The Corporatization of Public Education

June 08, 2010

By Marissa Litman, MPA student

Urban school districts and failing schools have been turning to corporations for everything from feeding their students lunch to teacher training. Budgets are dwindling, and they are reaching for anything that holds the promise of improvement for their schools and their students. Large corporations of all types have been supplying training, materials, and mantras to public schools throughout the country.

From the world of computers, IBM developed the KidSmart learning program of computer activities for pre-K students. Dell runs the TechKnow program, a forty hour course that teaches middle school students basic Microsoft computer skills. Students that complete the program earn a free Dell computer. Google has developed its own Google Teacher Academy designed to train teachers to deliver lesson plans using Google products.

Schools pay for basics through Nike and Pepsi ad-covered book covers and hallway billboards, and millions of students watch Channel One programs (that contain advertisements) in exchange for televisions and satellite dishes. Brands like Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Subway are found in school cafeterias.

For profit “Educational Maintenance Organizations” like EdisonLearning Inc. and Mosaica Education Inc. (formerly Advantage Schools Inc.), combined have taken over the running of public schools in over 20 states and their results are mixed. So much so, that in 2008, the School District of Philadelphia, “seized” four of the twenty schools that they had turned over to Edison for poor performance.

And then there is Philadelphia’s School of the Future, one of the newest models in corporate partnership that took off from a meeting in 2003 between Microsoft and then Philadelphia School District CEO, Paul Vallas. Instead of a tradeoff or exchange for branding, advertising, or free computers, or a full-fledged takeover, the state of the art high school, which opened to students in 2006, was built with school district capital improvement funds for $64 million and Microsoft provided the “human capital.” Every student in the school receives a laptop along with wireless internet in the school and broadband in each students home. Microsoft provided consultation on the building technology, basic professional development for teachers using the technology and their framework for success, their six “I’s”: introspection, investigation, inclusion, innovation, implementation, and yet again, introspection. The school administration and teachers were responsible for planning the curriculum and goals of the school according to this framework.

SOF was meant to be an experiment in a new type of corporate partnership, one that could be replicated for similar schools throughout the country and the world. But recently SOF has come under scrutiny from parents, students, administrators, and current school district CEO, Arlene Ackerman for expected low graduation rates and underperforming students on SAT tests among its first graduating class. Critics site that despite the available technology and Microsoft’s Education Competency Wheel, for teacher hiring and student performance, this experiment has failed.

Whether or not SOF is a failed experiment will only be answered in time. But the big question is, are corporate partnerships a good thing for schools on any level? And should these companies be held responsible for influencing students’ unhealthy eating habits or for failures in school performance despite their investments? When budgets are being slashed on an already ailing public school system, can schools afford to dismiss corporate sponsorship?

Critics like Philip Kovacs, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Alabama fear that this corporate presence in schools causes them to remake themselves in these corporations’ images and that this is a detriment to the students, their communities, and democracy. According to Kovacs, “schools, according to philosophers such as John Dewey and Benjamin Barber, are the mechanisms by which democracies maintain and recreate themselves and must be tended by a mindful citizenry, not corporate leaders.”

Marissa Litman is a second year MPA '11 Candidate at Fels and an Associate with Fels Research & Consulting. Prior to Fels, she worked in development for Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, PA.

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