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The 'Business Model'

Has the business community played too big of a role in the standards movement? Is there a new "business model" for education? Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Amy Wilkins of The Education Trust, Bob Schwartz of Achieve, and Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker.

Rod Paige
He is President George W. Bush's secretary of education, and before that was superintendent of schools in Houston from 1994 to 2001.

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You've been an educator all your life. Business is playing a big part in this. Do you ever worry that business is too much in control of education reform?

In the first place, I don't think business is in control of education reform. And second, I think that business has an absolute responsibility to be involved. ... The school system is there for the public good and to benefit the public, of which the business community is a very important constituent base.

Superintendents seem to talk the language of business. [We interviewed] Mark Edwards in Henrico County, [Virginia]. He talks about how "We're running this, we're looking at investments and we're looking at the bottom line." Is the language of business appropriate for education -- test scores as the bottom line?

There was a period in time when businesses were not doing very well. ... And they went to the social psychology literature, they went to the literature of organizational dynamics and organizational behavior, and they found methods of doings things, which really converts to the question of, "How do you arrange for the human beings in the organization to be more productive?" So they benefited from this. ...

Now we say, "This is business." It isn't actually business. This is social psychology, and how you create more dynamic movement in the organization that is pushed forward by people. So I don't consider this to be business practices. I consider this to be good practices based on the discipline of organizational behavior. ...

So the question is, how do you make organizations more productive? That's the question we need to get the answer to. And if that answer is the same answer that business got, it doesn't mean that that is a business answer. It is a social psychology, organizational behavior, organizational theory answer.

What's the bottom line in the business of education?

The bottom line is the amount of learning that we get on the part of the students. Student achievement is the only purpose for which these systems exist. That's the bottom line; that's what matters. The transportation system gets students to school, the food system makes sure they're nourished, and the regulatory system makes sure we do things right. But the bottom line is, are the students learning?

Bob Schwartz
He is the president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit organization created by business leaders and the nation's governors to promote standards-based education reform.

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[Are standards and accountability a kind of business model?]

I would say this has less to do with business, per se, and more to do with a set of principles about organizations and how an organization will change. [Business leaders] have been among the strongest advocates for the notion of, first, at least being clear about what the purpose of the enterprise is -- and that's really what the standards represent. Second, committing to measurement. And third, thinking harder than educators are accustomed to about incentives and rewards and sanctions.

Obviously, I work for an organization that has strong business leadership, as well as strong public sector leadership from governors, but ... the business advocacy has been extremely important for this movement.

I've heard some people say, "Well, educators don't quite get business. And so their notion of a bottom line is maybe a little bit simplistic." ...

Admittedly, the bottom line in education is more complicated than it is in many businesses. And there are limits to this business analogy. Most of the corporate folks that I've worked with, ... who take the time to actually learn about schools and go visit schools, pretty quickly develop an appreciation for the fact that these private sector principles cannot automatically and easily be applied to the public sector. They know that the public sector folks operate under a somewhat different set of constraints, and how difficult it is to actually make change. But what they bring is a sense of urgency and also confidence that, in fact, organizational change is possible. ...

I've just been intrigued by hearing superintendents using the language of business. ...

Yes, I get put off by some of that myself, I have to confess, and I do think one of the not-so-healthy consequences ... is it sometimes tends to devalue the other purposes of education. And again, most of the business people I talk with are very clear that the purpose of American schools is not simply to produce the next generation of workers, but to produce thoughtful, reflective citizens, and people who can lead sort of productive personal lives, as well as be productive economically.

And I do think that sometimes superintendents ... take this business rhetoric and they sound as if they think that the only thing that they're doing is producing people to take part in economic life, if you will. ... I do think it's overly reductionist, in terms of the purposes of education.

Amy Wilkins
She is a principal partner at The Education Trust, an independent nonprofit organization devoted to reform in K-12 education.

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[There's] this notion that we're going to run schools like businesses. We'll tell people what they're supposed to do, and here's the bottom line. ...

I don't think it necessarily means run schools like a business. It means run schools openly and honestly, where all the expectations are above board. ... So I don't think the standards necessarily imply a corporate model. I want to be careful about that. ...

Some people have expressed concern that business is playing too big a role in this, that the business influence is too great -- IBM's Lou Gerstner, and all those folks in the last couple of Education Summits. Do you worry about the business influence on public education?

Well, I think business is acting out of self-interest. They know they need employees, and they know that they need a higher level of skill from employees for this new century than they did for the previous century.

I frankly think that the business involvement in education is good and important, for a couple of reasons. One is that the easy way out for businesses, and we saw some of this in the last Congress, is to import high-skilled workers. To say, "To hell with the American schools. It's easier, it's cheaper for us to go overseas and bring people in to do the high-skill jobs. And the low-skill jobs, these Americans can do them."

So if business can either respond by getting more involved in schools to better prepare our own work force, or respond by going overseas to import workers, I'd much rather have them respond by getting involved in our schools, to get American workers up to the skill levels they want and they need.

The other thing is that public education is exactly that: public. It's supported by our tax dollars. And for a very, very, very long time, schools have been very opaque institutions. They haven't been transparent. We sort of send our kids there and cross our fingers and believe it's going to be OK. One of the most important things that we can do in education is make schools transparent; sort of lift the veil and let all of us see what's going on inside our schools. I think the business community's involvement is helping to promote some of that transparency. And I think that parents are going to benefit hugely from schools where the veil is lifted. ...

Nicholas Lemann
He is the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker and a nationally recognized expert on the history of education reform and educational testing.

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If we can step back and look at the background of the Bush education plan, and the origins of the standards and accountability movement, what role has big business played? We've seen business figures like Ross Perot and Lou Gerstner [of IBM] making standards a high-profile issue. We've got the Business Roundtable, with its lobbying arm in Washington, and the National Education Summit, which is a gathering of business leaders and state governors. Is it fair to say that the standards and accountability movement is more or less a product of the business lobby, of a push from business?

No. Here's what I think it is fair to say. I think it's coming from two directions, or from two forces -- neither of which, notably, is education. What I would add to the business lobby is parents. Parents are complicated, because you run into these parental revolts against standards regimes here and there. But my read is, on the whole, parents are for standards. And the reason they're for standards is just basic raw fear that their children are not going to have the skills they need to make a middle-class living after they graduate. ... The reason standards have swept the country so quickly is not just that business wants them, but that they're popular with voters, they're popular with parents.

So I think it's wrong to say it's only coming out of business. But it is right to say that the most important wholesale reform movement of the last generation in American public education has been imposed on educators from without, rather than having been suggested by them. And indeed many, or even most, educators are against standards, or are very lukewarm about them. ...

On another level, you have some educators adopting almost a kind of business speak when they talk about standards and accountability: "setting objectives," "getting results," "the bottom line," that sort of thing. What do you think about this trend of applying a kind of "business model" to education, that the educators who are now on board are adopting almost a business-like philosophy? Does that interest you?

It doesn't blow me away, and I'll tell you why. First of all, remember, all this stuff has been going on for a really long time. Horace Mann, who is generally credited with being the father of American public education, wrote these famous annual reports when he was the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education. I think the most famous is the one for 1848. The thing to remember about these reports, and about the whole subject, is that public education was not a founding principle of the United States. It was a sort of accidental invention. And so these reports of Horace Mann's are arguing for public education as a principle in a state that didn't have it, in a country that didn't have it. And what's striking is how strongly he makes the business argument. I don't think that's why he believed there should be public education, but he clearly believed, as you can tell from reading these reports, that in order to sell this idea, he had to sell it to businessmen as good for economic development in the then-underdeveloped state of Massachusetts.

So the argument has been around for a long time. The idea that there once was an ethic of public education, a firm commitment to public education, for reasons that had nothing to do with business, and now it's being taken over by businessmen -- I don't really buy that. There are definitely excesses in that direction. But, I think that argument tends to be used by the ed. school folks as a way of dismissing the whole project of standards. Yes, you hear some of that [business speak], particularly if you go to talk to the Goals 2000 people, and people like that. But it isn't as if therefore all there is to standards is an attempt to turn public education into a kind of training appendage of corporate America.

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