You May Have Missed the Corporate Takeover of Education…

Because it may well have happened a long time ago before you and I were born! From my reading of history it began in the early decades of the 20th century and was solidified by the development of the “education industrial complex” in the 1960s. Now in the early 21st century we see this corporate public education system finally showing signs of collapsing due to the weight of its bureaucracy, corruption, regimentation, and entrenched interests. And as a result we see all the business foundations desperately trying to revive and sustain it, and the many billion dollar business market it represents.

What happened in the early 20th century I lay out in my previous piece, “Education and the Cult of Efficiency”, based on a book by the same name written by Raymond Callahan and published in 1962. In his book Callahan documents how an educational “crisis” was fabricated at the turn of the 20th century for a range of reasons, starting with selling newspapers and magazines. Says Callahan…

The material achievements of industrial capitalism in the late nineteenth century were responsible for two developments which were to have a great affect on American society and education after 1900. One of these was the rise of business and industry to a position of prestige and influence, and America’s subsequent saturation with business-industrial values and practices. The other was the reform movement identified historically with Theodore Roosevelt and spearheaded by the muckraking journalists. (pg 1)

Read Callahan’s book (or at least my piece summarizing it) for all the historical detail. But essentially, to blunt a media assault on education for its supposed business inefficiency, the U.S. public education system did its best to adopt business values that trumped academic values to better “prove” its efficient use of public funds to teach America’s youth a pragmatic curriculum that would make them more effective worker-bees for the burgeoning American industrial society. This also led to letting people trained in business management, rather than educators, take the reins of the U.S. public education system. Says Callahan…

The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. As the business-industrial values and procedures spread into the thinking and acting of educators, countless educational decisions were made on economic or on non-educational grounds. (pg 246)

Given that school teachers were mostly women, a male-centered society in the first half of the 20th century was comfortable accepting a cadre of male business executives increasingly assuming positions of control over these female teachers, and accepted those executives lack of credentials as educators. These were business trained administrators like Franklin Bobbitt, Leonard Ayres, and Elwood Cubberley, who according to Calahan…

Represented a new type of school administrator… They not only manifested a great interest in and admiration for businessmen and industrialists, but they resembled these men in their behavior. They were active in introducing and using business and industrial procedures and terminology in education, and they centered their attention almost exclusively upon the financial, organizational, and mechanical problems… And they in turn as leaders played a leading role in shaping the new “profession” of educational administration and, through it, the American schools. They did this through their speaking and writing and teaching, and they did it also by setting personal examples of the way to succeed in education. (pg 180)

With businessmen at the helm of the education system, is it any wonder that by mid century that system had transitioned into a huge market for business. Not coincidentally, this was the era when big corporate educational foundations still active today were launched, like the Carnegie Foundation (1905) and the Rockefeller Foundation (1913). Cubberley famously said…

Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specification for manufacturing come from the demands of the twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils to the specification laid down. This demands good tools, specialized machinery, continuous measurement of production to see if it is according to specifications, the elimination of waste in manufacture, and a large variety in the output. (pg 152)

American business was more than happy to provide those “tools” to a growing public education “market” for textbooks, testing protocols, consulting and more. States assumed every increasing control of education and, particularly after the Sputnik crisis in 1957, ever increasing standardization and government funding. Paul Peterson, director of Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard Kennedy School, used the term “Education-Industrial Complex” (borrowed from President Eisenhower’s 1961 speech coining the term “military-industrial complex”) in a 2008 commentary Peterson wrote…

Around 1970 or thereabouts, the educational-industrial complex was hammered into place: School boards gave teachers collective bargaining rights. State governments assumed greater responsibility for financing the schools. The courts instructed schools on the civil liberties of their students. Regulations multiplied. America gained a federal Department of Education. And state and federal dollars poured into the system.

According to education blogger Dave Chandler from his piece “More of the Same: Obama and Schools”

Our ‘education’ establishment is very much about preserving a multi-hundred-billion-dollar spending machine. Corporations make tremendous profit from selling high tech hardware and software to virtually every school district in the nation. Textbook companies and testing companies and education consulting companies and pension investment advising companies and public relations firms and bond dealers… Then there are the politicians who get campaign contributions from the above mentioned special interests and the ‘educrat’ administrators who make hundred thousand dollar a year salaries.

Other than defense, where else is there such a market with so few paying customers (the 50 states and now the federal government) with so much money to spend? Some of the biggest corporations that have made great profits tapping into this market throughout the century include Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, Pearson PLC, and Scholastic.

And is there any wonder that there is great corporate support for ever more standardized curriculum, pedagogical approaches and testing protocols, pushing us toward ever more educational decision-making authority being wielded by a small well-heeled group of governmental customers that sellers curry favor with. It all contributes to a stable and growing educational marketplace. Such a deal!

In the meantime there is increasing evidence that all the “reform” efforts of the past 30 years have done little or nothing to improve the educational outcomes for our kids. But the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, more recently joined by the Gates Foundation and Broad Foundation, go on pushing for educational standardization.

Certainly if students and teachers were left to their own devices to develop curricula, the market monopoly of the big education corporations might be in jeopardy. One could make the argument that there is plenty of free curriculum on the Internet that teachers and/or students could access instead of purchasing and lugging around all those big heavy textbooks, constantly being updated to accommodate the perhaps planned obsolescence of the latest standards revision as part of our seemingly perpetual reform.

I must admit to not having done enough research on all this yet, but I’m really concerned that in all this focus on for-profit charter schools and private school vouchers we have missed the real “corporatization” of education. It may well be a horse that left the barn a long time ago!

So as we see from the Occupy movement, the answers to educational transformation probably will not come from either the feds or the states, both of which have for generations been in bed with the business community when it comes to public education. Change is going to have to come from the grassroots, challenging the longstanding centralization of educational power in state capitols plus the more recent efforts at increasing control by the federal Department of Education. And by challenging educational standardization of curriculum further enforced by high-stakes testing.

Given the huge power structure arrayed above us, perhaps the best we can do initially is to find every opportunity to just say “no”. Be, to paraphrase former U.S. President George Bush Sr, “a thousand points of no”! Some initial signs of these thousand points are certainly teachers fighting back against increasing state control of their profession and teachers and parents using chartering and other statutory mechanisms in some instances to “take over” their local school.

Also a bell-weather I hope is California governor Brown & state schools superintendent Torlakson who so far are saying no to continuing state participation in the federal No Child Left Behind program and its coercive Department of Education waivers that are being put forward by Arne Duncan as an alternative. Brown, who is a pragmatic administrator with a “small is beautiful” orientation, may well grasp that standardization and high-stakes testing (though adding profits to school vendors) are not adding more value to actual schools.

So my hope is that by saying no in enough contexts, and perhaps with the extra push of tight budgets, we can back away from our current business-friendly one-size-fits-all approach to giving our young people opportunities to learn. There are plenty of compelling alternative approaches to learning out there that remain sidelined to all but the most economically advantaged among us because they can’t pass muster against the current narrowly framed educational standards.

10 replies on “You May Have Missed the Corporate Takeover of Education…”

  1. When we became frustrated with public school, we moved the kids to private school, which we found to be no better since they cater to parents who demand that they live up to the state standards. Our next option? To opt out. Pulling our kids out of the system allowed us to provide an individualized education to each child. But homeschooling isn’t without those who wish to standardize and capitalize on it, and we were marketed to by sellers of curriculums and systems. Having options is nice, but if one isn’t discerning, one could end up spending lots of money to put ones family right back into a box.

  2. Angela… I think that, for better or for worse, “opting out” is one of the important actions that will eventually cause the system to change. Most successful movements include both people working on the inside and from the outside.

    As to private schools, at least they have the latitude to be profoundly different than standardized public schools, even though as you say, many private schools just try to do standardized public schools one better in preparing kids for the conventional college path of high SAT scores and prestigious college acceptances. The bulk of the alternative schools that exist today are private (or “independent” as many of them like to characterize themselves.

    Just to let you know… I continue to applaud your work calling out the dimensions of the “education-industrial complex” and would like to help with that in any way I can!

  3. I’ve been griping about this for a while – my kids’ school is currently preparing for the state standardized test in a couple of weeks, and the amount of time, energy, and frankly money put into just the practice tests (two so far!) is shocking, especially in that it is taking unspeakable amounts of time – hours and hours, literally 🙁 – away from actual instruction in the classroom.

    We did homeschool for two years and are back in public school for now while I’m working and hopefully catching up financially, and I am eager to get back to it when we can. As a parent AND as a certified teacher, my heart breaks for the learning that is not taking place in schools right now. :-‘(

  4. Deb… thanks for sharing. How old are your kids and where do they go to school?

    Because of similar school circumstances and our kids being more auto-didacts, we ended up pulling both of them out of school during their teen years and ended up with the more self-directed unschooling version of homeschooling. See my piece if you’re interested…

    FYI… Our kids were teens during their unschooling years, and much of their efforts were done pretty much on their own.

    Hope you can get your financial system sorted out so you can get them into the best learning environment for them!


  5. We’re in Maryland, just outside the Beltway. We pretty much unschooled as well. Now the older one is in 4th grade but doing 5th-grade math & reading, while the younger is in 1st grade in a French Immersion program. She’s really thriving there, plus she’s quite the extrovert, so she may stay there for a while, but the older one and I are fellow introverts who do well on our own schedules, thankyouverymuch. *grin* The irony is that I’m working in their school as a substitute teacher for the time being; those two music education degrees might as well pay for themselves while we catch up financially. 🙂

  6. I see a whole new paradigm for education in the future where kids go in and out of various programs, some more like “school” perhaps and other times at home or out in the real community. A year of this, a year of that, rather than all classroom, all the time.

    It is ironic, but I guess while you are there it certainly works logistically to have your kids there. Our daughter went to an alternative middle school for three years where her mom was working as the school counselor. That school was quite an experience too in the trials and tribulations of starting a charter school…

    Just FYI… my kids are now young adults now and leading their adult lives thankyouverymuch… *grin*


  7. I was intrigued by the historical perspective and heartily agree with you but, please, change the misspelling in this phrase. “approaches to learning out their”

  8. Thank you, Cooper, for writing this piece, and for your vigilant watch. The historical context gives some possible reasons for the absurdities of our ed system. Have you read ‘Lost Tools of Learning’ by Dorothy L. Sayers? I am curious to know what you think of her take on education.

    I agree with Deb regarding the enormous amounts of wasted time and energy spent on test prep. Not only does it take away from time needed to teach the most important foundational academic skills to children, but it also takes time from what I consider to be some of the most delightfully memorable experiences of early school days such as art, music, theatre and other forms of imaginative play that truly need to be a part of childhood. We wonder why so many drop out each day in secondary schools, yet we continue to pile more of the same (and worse) into the system, always expecting different results.
    The tragedy is perhaps played out in the lives of our people who end up in prisons often times due to our collective failure to educate the body, mind and spirit of every child to the best of our ablity.
    These things keep me up at night. . .

  9. Delpha… I think the historical context is usually if not always important to understand the currents we are trying to navigate into the future with.

    Do not know Sayers but read her article in Wikipedia including the note…

    Her very influential essay The Lost Tools of Learning[16] has been used by many schools in the US as a basis for the classical education movement, reviving the medieval trivium subjects (grammar, logic and rhetoric) as tools to enable the analysis and mastery of every other subject. Sayers also wrote three volumes of commentaries about Dante, religious essays, and several plays, of which The Man Born to be King may be the best known.

    As to the merits of her approach… probably as good as anyone else’s approach. IMO each person should have their own uniquely suited to their unique approach to life, given that each of us is a unique soul.

    I too think that all the focus on testing is destroying any positive elements of school-based education and that having the opportunity to focus on art, music, theater and other forms of imaginative activity is much more developmentally significant.

    Tho I agree with you on the tragedy played out in prisons, I think it is also played out in many of the kids who manage to negotiate the entire school process successfully but are diminished in the process by all diminishing of their own uniqueness that they must impose and endure.

    Cooper Zale

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