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The Progressive

Schools Are Not Businesses

We should stop treating our schools as businesses.

Since the early 20th century, prominent business leaders have acted on the belief that since they are good at making money, they are the most qualified people to decide how to best educate the country's young.

Entranced by the power and efficiency of American industry, many educational leaders have looked to these businessmen for leadership and for models of operation. They have tried to govern school systems as if they were corporations, organize schools as if they were something akin to factories and orient education toward testing and tracking students toward presumed "real world" destinies.

Today's mantra is to allow the much-ballyhooed magic of the market to solve educational problems. Thus the emphasis on consumer choice among schools through vouchers or charters or plans to pay teachers based on test-score improvements.

There are many flaws inherent in imagining that schools will work well once they adopt factory or free-market models. Perhaps most fundamental is the presumption that schools work best when they emulate business.

But schools are not businesses.

When they flourish, they are living communities defined by powerful and caring collaboration.

Students are not things to be produced. They are human beings who are learning and growing in ways that are too complex for any standardized scores to truly measure.


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Nor are teachers mere robots that drill students in how to take a test. The most talented and dedicated teacher is better nourished by a supportive work culture than by narrow appeals to individual self-interest, which pit teacher against teacher.

The purposes of schooling should not be degraded into privatized preparation toward the fattest paycheck.

Clearly, schools should prepare students to earn decent livelihoods. But just as importantly, they should prepare students to look toward - and even demand - jobs that are a major source of fulfillment and creative expression.

Schools should go far beyond preparing students for work. There are many non-market (perhaps even anti-market) lessons that schools impart: They inculcate an appreciation of the arts, establish healthy habits of exercise, teach cooperation, promote citizenship and show our children how to live together peacefully.

If schools do these tasks well, students when they become adults are much more likely to participate in socially positive ways, such as creating art and music, preventing domestic violence, working for racial equality, promoting clean energy and opposing war.

We have to remember, education is a humane and human process with social values beyond the bottom line. Business leaders have no expertise in this quest, and business models do not apply.

For that matter, now that casino capitalism has imploded, isn't it time to stop looking to the corporate elite for advice on how to run the schools? These "experts"- the bankers and corporate CEOs - couldn't even manage the one thing they are supposed to be good at: running their own businesses.

Educators should shed their subordinate status and sense of inferiority. Schools work best when teachers - in dialogue with parents and other citizens - design the educational experience, not corporate officials.

Wayne Au

Wayne Au is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington Bothell and an editor for the social justice education magazine, Rethinking Schools.

Bill Bigelow

Bill Bigelow

Bill Bigelow taught high school social studies in Portland, Oregon for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project. This project offers free materials to teach people’s history and an “If We Knew Our History” article series. Bigelow is author or co-editor of numerous books, including A People’s History for the Classroom and The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration, and most recently, A People's Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

David Levine

David Levine, whose research interests include urban education and American Educational history, teaches social foundations courses in the education department of Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio.


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