Making Schools Business-Like: The Longest School Reform in U.S. History? (Part 1)

If A Nation at Risk is one book-end of the longest school reform. the other book end has yet to be put in place. Business-influenced school reform continues into the second decade of the 21st century stretching nearly four decades. Rivaling this long run of school reform is the Progressive era beginning in the early 1900s and lasting until the mid-1950s.

For the past four decades a cascade of school reforms borrowing heavily from the corporate sector have spilled over public schools in an effort to turnaround a “failing” system unable to keep pace with European and Asian schools as measured by international tests and strengthen a slacking economy.

Restructuring schools to become more efficient, introducing competition through giving parents more choices for their sons and daughters to attend school, raising graduation standards, installing rigorous curriculum, establishing high stakes tests and holding students, teachers, and schools responsible for higher academic performance cover just a handful of the state and federal reforms launched by both Democrat and Republican regimes eager to copy the policies followed by successful businesses since the mid-1980s.

I wrote about this business-inspired reform movement in a book called The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t be Businesses (2004). At the recent American Educational Research Association annual meeting in Toronto (Canada), there was a symposium on business influence since B & BL was published. New York University Professor Gary Anderson organized the symposium and asked me to comment on four papers written by young and mid-career scholars (Janelle Scott and Tina Trujillo from the University of California, Berkeley; Patricia Burch, University of Southern California; and Michael Cohen, University of Northern Colorado).

Of course, I was flattered to have four researchers look at the influence of business in the last decade and a half and judge whether what I saw in the early aughts of this century persisted, changed, or disappeared. I read all of the papers and made comments on them at the symposium.

What follows here is what I learned from these four papers.

1. Business influence has continued in proposing, adopting, and implementing reform policies since the early 2000s.

2. State and federal school officials continue to use business-inflected vocabulary and policies. They have integrated a mind-set that sees schools as economic engines for society and individual escalators for students to succeed in life.

3. Technology companies have come to exert great influence on schools and classrooms.

And it is this third point that I want to expand in this post.

That the business sector has influenced schools and classrooms, of course, is hardly news. Beginning in the 1890s and stretching through the 1930s, corporate leaders joined civic officials and educational policymakers to introduce vocational education to insure that high school graduates would be prepared to enter an industrial economy (see here and here). Moreover, the penetration of commercial curriculum materials and free items sent by business representatives to schools and in recent years, advertising in and around schools has been an ongoing issue contested by parents, school board officials, and independent critics (see here and here).

When I was writing B & BL Google was a fledgling company founded in 1998 and spending more money than the revenue it received. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were mere ideas incubating in the minds of their founders. In nearly two decades, these companies and thousands of others have entered the marketplace peddling their wares to individual customers, businesses, and, yes, schools.

The growth of ties between technology companies, schools and classroom teachers in the past two decades, however, has been swift and by 2019 noteworthy. Much of this high-tech influence grew as hardware and software became increasingly accessible to teachers and students through 1:1 programs and mobile carts in nearly all public schools.

With the spread of the “personalization” movement fueled by the ubiquity of devices and software, technology companies have profited greatly. Tech-driven businesses promise that students will have a rigorous curriculum tailored to their individual strengths and weaknesses meeting state standards and enhancing academic achievement (see here and here).

Oracle, the for-profit purveyor of business software, has built the $43 million Design Tech High School, a public charter school, on its campus.  High-tech companies invite teachers to become Ambassadors for their products to use in lessons, mention on social media, and speak about at conferences.

So since I wrote B & BL, the high-tech sector has had enormous influence over schools and classrooms. That is what I learned from the symposium I participated in early April 2019.

In Part 2, I will examine how Google has taken over the classroom.








Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology

6 responses to “Making Schools Business-Like: The Longest School Reform in U.S. History? (Part 1)

  1. Jim Masters

    So, from a corporate perspective, is there any difference between education reform and market development, access, and exploitation?

  2. Larry – sounds like symposium was a blast.

    I’ve wondered:

    “Raising standards” could easily described as borrowing from the environmental movement.

    “Increased testing” is a marker of the last century of medicine, just to give another example.

    Why have what these efforts you cite been rhetorically linked to “business”? Is it simply that politicians cited “run it like a business”….because they thought it was persuasive? And that often governors included business leaders on the various education boards involved?

    I guess I see many of the 6 examples you gave as having widely varied places from which those ideas come, not merely or mainly from “business” per se. In fact, businesses themselves seek to reduce competition (just like schools), often fight to reduce standards or evade accountability, etc.

    *Confession: I realize I could probably learn the answers to my own questions by reading your 2004 book!

    • larrycuban

      Not hard to make connection, Mike, to business leaders after A Nation at Risk report in 1983. The Business Roundtable’s recommendations for standards testing and accountability, the work of IBM CEO Lou Gerstner and the Summits of educators and CEOs and policymakers that he convened, the national goals movement under President Bush (the Elder)–all occurred in the the late 1980s through the mid-1990s and were hardly happenstance.The connection these leaders made between tougher schooling and a strong economy were explicit then as they have been since. You do not have to depend on my book for description of movement, also look at Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson, Education Gospel.

  3. Donna Campbell

    The example of teachers being encouraged to become ambassadors of tech products sounds similar to the business model that fueled the opioid epidemic. Pharma. companies encouraged physicians to become ambassadors for their new painkillers to other doctors and to patients, including assuring doctors that the new products were not addictive. The products are quite different but there be lessons to learn from that recent and still ongoing disaster.

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