On February 26th governors, policy makers, and business leaders from across the nation met to discuss ways of preventing American students from falling behind their international competitors. The "National Summit on High Schools," sponsored by Achieve Inc., marked the beginning of the conference, and Bill Gates was there to deliver the keynote address, where he called American public schools "obsolete."
Gates has spent almost a billion dollars influencing American public schools, and while his donations seem laudable on some fronts, especially in an era of increased federal demands coupled with reduced federal spending, his philanthropy remains problematic. When corporate leaders shape government institutions according to their needs, we move away from democracy and toward corporatism, a relative of, and arguably a precursor to, fascism. While this essay is no place for a complete analysis of American democracy and fascism writ large, I believe a compelling case can be made for keeping corporate leaders out of our classrooms as, despite their "best" intentions, their ideology ultimately undermines the democracy our schools purportedly serve. Corporations are out for corporations, whereas democratic citizens, ideally, are out for each other.
While I agree with Gates that there is indeed a crisis in our schools, it should not be confused with any perceived crisis over achievement. Schools in wealthy neighborhoods consistently score first in international comparisons in a number of subjects, and when SAT scores are desegregated according to race, all subgroups have seen consistent point gains over the past 30 years. The real crisis in our schools reflects the most serious crisis in our democracy: diverse peoples with multiple voices and needs have little say in the major decisions shaping their lives. The school is but one institution where this is the case, as recent financial involvement by the National Association of Manufacturers in judicial nominations clearly indicates.
John Dewey, American philosopher and vocal critic of traditional public schools, defined democracy as a system of associated living where individuals participate in the institutions governing them. In a democratic school system, parents, students, teachers, academics and business leaders would participate in curricular decisions. Corporatism, on the other hand, requires citizen obedience to corporate demands; individual needs are ignored. In the case of public schools, CEOs have great influence on the curriculum whereas parents have none. Individual students become products whose manufacture is subject to the whims of the market. As our society becomes more market based, we are beginning to see stricter coordination between government and industry, another tenant of corporatism. This coordination often comes in the form of government-business partnerships, where elites from both groups decide how public institutions should be shaped and run. Ultimately, corporatism undermines the legitimacy of individual citizens and the democracy they maintain, as these elites, often unelected, make decisions for the people.
Which brings us back to Bill Gates and Achieve Inc. According to their website, Achieve was created by the nation's governors and business leaders to help "states prepare all young people for postsecondary education, work and citizenship by raising academic standards and achievement in America's schools." The key to success, for American CEOs anyway, is "raising standards," which, magically, will lead to higher achievement. This mentality is akin to weighing a cow more often to make it fatter.
One can't help but wonder how increasing achievement will prepare students for citizenship. Arguably, the best way to improve citizenship is to send children out into the community as citizens. They might, for example, identify a pressing issue in the neighborhood surrounding their school and act collectively to change it. This, of course, is not the type of education Gates and other business leaders are after, as they need number crunchers whipped into shape by the proverbial raised bar. As American children grow fatter, schools nationwide are eliminating recess, all in the name of spending more time on task. Arts programs, despite repeated studies linking them to more robust definitions of "intelligent," are gone as well, and classes which might lead to greater criticality on the part of our society, think "logic and reasoning" or "identifying propaganda," must be pushed aside for test prep courses.
Eighty-nine percent of Americans go through public schools. The limited number of hours in the day requires a limited curriculum. Americans interested in realizing and maintaining a more democratic union must begin to ask what our curriculum has been limited to and by whom. Ideally, citizens concerned about the state of the country would begin asking local school boards serious questions about education and the state of our democracy. Will increasing achievement lower the number of Americans in prison? Will raising standards reduce the number of teen pregnancies, teen abortions, or youths killed by guns? Do high scores in math and science guarantee life, liberty, and happiness? Should our tax dollars be spent training workers or developing intelligent, creative, and engaged adults?
When Gates told his audience that "in the international competition to have the biggest and best supply of knowledge workers, America is falling behind," he failed to mention two salient facts. First, it does not matter how many "knowledge workers" our schools produce if corporations continue to offshore IT jobs, which are growing at a rate of less than 3% a year. Second, and more importantly, we are not all "knowledge workers" nor should we be. In a democracy, individual differences and nuances should be respected and valued, not standardized. Teacher innovation, family desire, and community need should influence public education. The corporatist mentality is a one-size-fits-all mindset, a mindset more totalitarian than anything else. Parents who want their children to grow up to be more than blindly obedient worksheet completers must challenge CEO classroom encroachment. Citizens who value democracy must join them.