The Education Business
Assessing the application of an economic calculus to the classroom
Ever since the later nineteenth century, American schools -- from elementary grades through college and graduate training -- have increasingly pitched themselves to vocational and practical objectives. The overall aim is to benefit individuals by preparing them for better, higher-paying jobs, and to benefit the nation by providing a more productive workforce and stronger economic output. Market forces driving education in this direction have intensified in the last 30 years. But recent results have caused a bit of backlash. How, exactly, have economic pressures shaped and, in some cases, distorted American education? This iductive workforce and stronger economic output. Market forces driving education in this direction have intensified in the last 30 years. But recent results have caused a bit of backlash. How, exactly, have economic pressures shaped and, in some cases, distorted American education? This important, multidimensional question is drawing increased attention. Three recent works address aspects of this challenge in ways that ought to involve anyone concerned about how we educate, and why.
David Kirp's Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line examines how marketing techniques and motives are transforming four-year colleges, professional schools, and research universities, with mixed results. Market forces, he notes, can get out of hand and corrupt the "soul" of institutions. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson see "vocationalism" as the largely successful essence of what they call "the Education Gospel," now applied from kindergarten through the doctorate, but want reforms: "The logic of markets, individual gain, and consumer choice has come to dominate much of formal schooling." In The Blackboard and the Bottom Line (yes, another "bottom line" title), Larry Cuban argues that schools cannot be at their best when run as if they were businesses, and that the intervention of the business community in America's public schools, particularly in secondary education, has become increasingly simplistic, at times counterproductive.
To varying degrees, each book cautions against market forces and economic pressures -- Kirp and Cuban quite strongly, Grubb and Lazerson less so. On one crucial point they all agree. Current systems of funding education, public and private, do not adequately promote equality of opportunity. Both the way we pay for public schools and the way we ask students to pay for college exacerbate rather than level socioeconomic differences. Because education and class are more tightly coupled and stratified than ever, social mobility is damaged. It is good to recall the warning Justice Brandeis sounded in 1941: we can have a democracy in this country, or we can have a great concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.
The authors of these books recognize that the economic forces they critique are much more than a century old. Vocationalism, competition, commercialism, personal gain, and institutional self-promotion have existed at least since the Morrill Act of 1862, which founded land-grant universities (yet those universities simultaneously proclaimed practical and liberal objectives). Educating students for the workforce transformed the American high school three generations ago. Yet, each book also insists that some "cusp," something "increasingly insistent" (Grubb and Lazerson), something "new" (Kirp), and a now "ubiquitous influence of business-inspired approaches" (Cuban) has arisen in the last three decades. The force of money has become paramount and, even though always necessary and often admirable, it has started to look more like an idol, an end, rather than a means of accomplishing educational objectives.
Kirp's lively book relies on revelatory case studies. Using New York University, the University of Chicago, Dickinson College, DeVry, Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley (where he is a professor of public policy), the Universities of Florida, Michigan, Southern California, and more, he ferrets out beautifully the increasing influence of "the raw power that money directly exerts over so many aspects of higher education." Money influences -- and frequently flatly determines -- admissions, financial aid, the presence of "star" professors, the control of law-school curricula, priorities for scientific research, forays into distance learning, plans for expansion, and the very names of institutions (Beaver College becomes Arcadia University). Even institutions whose wealth should make them immune from financial concerns about survival often walk a fine line between a money ethos and their academic missions. The pervasive extent to which these forces now operate is new. Kirp convincingly shows that we have entered a new era, an age not of ideas but of money. (Even in his superb account, the great minds decorating his title -- Shakespeare and Einstein -- do not appear in the index because they and their kin are never mentioned, quoted, or engaged. They work as marketing on the cover.)
Kirp rightly sees positive as well as negative results. Older practices could hurt institutions too proud to regard the bottom line even in an effort to promote a more militant intellectualism. "Market forces" can turn some institutions "into stronger, better places. Still...the university at its truest and best" promotes "values that the market does not honor." Kirp explains lucidly, for example, the complex situation at the University of Chicago. Its rigorous program attracted excellent students, but the attrition rate was very high for a selective college. How could more students, more of whom would graduate, be attracted without compromising standards? The ensuing debate -- about money, curriculum, size, and priorities -- embroiled the university. President Hugo Sonnenschein stepped down, but his successor has largely followed the policies Sonnenschein set, such as gradually increasing the number of undergraduates and reducing slightly the number of their required core courses. One comes away with heightened respect for the trade-offs that every administrator must weigh, and for the fact that in education, as in government, there are no easy answers at the top. At NYU, John Sexton has lured "stars" to adorn the university, but has created a significant cadre of much lower-paid adjuncts to teach, at least to teach undergraduates. NYU now has a world-class masthead in, for example, philosophy, but has it created a plantation system of teaching slaves?
Kirp and the coauthors of the case studies (Elizabeth Berman, Jeffrey Holman, Robert Ness, Patrick Roberts, Debra Solomon, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen) make concrete the ways in which money now drives higher education and has at times driven out -- or driven into hiding -- its other goals. These include education of an informed citizenry, the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, scientific research without regard to immediate economic utility, and a debate about the ethical applications of technology. For those who want to understand the prevailing ethos of marketized education at institutions of higher education, their work is required reading.
Grubb and Lazerson (who teach at Berkeley and at the University of Pennsylvania, respectively) support the tradition of American schools directly serving workplace and personal economic ends. That admirable tradition has helped to create universal education. It has vastly increased the number of students who complete high school, college, and graduate training. The United States and American education have prospered under a gospel that yokes learning to work and promotes the idea that any individual can "get ahead" by learning more. On average, personal lifetime earnings correlate with educational achievement, and the relative advantage of a four-year college education, historically present for many decades, has in the last two grown markedly.
But even as Grubb and Lazerson support the Education Gospel, its present incarnation troubles them. They judge that, as a policy, it has become too exclusive, narrow, and overbearing. Its unrelenting stress on "change" has morphed into an empty mantra. "In addition, the contribution of technological change is often oversold" (a fact Cuban demonstrated in an earlier book). Grubb and Lazerson call this drum-beating version of the gospel "HyperVoc." They wish to temper it with other (also traditional) aims of education that have been crowded out by the more easily measured and understood goal of private economic benefit. They call for learning as a set of goods, not solely vocational and economic productivity. Vocationalism in their view needs a mid-course correction, so market forces alone, however vital, don't determine educational policy: "If we could integrate the nineteenth-century vision of education with the occupational emphasis of the twentieth century, a noble version of the Education Gospel might be within our grasp." That older vision included a "common good" that embraced "civic, moral, and intellectual purposes." In other words, back to the future.
Yet politically, it's popular and expedient to put vocationalism at the top of a list of educational benefits -- and to make that list one item long. Economists debate how much advantage education affords any country in the global market, but it's clear that it gives an individual, on average, a personal advantage. And good research universities contribute to national productivity. But several things have gone sour. As the population at supposedly higher educational levels has increased, standards at each level can no longer be guaranteed. Vocational issues -- even basic competencies -- get delayed. For example, the authors say, "much of the community college curriculum...is concerned with basic skills in reading, writing, and math." In other words, the schools themselves have been awarded "social promotions."
Even though only 30 percent of all American jobs now or in the foreseeable future require more than a high-school education, the lure of college as a credential is so strong that about 60 percent of all students attempt college courses, and "College for All" remains a slogan. (However, only about 60 percent of all students who enroll as freshmen at four-year colleges now will eventually graduate.) The result is that most college graduates and students who have some college credits discover that "good" jobs are scarce. High schools try to play catch up, get everyone through, and hold students together until the promised land of college. Thus, as another result, Grubb and Lazerson report that the high school now is the most troubled of educational institutions. The curriculum becomes "simply something to endure while waiting for something else." On another front, their analysis of community colleges is exceptionally good.
They contend that even selective liberal arts and sciences colleges are inherently vocational because many of their graduates eventually obtain professional degrees. Yet a liberal education traditionally has emphasized the very qualities that Grubb and Lazerson wish to see form a "common good": citizenship, sympathetic understanding of different fields of inquiry and professions, a consideration of moral choices, and an understanding of different cultures and languages.
Unfortunately, this idea of a liberal education seems to the authors either anachronistic or beyond their grasp; their discussion forms the weakest part of the book. They refer to the "fragility" of liberal education and only fleetingly admit that they themselves must return to its convictions: "professionalism broadly understood provides its own avenues back to liberal education." In other words, vocationalism does have a place for "ethical issues...an approach to history...conceptions of work relative to other spheres of life" and "civic responsibilities."
Their answer to the malaise hitting vocationalism, especially in high schools, is more vocationalism, though bolstered with the very aims and goals currently jettisoned in the name of market forces -- a smarter vocationalism, absent "Hyper Voc" and attuned to real opportunities, rather than to what people who want to sell schools something have defined as "opportunities." Grubb and Lazerson believe that more "internships...service learning, and other forms of work-based experience" would enhance most sectors of higher education.
They, like Cuban, maintain that too great an expectation has been placed on public education and on America's schools in general: "Treating education as the exclusive avenue to increased equality is a terrible mistake." Our educational system is expected to level the playing field and to solve social and economic issues that in reality require multiple policies aside from school reform. Grubb and Lazerson call instead for a "Foundational State" -- not (they insist) a welfare state, but one that has decent (i.e., not today's) healthcare, tax, housing, urban development, race, and social policies.
Cuban sounds many of these themes (with fewer internal contradictions) as they arise in the link between businesses and public-school reform (K-12), a link dating to the late nineteenth century. In the last 20 years, "Educators borrowed from the corporate closet innovations that industrial leaders claimed had turned around Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and other major firms." These innovations include "strategic planning, restructuring units, participatory management...and linking salaries to outcomes." He argues that business leaders could do much to improve schools (as a few have), but that in the last 25 years, "Well-organized, politically powerful groups holding defective theories of action aimed at effecting school reforms trump facts time and again." Many business leaders have heavily financed the promulgation of faulty theories, often through political agendas and candidates. Cuban (professor emeritus at Stanford's school of education) claims, with data to support the finding, that "no body of evidence demonstrates clearly that students learn more, faster, or better by using computers."
Like Grubb and Lazerson, he believes that in an era when students are often treated as products rather than as people, civic and ethical education needs revival. When Cuban was a superintendent of schools in Virginia, for example, his district did a huge daily business with local firms, but the chamber of commerce repeatedly snubbed any idea of increasing the school budget. After several years, Cuban resigned from the chamber.
The logic of current reforms, Cuban maintains, emphasizes only what can be quantified, often in standardized (usually multiple-choice) tests: "In the steady push from business leaders for higher academic standards, more testing, and holding students and educators responsible for outcomes, policymakers (and parents) have endorsed a system of schooling that has hardened traditional forms of school organization and narrowed classroom pedagogies." This rigidity ironically ignores several skills crucial to job success, such as the ability to speak and write effectively and the ability to work well in small groups. Teachers feel forced to teach to the test. Cuban spent many years teaching in a public high school and, perhaps as a result, his book is suffused with hands-on wisdom and direct talk: no ed-speak here. He's not polemical and readily admits that others who have not devoted their lives to his profession may have different yet important views.
Cuban urges six steps: tone down the business rhetoric (akin to getting rid of "HyperVoc"); target schools in poor rural and urban areas; encourage teachers to own reforms, rather than react to them; restore civic engagement; revive community service in businesses; and enhance job training in businesses (even few well-to-do corporations spend more than 1 or 2 percent of their budgets on training).
Each book charts the decline -- today, often the absence -- of earlier educational ideals, sacrificed to a newly narrowed market regime: one that, in the end, subverts the health and long-term prosperity of the nation. Society is more than its economy; it also includes beliefs, judgments, ethical decisions, acts of tolerance, acts of curiosity, and acts of charity. Education addresses all these factors.
Each book champions a return to education as a set of multiple goals. It is about time this idea received more attention. These authors argue that money and private economic gain are indeed part of those educational goals, but do not and should not comprise all of them. The relationship between education and the economy should not be one of merger but of contract. The market and the schools are two overlapping but different systems, and each will contribute more to the health of the other by recognizing those genuine differences. Together they have a common, broader goal, one that neither alone can fully effect: a more prosperous and a more just society.
James Engell, Gurney professor of English and professor of comparative literature, chairs the department of English and American literature and language at Harvard. His book (with Anthony Dangerfield) Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money (University of Virginia Press) will be published in April; a preliminary treatment, "The Market-Model University: Humanities in the Age of Money," appeared in this magazine's May-June 1998 issue.