Skip to main content

Burden of false economy

Michael Duffy commends a US-based text that challenges the assumptions of market-obsessed reformers

The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: why schools can't be businesses

By Larry Cuban

Harvard University Press pound;15.95

The connection between the economy and the education system is seldom questioned. It is almost an article of faith that more effective schooling will create a more effective workforce and increase productivity, global competitiveness and wealth. Conversely, we believe that what holds good for the economy must hold equally good for schools: the hard disciplines of competition, performance and accountability; the bottom line. At best, the absence of such measures produces (as the Confederation of British Industry invariably tells us) a cohort of unemployable school-leavers; at worst (as in the United States' apocalyptic 1982 report, A Nation at Risk) it threatens the very security of the state.

But is it true? Does this unfaltering connection actually exist? Larry Cuban's The Blackboard and the Bottom Line challenges the assumption and its effects, not just on schools but on the wider polity too. To an educationist, his qualifications seem impeccable. He is a textbook product of the US school system: second generation American, the first of his family to go to college, 20 years a high school teacher, 10 years a school district superintendent, 10 years and more a researcher and historian of education, and now professor emeritus at Stanford University, California.

To the policy-maker, of course, that makes him suspect, but it is the case he makes that counts. His first proposition is that there is nothing new in the argument that schooling's primary purpose is the economic betterment of individual and the state. Quite the reverse. In the US, he shows, this argument has waxed and waned for at least 100 years, from the time Britain and Germany were seen to be the US's most powerful rivals to the recent past and present when the USSR, Japan and China have been cast by turn in that role.

In its first phase, it saw the vocationalisation of the public high school curriculum: the introduction of workshop courses to address what was seen as the US's deficit in industrial skills. From the 1970s onwards, though, this thrust was reversed. The new prescription was basic skills, academic standards and, of course, ICT. Cuban argues that there is no evidence that vocational education affected individual earnings or productivity, and that this may hold equally true of our current preconceptions.

But these preconceptions have created an irresistible coalition for root and branch reform. President George Bush senior's secretary of education, Lamar Alexander, is quoted as saying: "What schools need is what businesses have been through. We have to turn schools upside down."

"If our students can't compete today," asked IBM chair John Akers in 1991, "how will our companies compete tomorrow?" The result has been a powerful and prescriptive consensus for accountability, high-stakes testing, rewards and penalties and, especially, parental choice and market forces. "You can't manage what you can't measure," has been the prevailing mantra. It has familiar overtones.

The difference between the US experience and our own is that the US does not have the tools of enforcement that politicians here do. Except financially at the margins (the main significance of George W Bush's No Child Left Behind Act) there is no central political control. There are no national teaching standards, no threshold to ensure compliance, and no Ofsted. That helps to explain Cuban's second argument: that apart from demanding a stifling traditionalism in teaching, the reform coalition hasn't changed the quality of learning. There are too many checks and balances for teachers, administrators and parents to exploit. Sometimes, he says, that's just as well.

So, part of Cuban's case is that the reform movement is not achieving its declared objective. Even the rapid (and, to many businesses, highly profitable) take-up of ICT in schools has failed, he says, to produce convincing evidence of raised standards. The performance of the US economy since A Nation at Risk appears unrelated to educational expenditure or performance; so, for that matter, does that of Japan, the spectacular rise of which triggered this particular panic.

Much more fundamental to Cuban's theme is the claim that business-inspired prescriptions are damaging to schools and to the country as a whole. The reformers' argument - it holds on this side of the Atlantic, too - is that "effective" education is the ladder to prosperity for everyone; that schooling is the answer not just to economic problems but to social and political ones as well. There are echoes of this in the UK debate about citizenship education.

Cuban's argument is that the business and market model necessarily creates a hierarchy of schools and children in which, however race-blind or colour-blind the individual initiatives may seem, the children of the weakest or the poorest come off worst. By way of example he cites the widespread US practice of "holding back" children who do badly in their year-end tests. "Under this ruling Lake Silver elementary school in Orlando, Florida, held back 23 of its 101 third-graders," he says. "20 of these children were poor. 18 were black."

So the reformers' long-standing claim that effective public schools will eventually solve such issues as racial segregation, poverty, lack of patriotism, and even alcohol and drug abuse is doubly dangerous. It distracts the attentions of politicians and business people from what they could be doing, and it distracts the schools from what they should be doing. The public schools are too important, says Cuban, echoing the words of Thomas Dewey a century ago, to be seen merely as the nation's packhorse, carrying the burden of its problems; too important, too, to be just "businesses".

What then is the role of business in schools? Cuban is a realist, and he ends his straight-talking (though sometimes repetitious) plea with some optimistic suggestions. Tone down the rhetoric of failure, he says; target the most needy; give teachers some ownership of what they do. Recognise that civic engagement is a key role of our school system; train your own employees. And remember (it's his central theme) that education is about values and understanding as well as about competencies and knowledge.

It is an unfashionable case, but it is sharply relevant to our current pre-occupations. It is scholarly, well-documented, and shot through with a passion for community-based education. Very readable, and recommended.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you