Sinking Democracy by Selling Education

One stream of the current education reform movement seeks to “unbundle” public schools.   Arguing that the “one size fits all” model of public education doesn’t fit all, its reformers seek school choice, not only as choices between schools, but also as options for commercially supplied curriculum products within schools.

The approach of the “unbundlers” is spelled out in a series of articles in a book edited by Frederick Hess and Bruno Manno: Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-Group Reform.[1]  Hess is an education scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, while Manno is an official of the Walton Family Foundation, which is known for its advocacy of the privatization of public schools in this country.[2]

Their goal is to pave the way for commercial providers to sell curricular products in response to parental consumer demand.  Their strategy of reshaping schooling through a bundling of corporate products would lead to the distortion of schools as coherent educational institutions.  Given a “sprawling shopping mall” (the authors use that term) of choices, children and youth would be formed as consumers, rather than as citizens.

The future of such a blazing range of shopping choices is predictable.  Authors in Customized Schooling recognize that parents, choosing for their children, would have to be sold on particular consumer options.  Corporations selling to this market would naturally advertize their wares as aggressively as necessary to maximize profits.  Larger companies would buy up smaller ones to enhance their commercial power.  Segments of the market would be targeted, using what authors in Chapter 1 refer to as “psychographic” attention to consumer values and behavior.  To illustrate, they point to the example of advertizing Porsche cars to reach one consumer segment “for whom a luxury car is an escape and a bit of a guilty pleasure,” and note that sales “skyrocketed” in response to the ads (p. 5).

But while psychographic techniques to create consumer “needs” may be effective for selling cars, cereals and soft drinks, they are clearly not appropriate for creating “bundles” of curricular elements for schools.  In the shopping mall of school choices the biggest corporations and wealthiest consumers would have the biggest bang in influencing what happens in schools.  Low-income consumers would be marginalized.

Commercialized, which is to say privatized, schooling—should it spread like the authors of Customized Schooling hope it will–would serve the interests of big corporations rather than the needs of children.  We see it every day in the way sugary cereals and soft drinks work for corporate profit but not the health of children.  The parallel benefit for corporations in education wouldn’t happen all at once, but it would happen.

Also lost in the selling of education will be any holistic sense of the public good, which has historically been a key mission of the public schools at their best. Given the very diverse race and class population of the U.S., that would be a grave loss.  James Carroll wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed: “Exactly there lies our crisis, because no democracy survives without a sense of the whole.”

The health of our U.S. democracy desperately needs an all-out effort to strengthen public education.  Its goal must lie in forming competent, confident, self-directed, critical-thinking learners.  Such students master basic reading/writing skills in the pursuit of well-constructed curriculum delivered by well-prepared teachers.  Examples of strategies and practices for doing just that are available.  I will discuss them in future blog posts.

[1] Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

[2] See Diane Ravitch’s, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Apple Store Edition, Chapter 6.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Your argument that “the biggest corporations and wealthiest consumers would have the biggest bang in influencing what happens in schools” is supported by what has already happened with textbooks and instructional materials. Currently the biggest STATES, California and Texas, have a powerful influence on what happens in schools – because they represent the biggest textbook markets. Commercial instructional materials today largely reflect what Texas wants, not necessarily what another state or individual school district want. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, including the tendency of education leaders in Texas to impose political views on the presentation of both science and history.


    • Yes, but also with regard to Texas, which I know best, there is a strong ideological cast to the textbook choices made, most recently in the direction of right-wing political views.


  2. Posted by dvining on September 28, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    I agree that we need to help learners become competent, self-directed critical thinkers. We can’t necessarily get that by having to teach to standardized tests. I tell my students that I am working to make them intelligent, productive members of society who can cast their vote after weighing options and comparing them with what they personally believe.


    • Thanks for your comment! I appreciate the statement you make about what you tell your students. Do your students ever get a sense of where you stand on particular issues? If you don’t do that consciously or obviously, do you think your positions come out in subtle or indirect ways? You say “we can’t necessarily get that by having to teach to standardized tests.” I’m wondering how intrusive you find the standardized tests you have to teach to? Thanks for considering.


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