers, charter schools, and the like are a positive way forward in public education doesn’t align with my experiences. It’s not that these ideas have no place in meaningful school reform, it’s that the way many of them are being used now are often more harmful than helpful.

  2. “in all the kill the corporations rhetoric in education today these issues get scant attention.” Good try at minimizing corporate greed, but Wall Street and corporate influence is insidious in education and growing.

    Corporations ARE exploiting the poor by forcing Teach for America neophytes and KIPP for-profit factory models on people of color.

    Why would lobbyists slip language into the law to loosen teacher quailty standards? or to open up public money to private companies?

    Corporations are investing in inner city schools and in poor communities where there is minimal pushback from parents and local communities. Robbing the public coffers for profit on the backs of poor kids is greed.

  3. “Corporations ARE exploiting the poor by forcing Teach for America neophytes and KIPP for-profit factory models on people of color. ”


  4. There’s an easy way to get at the truth. Find almost any well-educated citizen or “reformer” and find out if his children are in KIPP academies or schools that hire Teach for America recruits. The answer will not surprise you.

  5. James Boutin’s version of the concern about corporate influence as the influence of a certain wall st. based view of the world is the clearly the most persuasive. Reform ideas and people are shaped by their background, and not only or necessarily by a sneaky plot to make money.

    Still, if we can all see the influence of business on ed. reform language, what models are there that aren’t influenced by business? It seems to me that, in this country, the ideas about how you manage large organizations all come from business. There is the finance/shareholder model of b-schools, law schools, economic depts., and wall street mentioned in the post and the team spirit model of pop management theory (which I see on the bookshelf of leaders of schools and other nonprofits reformer or not). Even the unions seem to be pining for the old factory town model of the corporation as a social compact between labor, company, and community.

  6. David’s point is well-taken. I think there are indeed many lessons education can learn from business. There are, however, some things we have to be very careful about in applying business lessons to public education.

    1) It is simply and utterly inappropriate to assess the quality of a school solely on standardized test scores. Accountability is very important. But holding people accountable for inappropriate indicators of their quality will do nothing more than exacerbate the harmful forces acting on schools in impoverished communities.

    2) There are some tough problems that arise when we try to improve education by providing families choice in their school selection. Charters and vouchers have sometimes turned into monstrous systems that cheat poor children with no support from home more than they were cheated before. I sympathize with families whose neighborhood public schools are disasters. I believe the government should work to provide them with better places to send their children. But I have a hard time reconciling that sympathy with the disaster that’s occurred in places like New York City, where a system of choice has created a market place for children in which families with social capital fight for the best schools and schools with political capital fight for the best children. It doesn’t seem like anything but the increase of social inequality will come from such a system. Situations like this are what public services are designed to avoid.

    3) Incentivizing teachers with merit pay based on inappropriate indicators of their quality will similarly exacerbate harmful forces acting on impoverished schools. Although incentives are the key to effecting change in the free market and thus seem appropriate to transfer from the business world to public education, significant evidence is emerging that incentives (in education and in many fields) are far more nuanced than most of us understand. Polls show that teachers (more than more money) want support and respect. As a teacher, I can tell you that while I am mildly incentivized by money, I am far more incentivized by a student who thanks me for my dedication, the district acknowledging all of my hard work, or the belief that I’ve put together an excellent instructional unit that has impacted my students than an extra few thousand dollars at the end of the year. Research continues to show that merit pay for teachers based on test scores do not have the desired effect. Why we’re continuing to lump money on reforms that don’t seem to work is beyond me.

  7. I suppose the question is what to do instead. If I am a leader in a town or neighborhood with low incomes, test scores, grad rates, etc. and I want kids to get a better education, what should I push for? If KIPP comes along and wants to compete with the local schools, should I say no?

  8. My first response to this post was”We Americans are all capitalists like it or not”, which I would not have posted for its lack of added insight. Then I read David and James’ exchange and I am moved to comment: “What to do Instead” is the only thing we should be talking about. The fact is, we have rampant inequality in American education (see today’s Our Irrelevant Debates post) that we MUST address now. America’s children’s inequality of opportunity needs an immediate cure. We started The VIVA Project http://www.vivateachers.org because w believe classroom teachers have the answers. And, we’re frustrated at how much time is spent on debates that just don’t move the needle on student learning. Whether or not I agree with James that high stakes tests, charters or performance pay are corporate conspiracies or KIPP is the cure, I want to understand what produces successful learning (and its corollary effective teaching) and how we can ensure that it happens as much as possible in as many classrooms as possible. We’re busy asking teachers to work together and come up with specific actions and policies and we hope all the teachers in Eduwonk land will join the collaboration. In the mean time, as long as someone comes with an action plan that shows results, how can any school district leader refuse to consider it because it’s “capitalist” or “corporate” whether in administration or philosophy. Our children simply can’t afford the ideology. They need professionals to step up to the plate–instructional and administrative. And they need us in the public to hold those professionals feet to the fire. Now.

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