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Book Review: Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?
Radical Teacher
by Karen J. Hall

Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian's Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? (Bashing) should be read by every U.S. citizen--and given the global reach of the Business Roundtable, its main subject of discussion, it should be read by every citizen everywhere. Granted, that is a trite way to begin a review, but in a historical moment when Laura Bush and the U.S. State Department are encouraging all citizens to read The Kite Runner, it makes sense to take a detailed look at the agenda and agenda setters for this country's education system. While both Hosseini's novel and the No Child Left Behind program claim to offer hope and redemption, Emery and Ohanian show that when education serves the interests of the empowered, the oppression of the disempowered increases.

Without oversimplifying or losing details, Bashing walks through the goals, progress, history, and leadership of the Business Roundtable's (BRT) education agenda. BRT is an association of CEOs of U.S. companies that, in their words, "believes that the basic interests of business closely parallel the interests of the American people, who are directly involved as consumers, employees, shareholders, and suppliers" ( http://www.businessroundtable.org/ aboutUs/index.aspx). Their annual corporate giving programs, which comprise 60% of U.S. corporate donations, are a crucial strategy for influencing government at all levels to accept their agenda as the agenda the U.S. public is being influenced to embrace.

One of the great strengths of Emery and Ohanian's book is its accessibility. At its outset, Bashing sets up an analogy between selecting a piano and educating children. Just as one piano may seem like any other to the untrained ear, to a businessperson, one child may seem like any other. But also just as musicians take great care in selecting their instruments, teachers need to take great care in tailoring lessons to meet the needs of their students. It's a simple and concrete metaphor, and it opens the door to their structural critique of the strict uniformity enforced by standardized testing and data-driven pedagogy.

The hard work of the book begins with the first chapter, "The Words that Bind," in which the authors offer a semiotic critique of the Business Roundtable's No Child Left Behind discourse: "In the hands of the U.S. Department of Education, the very title No Child Left Behind, hijacked from the Children's Defense Fund, has become the moral equivalent of the Pentagon's pacification" (6). As with the concert piano analogy, Emery and Ohanian have strategically chosen their metaphor here as well. The Pentagon makes use of the discourse of diplomacy and peace, but it pacifies by destroying. In a similar manner, the U.S. Department of Education is highly selective about the children it is unwilling to leave behind. Unlike the more democratically concerned Children's Defense Fund, the Department of Education only wants to bring compliant and trainable children forward; any others are effectively and efficiently pushed out. The book's examples and comparisons encourage readers to see the influence of not just corporatization on education, but militarized corporatization. As the authors put it: "The phrase failing public schools has a lot in common with war on terror, get the media to parrot these phrases often enough so that you can't hear terrorism without thinking there's a need for war, and you can't hear public schools without thinking they are failing and need to be fixed" (6).

In their chapter "Hijacking Democratically Elected School Boards--and Why We Should Care," the authors use discourse analysis to reveal the agendas hidden within school mission statements. Through a wealth of examples Emery and Ohanian demonstrate how the language and educational practices of public schools have shifted and how these shifts are reflected in their mission statements. Schools that once promised "guarantees" of "personalized learning" and "nurturing" for their students now offer a far more murky and indefinite "opportunity to achieve" (85). The authors also expose corporate abdication of civic responsibility towards schools via brief histories of General Electric's pullout from Schenectady, New York and Pittsfield, Massachusetts: a sort of education-oriented Roger and Me. The chapter once again makes solid structural connections between language, practice, militarism, and economics without overwhelming readers with theoretical moves.

The book does have a few weaknesses. In their chapter on corporate interests in college preparation, the authors question the enforcement of a college preparatory curriculum for all students. They challenge the claims that a college degree is necessary for the current job market and provide data detailing the number of college graduates who are unemployed. However, since these figures go out of date quickly and they also do not include data that compares the wages of workers according to level of education, it's more difficult to be swayed by their otherwise persuasive argument.

Their example of how industry can create worker shortages is more convincing. When the computer industry lowered salaries for technical programmers, jobs moved overseas where workers would accept the lowered wages. The media reported a "skilled labor market shortage" but failed to explain how the industry had made these jobs unattractive to U.S. workers and in essence created the shortage as a cost-cutting strategy (25). In fact, the gap in employer willingness to pay skilled labor, not an educational gap or a deficiency among workers, created the shortage, as workers gradually abandoned training for low-paying jobs. Emery and Ohanian's examples highlight a structural critique of poverty that the focus on an education gap obscures.

In addition to accessibility, the merit of Bashing is its stalwart (and even inspiring) politic. The authors provide readers with a detailed accounting of their subject matter. They name names and provide thorough documentation for further research. Although I'm not sure what I would do with the full page of names and affiliations of the participants of the 2002 Broad Foundation strategic planning retreat (91-92), I was both intrigued and horrified to read details concerning the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). This organization of 21 nations (all listed, of course) espouses education in service of corporate work. A paper given at one of the group's annual meetings attacks "the emphasis on education for itself or on education for the good of members of a community"; education should correlate with market and business needs and concerns (72). These are details I could definitely make use of in future research.

Such a mass of details on the topic of corporate America's takeover of public education would be demoralizing were it offered without the support of heart and soul. This is another area where Emery and Ohanian's work excels. From the righteous uplift of the protest song that closes their introductory chapter to organizational histories of groups that formed to resist the BRT and No Child Left Behind, Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? offers satisfaction to the mind and uplift to the heart and soul. In the writers' eyes, "The No Child Left Behind mandate that 'all schools must be proficient by 2014' legitimizes the growing polarization of wealth, the increasing dropouts and push-outs, the obvious lack of social mobility--caused by stagnating wages and the looting of the public sector" (78). Although readers may question some of Emory and Ohanian's evidence or their focus on the BRT, the structure of this book is dead on. Now, if we could only mandate that it be read in every state in the union.


Citation Details
Title: Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?(Book review)
Author: Karen J. Hall
Publication: Radical Teacher (Magazine/Journal)
Date: December 22, 2006
Publisher: Thomson Gale
Issue: 77 Page: 38(3)

— Karen J. Hall
Radical Teacher


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