American Education & Corporations: The Free Market Goes to School
reviewed by Bridget Terry Long - 2002
Title: American Education & Corporations: The Free Market Goes to School
Author(s): Deron Boyles
Publisher: Garland Publishing, London
ISBN: 0815328214 , Pages: 1st edition Vol 1 , Year: 2000
Search for book at Amazon.com
When we think about the mixing of education and the private sector, most often our attention focuses on the debate surrounding vouchers and the private management of schools. However, as Deron Boyles points out in his book entitled, American Education & Corporations, the influence of the business sector has long been evident within the American school system. Today, school-business partnerships number over 140,000. Boyles’ book outlines the sometimes-subtle ways that these associations impact the learning process and affect society’s perception of what education should be. As the current tide of education policy uses terms like "standards," "objectives," "outcomes," and "goals," we are reminded of how the purpose of schools in the United States has increasingly become linked to business interests. From former President Bill Clinton’s speeches about job training to President Bush’s call for accountability to state governors’ links between state economic-growth strategies and schools, Boyles’ book is a cautionary tale of how the integration of the corporate machine into the school system can be detrimental to American education.
Boyles suggests that there are three main problems with the "encroachment of corporate culture" in schools. First, the corporate partnerships often limit or reduce the ability of students to become critical consumers. Instead, Boyles writes, young minds are exposed to marketing campaigns continually throughout the curriculum and learn to accept products without real scrutiny or examination. The second problem stems from the fact that only programs with corporate support are enacted. This thereby restricts the actions of teachers to decide what curricula, texts, and projects are best for their students. However, Boyles’ third criticism of corporate influence is the strongest and fundamentally questions what the objective of education has become. He asserts that highlighting the needs of firms for certain kinds of workers "reinforces the assumption that schools primarily exist for workforce preparation." The book discusses the tension between "general education for citizenship versus specialized training for economic production." Boyles reviews how the question of "when will I ever use this?" has replaced real intellectual pursuit and the development of the perception of schools as sites for workforce preparation now dominant among policymakers.
Boyles’ strong criticism of corporate influence in American schools is clear, and he readily admits that the entire text is "philosophically normative." However, the authors points are well-supported by numerous examples and extensive citations within the endnotes. In discussing each point, Boyles aptly cites the work of many researchers to trace the origins of business involvement and review the literature and theory of applying business principles to education. However, the true strength of the book is in the numerous examples utilized throughout the text. One chapter examines the details of one business partnership to illustrate "the meaning and questions raised about funding conflicts and the degree to which business agendas influence schooling" (p.61). Many other examples of school-business partnerships and other forms of privatization are also outlined.
The idealism of the author’s statements about what education should be reminds us of how, in practice, the learning process has been reduced to a bare minimum of objectives in many schools. However, it is somewhat understandable why education has developed this way given past failings and lack of resources (financial and otherwise) in many schools. Furthermore, the integration of the business principle of assessment into the current scope of policy seems reasonable to many. While Boyles is critical of this movement by stating that such evaluations do not necessarily require true reflection on how to improve American schools, his indictment is not complete. He suggests that the current focus on identifying the weaknesses of students and schools should lead school leaders to define an education-oriented vision of public schools. Boyles writes, "reflection is "part of what is necessary to elevate schools from being training-oriented sites for consumer materialism to being education-oriented sites" (p. 63). However, Boyles reminds us that true reflection can not be reduced to quantifiable test scores.
Towards the end of the book, Boyles’ discussion turns to the more-prevalent concerns about privatization within education. Such programs, like vouchers and privately-managed schools, reduce schooling to "client expectations," "saleable goods," measurable products," and the "delivery of chosen services." Criticisms of such practices follow the arguments introduced earlier in the book. Especially highlighted is the concern about the advancement of the idea that schools should serve only to supply businesses with qualified workers. Boyles also warns that the acceptance of such plans ignores the possibly serious consequences in term of class, culture, and gender. While school choice initiatives are still highly debatable, Boyles points out that "most current schools are already close to the privatization vision, as demonstrated in their stratified, deterministic, and reductionistic approaches to teaching and learning" (p. 160).
The final chapter of the book attempts to outline how schools, teachers, and students must change in order to reach the higher ideals of education. Boyles primarily focuses on the role of teachers and the need for them to embrace critical transitivity – the ability to make broad connections between individual experience and social issues. As expected, the recommendations are not in the form of an easy to follow checklist given Boyles’ criticism of how education can not be reduced to such elements. However, in the end, Boyles offers an important warning of why public schools should not be used to further private-sector gain and a vision of what the American system should strive to attain.