Sunday, June 5, 2011

K. Webster on the undue influence of businessmen on our public schools

Kathleen Webster engages with Jonathan Alter on his attack on Diane Ravitch and his praise of Bill Gates and the other Billionaire Boys Club for their involvement in  public education. For earlier critiques of Alter's attack , see here and here.  Kathleen points out that at the same time Gates and other corporate mavens are seeking to impose their favorite policies on our schools, they are contributing to hugebudget cuts here in NYC and throughout the country, by not paying their fair share of taxes. Thus their irresponsible behavior is causing a double whammy to our public schools. Microsoft, Gates' company, is one of the nation's prime experts in tax evasion; for more on this, see here and here.

To Mr. Alter: I leave it to others to debunk the absurdities of the rest of this article. But, Re: "what’s wrong with business executives ... devoting time and money to public schools? " If businesses executives would shoulder their share of the tax burden instead of milking this country for all its worth we would not need their "largesse" to fund our schools. And public schools could get back to the business of supporting the minds of our children to handle the complexities of this world.

So, "what's wrong with it"?  We don't want business executives in charge of the ethos of our education system by buying their way into positions of influence.  Because, speaking of your ironic comment, "That went well for this country...," I think we all know how that ethos has played out for everyone else.  K Webster
On Jun 5, 2011, at 11:23 AM, wrote: In your view, What's the motive of business in this context?

K's response: Thanks. Fair question.  But whether the motives are sinister or utterly based on good intentions, has no bearing on the prospect of undue influence of an outside interest in a public school. Everyone comes to this issue with a perspective honed by their life and outlook. I do too.

For example, those of us who are white and/or those of you who come from moneyed backgrounds will have an ethos (spoken, acknowledged, known, aware - or not) out of which decisions get made that  impact those who are, for example: not white, not moneyed. And frankly, we are not smart enough to be making those decisions. Business has a vested interest and a belief that their method, their ethos is the way forward. I understand that - of course they would! I fiercely disagree with that ethos for many reasons. 

The number one reason is that it doesn't work. It is not even working in the business world - except for the very very few. I think that no single influence should hold sway in schools, and certainly no influence without a thorough, ongoing and transparent vetting by the communities and teaching staff that a school intends to serve or employ. 

We've seen over and over again the presumption of "rightness" of a dominant and dominating culture/class/race/gender that gets proven so wrong in the light of progress.  But probably more insidious in all of this, is the gutting of public funding for education, which leaves parents and those who would fight for children (especially children who have been targeted by racism or economic depravation) hunting for the "goodies" that corporate sponsorship has in abundance. How do you turn down that offer? Even if you don't understand it or have time to investigate the long-range consequences of it?

Many small businesses in my community have stepped up and do step up to share their wealth because they believe in the principals who work hard to make the local schools excellent. They give her the money and assume she will know how to spend it. Of course businesses large and small should donate funds to schools!  
But not as a substitute for the paying of a fair share of their taxes so that WE the public and those who run our schools get to determine what gets spent where and for what.  The destruction of the infrastructure needed to create schools that are truly open and public is in no one's best interests. Everyone's ethos ends up being too narrow to be allowed to determine a school in any way. That takes a collaborative effort with all minds engaged, but particularly those who are most impacted by the end results.

Thanks for asking. Yours, K Webster


K Webster said...

more on Alter: (I do appreciate the discussion!):

On Jun 5, 2011, at 1:44 PM, wrote:

We totally agree on taxes and the shame of corporate power in this country. That has nothing to do, however, with the Gates Foundation and others funding education models that have been proven to work.
- Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

K Webster response:
But while Bill Gates dabbles in his experiments with our children's education Microsoft engages in
off-shore tax dodges and a host of other manipulations in order to avoid paying very large quantities of taxes in this country.

I'd rather have those taxes in hand and directed by electeds, parents, communities, students and people who have knowledge
of the field (by successful years worked in schooling and/or by years of study and degrees) who would choose where the money would
best be spent in the public interest. Even if there was disagreement, that is a conversation worth having!

It doesn't work to have education policy be driven so powerfully by an individual (no matter how savvy he or she feels themselves to be). It just strikes one as sheer hubris that someone who hasn't spent much time in the field of public education either as a consumer or as a worker (nor elected -later comment)
should feel entitled to influence on such a broad scale.

Again, the ethos matters. Business in this country is all about competition. I think we are fast learning that ruthless, mindless
competition ultimately does not beget a good or even functional world. There is a point to some competition- when you push someone else to be their best and they push you to do the same.
But this pervasive corporate kind of competition breeds insecurity and insecurity does not breed thought it breeds panic. You
may "survive", even "win", but it is a poor winning that is self-serving and narrow and a low functioning intelligence that must focus on survival rather than letting one's mind "soar".

I think that the unexamined piece in all of this is that when you have corporate or business interests trying to play a big role in education
that world-view imbues everything. I don't want us to be trying to create job training programs for future competent workers for companies - I want us trying to create schools and institutions that encourage students to own their world, that invite curiosity and compassion, that reward investigation and inspire their naturally scientific minds. Children love to learn and they will figure out their world if we give them the room and support to do so.

I guess that's why I don't think these models work. They are based not on a human model- on what makes a human successful- but on a corporate model that has a very narrow, very pale definition of a successful life.

Last, I read an interesting book, "How Lincoln Learned to Read". It's all about how people learned what they needed to know: Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Ben Franklin, Elvis Presely, etc. It changes the discussion to a more interesting, more complex one as regards education.


sloopiel said...

You are spot on!

Anonymous said...

A useful primer on business "fads" in higher education (now a decade old!) is by Robert Birnbaum.

The first chapter is accessible here: