Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Big business should not be allowed to dominate education planning', Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 2008, p. 15.

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Giant Swiss bank UBS, the “world’s biggest subprime loser” according to an Age headline, and the recipient of a multibillion dollar bailout courtesy of Swiss tax payers, is sending controversial former corporate lawyer Joel Klein to “spruik” his business friendly school reforms in Australia. Federal education minister, Julia Gillard “welcomes the active involvement of UBS” in education reform. Since her recent US visit she has been championing the “remarkable outcomes” she claims Klein has achieved in New York where he is City Chancellor of Education.

Joel Klein, who was previously CEO of the transnational media company Bertelsmann, believes schools should be run like businesses and is an enthusiastic promoter of for-profit public schools (known as charter schools in the US). He told Fortune magazine “We’re converting the role of the principal into a CEO role.”

To this end Klein set up the New York City Leadership Academy and put Jack Welch, retired head of General Electric, on the board to train the new guard of CEO-principals. On occasion, according The Nation magazine, Klein has referred to “children as cars in a shop, a collection of malfunctions to be adjusted”. Teachers, he said, needed “to ‘look under the hood’ to figure out the origins of the pings”.  Maybe he should rename his teachers “mechanics”.

Klein’s key ideas – accountability, a focus on outcomes as measured by standardised tests, and increased autonomy for school principals (also referred to as school devolution) – are not new to schools, nor limited to US schools. They have been advocated by business coalitions for almost 20 years and are in place to varying degrees throughout the English speaking world.

In 1989 the powerful US-based Business RoundTable (BRT) began a major ten year campaign “to reform the entire system of public education” in the US. What the business leaders wanted were standards “that spell out what students should learn in school and how well they should learn it”; tests that ensure that teachers and schools stick to the material spelled out in the standards; and consequences for those that don’t; as well as increasing budgetary and management autonomy at the school level.

The BRT campaign was firstly aimed at narrowing the scope of school education to the basic skills employers wanted, particularly literacy, numeracy and computer skills, thereby avoiding the sort of education that might encourage too much critical thinking in future employees. Secondly, it sought to undermine demands for increased  government spending to increase student-teacher ratios and improve school resources by shifting responsibility for the quality of education to individual school managements and teaching staff.

Teachers have always used tests of various kinds to assess how well students are learning and which students are falling behind. However standardised tests are aimed at assessing teachers and schools rather than for educational purposes. They ensure that poorly resourced schools spend most of their time drilling students to be able to pass the tests. Instead of aiding their students to develop their potential, teachers help them to remember the authorised information modules for long enough to pass the test.

In the US as much as a quarter of the school year can be devoted to test preparation and test taking. In New York, Klein requires students in grades 3 to 8 to be assessed five times a year. The assessments are supposed to show where the students have gaps in their knowledge so lessons can be tailored to fill those gaps.

For the first few years of any testing regime, as students get used to sitting standardised tests, as teachers learn how to teach to the tests and coach students in test-sitting techniques, and as schools narrow school curricula, test scores tend to improve. So it is not surprising that New York city students are getting better scores in the national standardised tests. This enables Klein to claim great educational improvements even though a national study found that New York City has one of the worst graduation rates in the US, 43rd out of 50 large cities.

Gillard is now preparing to adopt key elements of Klein’s business approach for  use in Australian schools on the basis of Klein’s ability to improve student test results, without examination of what those test results really represent. Will she unquestioningly adopt the business mantra of “standards, assessment and accountability” in the face of opposition from education experts?

Education is not a business and corporations that have made such bad judgements with regard to their core business, like banking, shouldn’t be poking their gnomic noses into our schools.

Professor Sharon Beder’s book, This Little Kiddy Went to Market: The Corporate Capture of Childhood, will be published by Pluto (London) in 2009.