The business of education is not business


At the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in Philadelphia this past weekend,  Mark Gleason made the following remark about the Philadelphia public schools:

“As you close the lowest performers, you’re slowly raising the bar. So that’s what portfolio is, as Paul [Socolar] described it–you keep dumping the losers and overtime you create a higher bar for what we expect from our schools.”

Now, Gleason has justifiably gotten a lot of flak for describing the poorer performing schools as “losers,” but it is something else that is bothering me.

Gleason was describing school evaluation in terms of stock portfolios. His use of the term “losers” was referring to those “stocks” that were not performing. He was using business/financial parameters to measure school success.

I am getting tired of it. Schools are about students not bulls and bears.

Somewhere along the line, it seems the model for education has been hijacked by the business/financial sector. In the past few years, I have heard students referred to as consumers, I have listened to speakers hold up CEO leadership qualities as  models we should emulate, I have read articles about the business of education and been given books that prepare me for successful management skills.  I bristle when I hear “entrepreneur” as the new academic buzzword.

I attended one workshop on “coaching” fellow teachers. The consultant hadn’t bothered to adapt her PowerPoint presentation so that most of her examples dealt with a “sales rep” that needed the proper advice or coaching. I went to another workshop where the presenter began by playing a video where a woman spoke about conflict resolution to about twelve middle-managers. To add to the insult, the presenter told us teachers that “We might not know it, but research has shown that taking notes during a presentation aids in memory retention.”

And then–in case we didn’t get the point– he gave us a worksheet of the video script with important words left blank. We were to fill them in.

Perhaps it is me.

I was raised to distrust big-business.  “Plastics,” after all, was the laugh-line when newly graduated Benjamin Braddock was adrift in 1968.  For the generations before me, the man in the grey-flannel suit was the emblem of mindless conformity; for my generation, big-business was connected with the lies behind Viet-Nam, turned on the fire-hoses against the vanguard of social change, and deliberately hid its own research about what it was spewing into the environment and into people’s bodies. In my circle, they were the bogey-men.

And they were very successful.  The  following decades saw “Greed is Good” become  big business’ mantra …and within twenty-years the country went reeling because of it.  And it is still digging out.  The rich got rich…the poor got further away.

I went into education to counterbalance the influence of big business.

And I know, I am being  illogical.

I know that there are plenty of good, wise and compassionate men in business. There are plenty of great ideas and practices that can be adopted and adapted. Dear friends, respected acquaintances, close family members are businessmen and businesswomen–and some are extraordinarily successful.  And I do go to them, at times, for advice on everything, even education.

But I don’t translate their world into mine.  Our worlds are too different.

Or so it seems to me.

I am feeling very much a dinosaur these days.  Not because I cannot keep up with the latest trends in education–the project-based learning, the collaboration, the student-centered focus. Those I can handle.

No, I feel so out of step, because I can’t kowtow to business metrics. I can’t measure my students’ progress–the quality of their learning — on a spreadsheet. I can’t draw up their successes and failures in a pie-chart based on 401K investments. I don’t hold up the world’s CEO’s as models.

Instead I hold up a liberal education for them to follow–believing that if they do, when THEY become the CEO’s of their world, the world should become a better place.


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