Turning Learning into a Business

Kohn, A. (2004). Turning learning into a business. In What does it mean to be well educated?: And more essays on standards, grading and other follies (pp. 11-27). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

With the proliferation of standardized testing and the preparation that accompanies such assessments, it is difficult to argue that student learning isn’t heavily influenced by business. The companies that create and sell the state assessments are also the companies that create and market the [canned] programs aimed at helping students obtain a score of proficient on those same assessments. 

According to Kohn (2004, p. 17) there are three ways companies profit from education:

  • Through the selling of the tests that all students are required to take.
  • Advertising–be it Channel One, billboards surrounding athletic fields, or contracts with schools to sell specific products
  • By running entire schools

I agree that there should be accountability in schools for everyone involved–teachers, students, parents, administrators, etc. But the state of testing as it is is too much. In the school district where I teach not only do we have the six days of state mandated testing, but reading, language arts, math and science are tested through  NWEA three additional times throughout the school year. What are we saying to students, then, about their learning? Education and inadvertently learning, is quantifiable. It’s only worth the number at the end of the test, which indicates whether or not one is fit to graduate from high school. 

I don’t watch Channel One, and haven’t for a few years. The criticism I’ve heard of Channel One suggests that the majority of the program is tied up in advertising. According to Kohn, students that view Channel One are “more likely to agree with statements such as ‘money is everything,’ ‘a nice car is more important than school,’ ‘designer labels make a difference,’ and ‘I want what I see advertised'” (2004, p. 13).  The second of those–a nice care is more important than school–is an incredibly unfortunate statement. It means some students only attend school because it is mandated by law (which I’m sure is true of more students than just those who responded to the poll). 

An effect: schools may be taken over by corporations, or the private sector. The problem arises when there is no longer a public option. (Listen to me, it sounds like I’m talking about our nation’s recent healthcare issues.) Then, 

Schools dependent on private clienteles–schools that can gt rid of unwanted kids or troublemaker families…toss aside the losers–not only can avoid the democratic arts of compromise and tolerance but also implicitly foster lessons about the power of money and prestige. (Kohn, 2004, p. 16-17)

In the event that the entire educational system is owned by business people, what happens to those students who cannot afford tuition? Or those who do not match the make and model of a school’s expectations? I do not believe that it will come to this, rather, I hope it does not. But to me, it sounds like an effort to resegregate schools. That one worked so well the first time.

I like Kohn’s criticism of big business’s reaction to education. If modern corporations actually had similar goals to those of educators, they’d call us on our use of worksheets because they don’t build problem-solving skills in students, they’d push problem or project-based learning in a cooperative setting. They would stop talking about school choice–that is, a student or parent’s ability to choose what school a student attends–and rather talk about giving students choices about the way they approach their education (Kohn, 2004, p. 23). I’ve worked with two of the many programs created by big business to help students whose ability to read has not yet reached the appropriate quantitative measure. In those programs, I’ve seen worksheets, no projects, no push for cooperative learning or critical thinking on the part of both the students and the teacher. Counterintuitive?

The reality of businesses? They compete against each other for business. Within my own department, I’ve seen teachers use this rivalry to foster competition in the students–an effort to motivate students to perform better on the many tests we make them take. This is great for the business mindset. On a larger scale:

Other nations are likewise depicted as rivals, such that to make our schools “world class” means not that we should cooperate with other countries and learn, but that we should compete against them and win. (Kohn, 2004, p. 24)

I recently read a blog post about two teachers who worked together, studying a common event in history. These two teachers teach on different continents and used Skype to connect their classrooms. One of the language arts standards for New Mexico states that students need to experience multiple perspectives. We’re not talking about winning a competition here. We’re talking about 60 kids who got an opportunity to see how the other side viewed a common piece of history. 

My questions for education following the reading of this article are as follows:

  • If we privatize education, we are doing most of our nation’s children a disservice, widening the rift between those of means and those without. Does that mean that we continue with the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? 
  • What does privatization mean for the government funding of public schools? 
  • Are we moving toward segregating schools again? And what does this mean for the quality of education for all students?
  • As educators, are we doing nothing more than creating another generation of consumers?
Related Reading: 
Molnar, A. (2005). School commercialism: from democratic ideal to market commodity. New York, NY: Routledge.
Bradley S. Greenberg and Jeffrey E. Brand. “Channel One: But What About the Advertising?” Educational Leadership (December 1993/January 1994): 56-58.

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