A CEO’s Point of View: Children as Products for Corporate Consumers

Business Gets Schooled, a long piece in the January 1, 2016, issue of Fortune, perches the reader as a fly on the wall of the corporate board room during a conversation among CEOs about public education.  This blog has argued that while public schools are the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent, education policy is being made by the One Percent.  Business Gets Schooled explains how that works.

The reporter, Peter Elkind—whose point of view dovetails nicely with the thinking of the business executives he is profiling—describes the involvement of Bill Gates, Exxon Mobil’s Rex Tillerson, and IBM’s Lou Gerstner, without even wondering what these people know that qualifies them for imposing the Common Core standards on the schools. One wonders if the corporate giants who hatched the standards ever leave their offices to spend time with their own children or grandchildren. As profiled in this piece, they do not acknowledge the existence of a credentialed education profession or of a vast body of academic literature on child and adolescent psychology or learning styles or the role of family economics in educational success. Neither does Elkind seem to know about any of this.

Exxon Mobil’s Tillerson stands out. For him schools are a kind of machine:  “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer… What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation… Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it?  Or is it defective, and we’re not interested? (American schools) have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future.  Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings.  So it’s really serious.  It’s tragic.  But that’s where we find ourselves today.”

Here is how Elkind desribes the genesis of the Common Core Standards: “In truth, Common Core might not exist without the corporate community.  The nation’s business establishment has been clamoring for more rigorous education standards—ones that would apply across the entire nation—for years.  It views them as desperately needed to prepare America’s future workforce and to bolster its global competitiveness.  One measure of the deep involvement of corporate leaders: The Common Core standards were drafted by determining the skills that businesses (and colleges) need and then working backward to decide what students should learn.”  “When it came time to draft the provisions, career readiness was a central focus.  The writers spent their first two months learning what colleges and businesses wanted high school graduates to know by the time they arrived on their doorstep.  From there, the writers ‘back mapped,’ crafting grade-by-grade benchmarks to get them there.”

We learn in this piece that Achieve, Inc. the non-profit that has faithfully promoted the corporate reform agenda, was founded in 1996 with help from Lou Gerstner, IBM’s CEO: “To CEOs, the issue has always been a no-brainer.  In an increasingly global economy, what sense does it make for America to have 50 different sets of education standards?  Gerstner helped establish a nonprofit called Achieve Inc. in 1996 to promote education reform.  With a board filled with governors and CEOs, the group served over the next two decades as a sort of lab for the national standards movement.”

Threading through Elkind’s piece is documentation of the role of Bill Gates and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation : “The Gates Foundation would help bankroll virtually every aspect of Common Core’s development, promotion and implementation.  ‘This is like having a common electrical system,’ Gates told the Wall Street Journal in 2011.  ‘It just makes sense to me.'” The Gates Foundation is described as having spent more than $220 million over the years on in the entire development and roll-out of the Common Core. We learn that the Gates Foundation invested $27.9 million on the Collaborative for Student Success, a public relations firm whose purpose was, “to spin news about Common Core and respond fiercely to opponents’ charges.”  The Gates Foundation even paid a think tank for a positive evaluation of the program being developed: “The most detailed appraisal (funded with $959,116 in Gates Foundation money) was conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute…. Its 370-page analysis found the Core standards ‘clearly superior’ to those in place in ‘the vast majority of states.'”

There are a lot of scary assumptions in this article.  But what frightens me most is realizing that the conversation in the corporate board room and the conversation in the education establishment—the public schools and the universities where educational research is conducted and published and where teachers are trained—do not overlap at all.  This report makes it pretty clear that the One Percenters using their power and their money to shape the public schools that serve 50 million of our children have very little understanding of the operation of schools or the realities that challenge educators.