Schools, Business, and Market Thinking: Personal Experiences (Part 1)

Touting schools as crucial to the nation’s economic productivity and growth dates back to the 1840s. School reformer Horace Mann published data then showing educated workers (with a few years of elementary school) were better in their jobs than those with no schooling.

A half-century later, industrialists deeply concerned about competing globally with British and German products, mobilized educators and voters to see schools as places for producing skilled workers. Political coalitions promoted vocational preparation as a goal for public schooling.

And since the 1970s, a steady drum-roll of reports, lobbying groups, and legislation has focused on K-12 schools and higher education as batteries for recharging a sluggish economy to compete in the global marketplace. Contemporary reformers would applaud a group of Boston businessmen who said in 1845  that:

…[I]ndustry is served and the wealth of the country is augmented in proportion to the diffusion of knowledge, so that each humble school-house is to be regarded, not only as a nursery of souls but a mine of riches (p.570).

So intense pressure on schools and colleges in the early 21st century to graduate knowledgeable and skilled young men and women who can enter and thrive in an information-driven economy has two-century old roots in beliefs that schools are good for business and the economy. Nothing new here.

What is of more recent vintage, however, is the strong advice from policy elites that schools can learn from successful businesses and should be more business-like.  In subsequent posts, I want to take up this idea of schools being like businesses as filtered through my experiences growing up and as an educator and the larger issue of how market-driven thinking–everything has a price and is for sale–has pervaded school reform.


When I was a teenager growing up in Pittsburgh (PA), the idea of going into business for myself (as my father and older brothers had done) or working for a corporation (as some of my friends eventually chose to do) was missing from my picture of the future. As the third son of immigrant parents and the first in the family to attend college I believed in the American Dream. My hard-working father rented and then owned a truck to sell pickles, salami, and cheeses to Mom-and-Pop stores in western Pennsylvania.  He tried again and again to get a handhold on the lowest rung of the middle-class ladder, sometimes reaching a higher rung and then slipping back.

As the youngest son in the family who finished high school with a mediocre record and did not face an immediate decision to enter the U.S. military—my older brothers had graduated high school and were drafted immediately into World War II service—I, like my closest friends, enrolled in a college a trolley-car ride away from home. l  worked various part-time jobs for four years to pay for school and graduated in 1955 in the midst of an economic recession with a degree in history and a license to teach.

As a teacher in ghetto schools between the mid-1950 and the early 1970s, I hardly thought about whether schools were business-like; what was on my mind was getting by financially.  My first job as a teacher in 1955 paid me $2000 a year (worth $17,000 in 2012 dollars). By the time I got married and had a family in 1962, I was earning $6000 a year, an amount my Depression-scarred father had predicted would make me and my family comfortable. He was wrong. My wife and I struggled to make ends meet.

Beyond economic pressures, my main concerns were becoming a good teacher, being a decent husband to my wife and father to my daughters, and staying in touch with close friends. Thoughts about business were distant from my life as a teacher, husband, and parent save for those moments when I and my wife became fed up with the ways that a consumer culture and ads engulfed our daily life, paying ever increasing prices for essential goods, and reports of corporate executives buying political favors.

I stayed in urban high schools teaching history for 14 years and moved on to different posts as an educator. For four years, I helped prepare  returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in ghetto schools, went on to be a district administrator in a large urban school system for two years, and superintendent of a small city for seven years. I then moved to a university as an historian of education and policy researcher for two decades. These experiences have further shaped my perspective about whether schools are like businesses.

Although I was entrepreneurial in scrounging resources from superiors, foundations, and colleagues, I did it less to secure additional financial rewards and more to strengthen my own teaching and work. I believed that the resources I mobilized would help my students, my programs, and later, my district. If these efforts also enhanced my reputation as an educator and helped me better provide for my family, fine.

Disentangling the mix of motives for choices we make after they have been made risks trying to appear far nobler and better than one is. So be it.

Where I had the most contact with business leaders was as superintendent of the Arlington County (VA) public schools (1974-1981), a period marked by two recessions, high unemployment, and staggering inflation. I take that up in the next post.


Filed under Reforming schools

7 responses to “Schools, Business, and Market Thinking: Personal Experiences (Part 1)

  1. Cal

    Off topic, but I somehow missed that you grew up in Pittsburgh, as did my father and his five brothers and sister, at roughly the same time. Bill Lerach (as in, the lawyer who got in a whole bunch of trouble ) is a second cousin and went to your college alma mater as well, but I think a few years later.

    So you know my last name, and if you happen to remember any people with that name from your high school days, I’m probably related to them. Pittsburgh is a big part of my family history, even though we’re out here now. Go Steelers.

    PS–got a job.

  2. larrycuban

    Ah, a Pittsburgh connection. Thanks, Cal, for pointing out the link with your family (and Bill Lerach). I am delighted that you will be teaching (or have already begun teaching). If you are up to clicking away for another guest post, let me know.

  3. Cal

    I’ve got some thoughts–don’t start school until 9/5, so am spending a lot of time in Starbucks writing. I’ll run some of them by you when they get in shape.

    I don’t have any comments on this post yet becasue I’m waiting to see part II. It’s very interesting.

    (In reading my post, I realize my identifying terms for Bill Lerach sound more seedy than I wanted to–he’s an extremely nice man that my dad and uncles are very close to. They all went to Perry High School, if you know it.)

    • larrycuban

      That’s good news, Cal, about the job. Attaway!

      Not to worry about your characterization of Bill Lerach. I had forgotten about his fame as a class-action lawyer and then what subsequently occurred. As for your Dad’s family going to Perry high school, it was on the Northside of Pittsburgh, across the Allegheny River while I grew up on the Eastside and went to schools in the Hill District, Greenfield, and Squirrel Hill, closer to the Monongahela River–I do like even typing those names out: they bring back fond memories.

  4. Pingback: this week’s reading list « Learning: Theory, Policy, Practice

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