The Corporatization of Education
Thirty-five years ago, when I first started teaching high school math and science, the principal at the school was an excellent teacher and a reluctant administrator. This combination resulted in him being a great administrator. He knew that the entire system, all the way from the classroom to the Ministry of Education, should exist for the sole purpose of creating happy, healthy, and motivated learners; a system that should strive to expose the joy that comes from ideas and their critical contemplation.
Teachers, of course, were at the front line of helping the students achieve these goals. The principal regarded his role as an assistant to the teachers in the classrooms. He worked to make the teachers more effective, by providing resources that only he could access on their behalf and, more importantly, protected them from any unreasonable time-wasting demands that might arrive from the Superintendent. The Superintendent, in turn, should act like an assistant to the principal in the school, providing resources that the principal requires in order to be more effective; and so on, all the way up to the Minister of Education.
He understood that education was a cooperative endeavour reminiscent of the cliché; it takes a village to raise a child. He viewed the education system as the “village’s” educational services provider. It was NOT a business or corporation. There is nothing wrong with the idea and existence of businesses and the pursuit of profit, but education is not and should not be a profit driven endeavour. And there lies the foundation of our difficulties with the education system; it is structured and managed as if it was a profit-driven business.
A business’s reason for existing is to make a profit. If a business does not make a profit, then it has to be reconfigured so it becomes profitable or it is closed down. Some strategies for becoming profitable can include cost-cutting, increasing revenues by selling more widgets, increasing prices, or expanding into new markets. The underlying concept here is that there exists a product that can be quantitatively valued and priced. Education does not have a product that can be quantitatively valued or priced, at least not in any obvious or easily accessible way. The value of education is so enormous and non-linear that it seems meaningless and arbitrary to assign it a value.
Education that promotes critical thinking, which in-turn leads to a fundamental understanding of how nature works, makes technological advancement possible. This technological advancement is what has driven human cultural and economic development throughout recorded history. Education leads to knowledge which makes technology possible which promotes the growth of economies and the ability to fund culture. Throughout history, the most advanced societies have always been the most educated ones.
So why have we corporatized education? The simplest answer is, to make it cheaper. This of course cannot work because education does not have an easily measurable or monetized output, so the only way to make it cheaper is to cut the funding (since you have no way of increasing the price of the product). The fact that the education system is not a business, and therefore will not respond to partial (and antiquated) business management practices, has not stopped the political machine from hammering this management structure directly into the architecture of the education system.
It began with Mike Harris’s refusal to view principals as teachers and the subsequent forced removal of them from the teacher bargaining collectives. This allowed the installation of the corporate management style (albeit, an out-dated version) right into the individual schools. The nearly instant effect of this, was the loss of cooperation and collegiality at the school level which, as outlined earlier, is genetically fundamental to good education. This provided an uninterrupted, unopposed pipeline starting at the Ministry and flowing directly into the schools with which to deliver central dictatorial control. The only element separating and protecting the students in the classrooms from this corporate policy was the teachers. And their ability to protect the students was severally compromised by the sheer volume of inane policy changes that accompanied the corporatism: new curriculum, new ridiculous evaluation methods that did not allow percentage marks or deductions for work not handed in, and time-wasting, useless standardized testing that has been repeatedly adjusted in order to provide the results needed to justify the political policy. This is corporatism at its worst.
Even the language of the education system was corporatized; superintendants of teacher personnel were replaced with human resource managers (in my Board, none of them have prior experience in education, although one of them does have experience working in a casino); any program recommendations that are put forward have to now be justified by a “business case” that focuses on the “cost structure going forward”.
This business culture is also evident in the importance placed on carrier advancement. Except for a few anomalies, no-one leaving teaching and going into management does it reluctantly. They actively and eagerly jump through the committee hoops that produce nothing of value to the classroom teacher, but which make them look good on management paper. Excellent teachers repel from this form of advancement because they have to deal with the empty and useless directives, which are produced by these people, and which rain down on them and rob them of time with their students. Also, and more telling, is the fact that excellent teachers are too busy with their class work and extracurricular activities to participate in self-promoting committee work. None of this promotes happy, healthy classrooms.
Since “cost-cutting” is the preoccupation of businesses and governments alike, starting with the Mike Harris days, and since in the “business” of education, the largest cost is in human resource, and most of the human resource is made up of teachers, of course the biggest “bang for your cost-cutting buck” is going to be found in teachers’ salaries and benefits. That is why teachers in Ontario, just a few years ago, lost their sick days (which they had negotiated for, instead of increased monetary compensation over the course of the last thirty years) and had to take a 2% pay cut on-top-of-that, while management gave themselves raises at the end of August, just before the government made it illegal to do so; a move that would make any corporate leader proud. What effect does all this have on the classroom?
So here we are, beating-up on the teachers, who are the last obstacle to the full integration of the business model into the classroom. I fear for my children’s education if the complete corporatization of education, right down into the classroom, is ever achieved.