School Beat: Business Roundtables and Our Schools

by Lisa Schiff on June 30, 2005

In a society so dominated by the interests of corporations, one should hardly be surprised at the central involvement of corporate executives in the development and implementation of education policy throughout this country. Those of us concerned with public education would be foolish to think that this corner of life is in anyway exempt.

A remedy for any such naivete is a reading of Kathy Emery’s dissertation, The Business Roundtable and Systemic Reform: How Corporate-Engineered High-Stakes Testing Has Eliminated Community Participation in Developing Educational Goals and Policies.

Some may have encountered substantial pieces of Emery’s research and analysis in a book she co-authored with Susan Ohanian called Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?. While I am loathe to deny royalties to authors and small presses, and have thought twice about breaking ranks with the many notable favorable reviewers of the book, the data, analysis and arguments presented by Emery in her dissertation are presented far more powerfully in her dissertation. Those looking for some historical meat should look there first.

There is much for all of us to learn, absorb, critically examine and discuss in these pages. While some of the arguments are not as strong as others, and while some readers may not agree with all of the conclusions, Emery has provided an excellent history of two important areas for San Francisco education supporters: how business leaders have been successfully able to create and implement public school policy; and two how those policies have played out in California and San Francisco in particular.

In the first area, business leaders and education policy, Emery documents the adoption of education reform as a key area on the part of the national Business Roundtable (BRT) (http://www.brt.org). Much of the material she draws on is available on the BRTs website, providing confirmation for her sources and some expanded context as well. Emery’s argument is that U.S. businesses were threatened by more efficient international competitors (notably from Japan) and needed to respond by reshaping the school system so that it would provide the type of employees who could successfully fill both service-sector jobs and work within the Total Quality Management (TQM) framework that was loosely adopted in the United States from Japan.

The outcome was a set of nine-goals and a charge on the part of members to work within or establish state business roundtables to implement these objectives. The goals ranged from the implementation of standards to the involvement of parents, but as Emery uncovers, the driving focus was the creation of high-stakes testing, evaluating the performance of students based on a single measure (one standardized test), and the curriculum standards, teaching practices, and administrative structures to go with them.

Emery’s argument regarding the use of TQM is the weakest part of her analysis about the Business Roundtables. In the United States, TQM has been used as a management tool in order to co-opt employees into feeling as thought they have some say over their working conditions, without actually providing any commensurate power. Rather than redesigning schools to produce workers who could fulfill the stated goal of TQM (e.g. workers who could problem solve and make decisions on the “shop floor,”) the data that Emery presents indicates that the rhetoric of TQM may have served the same purpose in the ushering in of high-stakes testing-making it seem like it was a part of increasing quality education for all students with the participation of all stakeholders. This is different though, then arguing that businesses saw a real need for workers who could operate in a model that there was no intention of implementing.

In any case, the history showing the ability of the BRT to establish goals, policies and methods for public education, get them adopted by state political leaders and then local school boards is fascinating and scary. Clearly documented is the intermingling in different policy and advisory bodies of elected officials and business leaders, as well as the bringing in to the fold (or at least the staving off of criticism) of education researchers, some parents, and some teachers.

One of the questions that continually arose in reading this history was how these leaders had been able to present themselves as the primary and most legitimate voice in school reform. As Emery demonstrates, parents and teachers were always put in minority positions. It is mind-boggling to consider that people with no specific knowledge of child-development or pedagogical practices were so willingly ceded to as they re-crafted our public school system. Even further, why is it that the needs of businesses, as opposed to, or at least in addition to, the needs of our society to have an engaged, effective citizenry were not given similar attention?

The second area that Emery focuses on is how the efforts of the Business Roundtable to implement the nine-point model played out in the adoption of education policy in California, in the policies implemented in San Francisco after the Consent Decree and by former Superintendent Bill Rojas, and finally, how they dramatically impacted Mission High School. We see the ever-driving focus on test-scores lead to reconstitution and the focusing of all education problems onto teachers.

The summary of the Consent Decree itself is worth reading, highlighting the different competing interests and how they were or were not met. The dirty history of Bill Rojas is particularly painful, and is made even more so by the detailed analysis of the dismantling of successful programs and community at Mission High School.

Emery’s work provides a rich history for understanding how we’ve arrived at this under-resourced, test-centric place in public education. Hopefully it is information that we can use to change who is crafting education policy and it’s implementation, and bring teachers and parents into the discussion.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS-SF).

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