Skip to Content


Virginia Journal of Education


Giving Education the Business?

Comparing schools and corporations does educators and students a disservice.

By Priscilla Lindsay Biddle

It was a normal morning, as I watched CNN and ate my Cheerios – part of my ritual to get ready for the work day. I wasn’t really paying attention until one commentator intoned that we have to make American schools live up to our investments. More followed about how we have to be able to get rid of bad teachers and hold teachers accountable for student performance. I sighed and turned the TV off. As a 30-year teaching veteran, I really didn’t need that kind of talk as I faced another day in the trenches. But it started me wondering about the current thrust of education reform, the language of that reform, and where it has all gone terribly wrong.

You only have to keep up with the news to know that education reform is permeated with business language and mentality. Superintendents advertise their “business model” to reassure their constituents. Politicians talk about “the bottom line” when advocating making changes in our schools. This language phenomenon is not remarkable in itself. Economic language has long been used metaphorically.

The concept of a “marketplace of ideas” was touted by American founders like Paine and Jefferson and jurists like Oliver Wendell Holmes. This language creates an analogy between education and the free market: innovation flourishes best in competitive environments in which individual freedom of expression is protected. This wording has been used in opposition to censorship and as a rallying cry for academic freedom. Yet, at some point, the description of education in market terms has cheapened what we do, created inappropriate expectations in students and in the public, and done irreparable damage to the institution of public education.

Marketplace mentality

Many know that the marketplace is, in truth, not analogous to the classroom. The famed “blueberries story” of Jamie Vollmer recounts the epiphany that this businessman-turned-education reformer had when addressing a large group of teachers. He declared that teachers had to be accountable for their “product” as industry was – or face the market consequences, just as Vollmer had done in his very successful ice cream business.

A teacher in the audience asked him about his ability to control the quality of ingredients in his signature blueberry ice cream. When Vollmer assured her that only the finest ingredients were used, the teacher countered, “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 ADHD, 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!”

This experience taught him, in his words, that “a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.”
Market forces?
Market-minded reformers claim that public schools need the competition of charter schools; then they can either improve or go under, ridding the system of its chaff. But charter schools don’t really offer fair competition to the traditional public school. Many charter schools are freed from the bureaucratic requirements faced by traditional schools.

Although more accountable in terms of results based on their charter goals, these schools also have the luxury of choice – students who choose to go there and the school’s ability to choose them. So while traditional public schools must take all the “blueberries” and follow stringent guidelines of operation, a charter school may choose its students as well as how it meets their needs. Ironically, on a macro level, studies indicate that the difference in the overall success rate of traditional schools as compared to charter schools is indistinguishable. There are anecdotal successes on each side; there are also struggling and even failing schools of both models.

Another market force, incentivizing salary and benefits, has also been advocated as a way to turn our schools around. But we’re back to the blueberry ice cream problem with that idea. A factory worker in a textile mill is appropriately paid for the number of socks she can turn out in a day because all the knitting machines are equally well-maintained and the yarn is the same for each worker. While teacher skill certainly makes a difference, we must all admit that not all of us teach students who want to be taught or who have parents who can or will ensure that the children are ready to learn each day. This model of rewarding teachers for performance also robs the student of his responsibility and relegates him to the same status as auto part, yarn or blueberry.

The bottom line?
The “bottom line” of educational failure is that we have not adequately defined what an education is and what purpose it serves, from kindergarten through graduate school. Of course, we can cite Jeffersonian ideals of an informed electorate. Yet, how many college graduates can pass the citizenship exam given to our newest citizen? Thus, creating social responsibility doesn’t seem to be the prime function of our educational system any more. Again, it’s all in the way we use and misuse the language.

Students think they need to get an education so they can get a diploma to go to college so they can get a good job. The syntax is very telling. To “get” or “receive” an education implies passivity. The passivity implied in this grammatical construction has corrupted the public’s understanding of education, an active and interactive process, and has contributed to the popular understanding of education as commodity.

Students and their parents are referred to as “clients” or “customers.” Teachers and staff are trained in “customer service.” This description of the teacher-student relationship enforces an inappropriate inactivity on the part of the student. Teachers are service providers, and students are consumers. Information, then, becomes the product exchanged. Yet, we all know that learning algebra or understanding the forces that led to World War I or being able to analyze a poem requires more active engagement than buying a shirt at your local department store. While teachers must use a degree of “salesmanship” in convincing rambunctious teens that subject-verb agreement is valuable, the educational experiences we provide are not a commodity. To reduce education to a product to be bought and sold is to cheapen human endeavor, period.

The misperception of education as commodity also threatens to corrupt the integrity of the classroom. If the diploma is the product to be gotten, grades become the legal tender. Learning becomes of secondary, or even tertiary, importance—getting that “A” becomes all that matters. As we’ve seen in the corporate world, the intense allure of short term profit—and doing anything to achieve it—has toppled giants like Enron and others. Educators see a similar rise in student cheating. Consider these statistics from a US News and World Report survey:

• 80 percent of "high-achieving" high school students admit to cheating.
• 51 percent of high school students did not believe cheating was wrong.
• 95 percent of cheating high school students said that they had not been detected.

Where is the profit?
Business is about profit. Who’s profiting from making testing the “bottom line” of education? Not the public. States, in an effort to assure that they earn AYP and accreditation and therefore gain the taxpayers’ trust, set achievement standards too low. While accreditation in Virginia hinges on 70 percent of students passing each subject’s end of course tests, the actual passing score on tests like the Reading, Literature and Research, given in grade 11, is 57 percent. The questions on that test, and others, are at the lowest level of thinking according to Bloom’s taxonomy. So, the “bottom line” is really bottom of the barrel.

It is worth noting that testing is big business. Testing companies are raking in millions in profits on their programs. Of course, these companies are only providing what their clients ask for, but has management in education – upper-level administration, legislators and governors – sold us a pig in a poke?

Getting to the bottom of things
If we really want to save public schools and the teaching profession, we have to agree to what we actually want to accomplish. My proposal for accountability is for actual, measureable, real-life skills. States need to abandon individual end of course tests, whose measured data is essentially useless. Instead, each state school system should require students to be reading at grade level at benchmark levels, such as 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th grades. This measurement is nationally normed, real-life oriented, and remediable in actual terms.

Instead of hiring testing personnel, we can get reading specialists for every school and every target grade level. These professionals would be responsible for coordinating teaching reading skills in every subject area and for remediation. Testing instruments are readily available. Think of the millions of dollars that could be saved; think of the scores of children whose lives will be on a productive track because they can read well.

If school systems really want a final test for graduation standards, then why not use the tests that are the benchmark for the next level – the SAT. But it will have to be adjusted. Any aptitude test in which students can regularly achieve a perfect score no longer really measures aptitude. The logic and analogy portions need to be restored to those tests. Students are exposed to more information in one week of the New York Times than was available in the entire seventeenth century. Thus, the skills of the 21st century are discrimination, logic and evaluation – the higher thinking skills once measured by the SAT.

Finally, if we really want to reform the teaching profession, address certification. We should look to groups like the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. This rigorous and meaningful program focuses on the teaching and academic standards for each subject and level. Teachers must prove themselves in subject expertise, pedagogical know-how, and professional accomplishment. Likewise, evaluation of teachers, once it’s in place, needs to be real and informative. “Drive-by” evaluations by harried administrators who judge teacher efficacy by whether standards are written on the board and on how many students are on task at any given time shouldn’t be the standard by which teachers are granted continuing contract. Teachers need to demonstrate, in writing and by interview, ability in curriculum planning, assessment creation, lesson design, and professional reflection. This cannot be accomplished in a 15-minute walk-through.

If we can certify that teachers are experts in their subjects and fields and if we can make the students’ outcomes tangible in terms of skills that people need in the world to work, to vote, to visit art museums, and to raise families – that is, to read, discern and think – then maybe, just maybe, we can actually get down to the business of educating our young.

Biddle, a member of the Henrico Education Association, is the International Baccalaureate program coordinator at Henrico High School.



Virginia Capital

Fund Our Schools Now


Check out our products!


Embed This Page (x)

Select and copy this code to your clipboard