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Why Can?t Schools Be Like Businesses?

Publication Date: 2006-05-16

from The School Administrator, AASA
February 2006

Larry Cuban observes that the strong belief that schools and businesses are alike has remained fixed in the minds of most corporate and civic leaders, parents and educators. And both institutions are seriously entangled with one another. And he explores the important differences. For starters, deceit and fraud are easier to cover up in the private sector.

In answering the question posed in the title, I begin with a story that
businessman Jamie Vollmer told to educators a few years ago:

?I stood before an audience filled with outraged teachers who were becoming
angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90
minutes of in-service training. Their initial icy glares had turned to
restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.

?I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public
schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in
the middle-1980s when People magazine chose its blueberry flavor as the
'Best Ice Cream in America.'

?I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change. They
were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the Industrial
Age and out of step with the needs of our emerging 'knowledge society.'
Second, educators were a major part of the problem. They resisted change,
hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by
a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to
produce quality. Zero defects! Total Quality Management! Continuous

?As soon as I finished, a woman's hand shot up. She began quietly, 'We are
told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.'

?I smugly replied, 'Best ice cream in America, ma'am.'

?'How nice,' she said. 'Is it rich and smooth?'

?'Sixteen percent butterfat,' I crowed.

?'Premium ingredients?' she inquired.

?'Super-premium! Nothing but triple-A.'

?I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

?'Mr. Vollmer,' she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to
the sky. 'When you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an
inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?'

?In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap.

?I was dead meat, but I wasn't going to lie. 'I send them back.'

?'That's right,? she barked, 'and we can never send back our blueberries. We
take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened,
confident, homeless, rude and brilliant. We take them with attention deficit
disorder, junior rheumatoid arthritis and English as their second language.
We take them all. Every one. And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it's not a
business. It's school.'

?In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides,
custodians and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, 'Yeah!
Blueberries! Blueberries!'

?And so began my long transformation [from business executive into school

A Rare Transformation
The conversion of former CEO Vollmer from caustic critic to stouthearted
advocate of educators remains an exception. Had most business leaders and
educators learned the painful lesson that Vollmer learned, I would not have
written The Blackboard and The Bottom Line. But they haven?t. So I wrote
this book to explore the thinking and actions of serious and
well-intentioned business leaders and educators, past and present, who
sought to turn around inefficient and ineffective school districts and
schools to answer the question that I posed at the outset.

In examining business involvement in U.S. school reform, I looked at the
1890s through 1920s and the 1970s to the present ? two points in history
when business leaders and educational entrepreneurs, fearful of the United
States losing out in the global marketplace, sought major school reforms.

Nearly a century ago, business leaders and progressive educators reorganized
school system governance by creating small, non-partisan, corporate-like
school boards that hired professional managers. They invented junior high
schools and created large comprehensive high schools where they installed
newly developed vocational curricula to prepare students for an industrial
labor market. They compiled test scores that compared students from one
district to another so taxpayers would know that their monies were being
spent efficiently.

In short, these early 20th century educational entrepreneurs copied
successful business practices and used findings from the latest scientific
studies to change public school goals, governance, organization, staffing
and curricula to tie public schools to the nation?s economy more closely.
Many of those changes still exist today.

Now, push the fast-forward button to the 1970s when Japanese and German cars
and electronic equipment outsold U.S. products. Another generation of
business leaders linked weak sales in the global marketplace to declining
scores on international tests and poor schooling. The economy was changing
from an industrial base to an information base, and schools were failing to
keep pace.

These business-minded reformers, no longer interested in vocational
education, wanted every child in cities and suburbs to complete a rigorous
high school program and go to college. To achieve this expansion of
educational opportunity, districts and schools needed to copy successful
businesses that raised their productivity and profits through efficient
management and accountability. So state legislatures, aggressively lobbied
by business groups, set high academic standards, tested students and
established penalties for failure. They introduced choice and competition
for students through charters, private entrepreneurs running schools and

Redefined Equality
By the first decade of the 21st century, the federal No Child Left Behind
law incorporated many of these state measures and ratcheted up testing and
accountability to touch every public school in the country ? with the same
purpose of graduating all students prepared to enter college and a
knowledge-based economy.

By focusing on urban children, both generations of business-inspired
reformers have redefined equality of educational opportunity. A century ago,
entrepreneurs were concerned about poverty and slums eroding educational
hopes. The solution that generation sought was providing schooling for
immigrants and the poor beyond the age of 12. Anyone could graduate from
high school, except in segregated schools in the South and elsewhere, if
they completed the newly invented junior high school and went on to high
school where job-linked vocational education had been added to the
curriculum for those who wanted practical work.

Now entrepreneurs are redesigning recalcitrant urban middle schools into K-8
organizations and big urban high schools into small ones to get everyone
into college. In language that condemns the ?soft bigotry of low
expectations,? KIPP schools, Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools,
charter management organizations and small high school pioneers see opening
college doors to poor and minority children as a virtual civil rights

Parents, of course, seldom disagreed with these business-inspired reformers
then or now. They wanted their sons and daughters to get a schooling that
would lead to jobs paying good wages and financial security, if not higher
status. What civic and business elites wanted for the public good, parents
wanted for their children.

As a consequence of these two periods of business-driven school reform, the
strong belief that schools and businesses are alike has remained fixed in
the minds of most corporate and civic leaders, parents and educators. And
both institutions are seriously entangled with one another.

School districts buy products and services daily from local and national
companies. School superintendents meet with chambers of commerce and
business representatives testify at budget hearings. Vocational education
teachers send students into local businesses every day for on-site learning.
Businesses release employees to tutor and donate products to schools.

School districts behave as business organizations and even perform similar
functions--managing people, planning, budgeting, etc. Yet school districts
are expected to meet public obligations and are held politically responsible
for their actions and student outcomes, an accountability absent from
for-profit institutions.

It is these public/private distinctions that I inspect more closely because
those who favor copying businesses to improve schools need to grasp clearly
these fundamental differences in values.

Multiple Purposes
Three basic differences separate businesses from schools: The multiple
purposes of tax-supported public schools; public responsibility for
achieving these purposes; and democratic deliberations in deciding policies
and determining school success.

* Multiple purposes of tax-supported public schools.
The current attention given to academic achievement in the United States and
a changing labor market disregard the historic and continuing popular wish
for U.S. public schools to do more than raise test scores and prepare future
workers. Requiring everyone to pay taxes to support schools regardless of
whether they have children and compelling families to send their sons and
daughters to school means that larger public purposes have to be met.
Children need to be socialized to accept community standards, especially at
a time when most parents have full-time jobs. Moreover, schools are expected
to strengthen common moral values, promote civic engagement and offer equal

A recent public opinion poll by Phi Delta Kappa illustrates the rich array
of collective and individual purposes that parents and taxpayers expect
schools to achieve. In order of importance, the top five in the poll were:
prepare people to become responsible citizens; help people become
economically sufficient; ensure a basic level of quality among schools;
promote cultural unity; and improve social conditions for people.

These multiple purposes frustrate business-minded reformers who want parents
and children to be satisfied customers, just as pleased with their choice of
schools as those who pick out certain cars or breakfast cereals or other
commercial products. Yet the "customer" analogy breaks down quickly when the
above public purposes are noted.

Few current voucher plans, public charter schools or for-profits, for
example, either acknowledge these multiple and often contradictory purposes
or are held responsible for achieving them. Advocates of privatization and
boosters of the customer language seldom note in public debates this
profound difference between the many purposes of public schools and the
single-minded pursuit of profit among private-sector firms.

Yet parents and taxpayers count on elected officials to heed these diverse
aims in their schools. If some of these purposes are ignored ? say, too much
drug use among youth ? civic leaders will call upon the board of education
and superintendent publicly to pay attention since it is their
responsibility to do so.

While business firms surely entertain multiple goals, what tends to dominate
company agendas are private rather than public purposes, such as increasing
total revenues, net profits, dividends to investors and other bottom-line
outcomes. Surely, for many businesses, customer and employee satisfaction,
staff capabilities and community relations are important results, yet these
and similar outcomes are means toward the end of higher net profits.

Private-sector companies seldom mention cultivating literacy and civic
engagement, enhancing individual well being and reducing economic and social
inequalities as their purposes. And the reason is simple enough ? they are
public aims that are meant to enhance the collective good, not individual
private interests. Different aims also mirror different decision-making
processes between schools and businesses.

Public Decisions
* Democratic deliberations of policies and practices.
Beginning in 2000, stories emerged from multi-billion dollar U.S. corporate
offices that CEOs fiddled with earnings reports in order to keep investors
happy and stock prices high. Earnings statements (and forecasts) as signs of
corporate success ? 15 percent a year growth, for example ? had pressured
corporate officers to claim as earnings funds that had little to do with
actual transactions with customers in a given year.

Xerox executives claimed revenues in one year that their customers actually
were paying them over three years. In some cases, the chicanery was so
blatant that CEOs were indicted, tried by juries and sent to prison. The
collapse of major corporations destroyed investments, jobs and employees?
lives. In effect, corporate leaders were unaccountable to their investors,
employees, and the larger public.

I offer examples of corporate malfeasance to illustrate a major difference
in decision making between U.S. businesses and public schools. Deceit and
fraud are harder to cover up when elected school boards are obliged by law
to consider, debate and make decisions in public. Of equal importance,
school board decisions are subject to media and public scrutiny. Not so in
the private sector where corporate leaders are often appointed by
self-perpetuating boards of directors who make decisions behind closed doors
without public hearings or journalists in attendance.

Were corporate discussions to be opened to investors and the larger public,
some of the basic differences between public and private might diminish. How
serious U.S. legislators are in pursuing openness in the private sector only
time will tell. Public deliberation of policies is a profound difference
between schools and businesses. Ditto for determining success.

* Determining school success.
With the multiple purposes that tax-supported public schools are expected to
achieve and the variety of customers of public schools, one would expect
multiple criteria for determining whether schools are successful. Not so in
this country over the past three decades when business and civic leaders
have stressed rigorous curriculum standards, tests to measure whether those
standards were being met satisfactorily and rewards or penalties for
performance. Concentrating on test scores as a single measure of success ?
in effect, copying the bottom line of profit-making companies ? represents a
rather cramped criterion.

Few proponents of such ideas ever examine the chain of logic behind these
policies. Did, for example, state-mandated curriculum standards get
implemented in classrooms as intended? If they were implemented, did the
standards influence teaching practices, and did those specific practices
shape what students learned as measured by the state tests?

The first causal linkage requires evidence that state policies were fully
put into practice and actually did shape what teachers did in classrooms.
Changed instructional practices need to produce desired outcomes. Even here,
were there test score gains they would require close scrutiny to determine
whether classroom experiences did indeed contribute to student achievement
over a specific period of time, controlling for prior test performance and
socioeconomic status of students. So far, there is insufficient evidence for
these linkages to satisfy even champions of these ideas.

Advocates of business-inspired practices also ought to be reminded of the
many purposes of public schools, the service orientation of the institution
and the varied cultures that inhabit schools. These factors make single,
quantifiable measures of success dubious. I also would ask whether test
scores do indeed measure current and future success. Many researchers and
parents have raised questions about whether scoring high on tests does
predict a student?s future success in college, on the job or in life itself.

Finally, advocates of business practices may not be aware of the
difficulties of measuring success in multi-purpose public institutions ?
something not confined to public schools. The late management expert Peter
Drucker raises the same issue in determining whether universities are
successful. He asks which of the following are measures of "doing a good
job:? The salaries of students 20 years after graduation? The reputation of
the faculty? The number of Ph.D.s? "Each yardstick," Drucker points out,
"[is] a value judgment regarding the purpose of the university ? and a very
narrow one at that.?

Ready Responses
The profound differences in purposes, democratic decision making and
accountability for outcomes between businesses and schools mean the basic
assumption of corporate-inspired reformers ? that schools and businesses are
fundamentally alike ? is deeply flawed. In laying out the defects in this
assumption, I also have drawn the limits of business influence in applying
private-sector principles to schools and the entire logic embedded in
policymakers' plans for reform. In doing so, I have questioned current
school improvement policies.

This is why it is crucial that U.S. policymakers, practitioners,
researchers, parents and taxpayers know clearly in what respects schools and
businesses are alike and in what ways they differ. And the reason is simple
enough: Business-inspired reform will not go away. We cannot depend upon
personal epiphanies that converted CEO Jamie Vollmer into a supporter of
schools spreading to all CEOs.

When business-minded policy proposals arise again--and they will--their
assumptions, logic and evidence have to be dissected carefully and arrayed
against the many purposes that tax-supported public schools serve, the
democratic deliberations that the proposals will receive and the measures
that will determine success.

Larry Cuban is a professor emeritus at Stanford University, School of
Education, 304 Cubberley, Stanford, CA 94305. E-mail: cuban@stanford.edu


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