Why Business Leaders Make a Mess When They Are Put in Charge of Schools



Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, "White Boy: A Memoir," was published in the spring of 2002.

Every time I have a conversation with someone who has been successful in business -- something that happens more than you might think because I play tennis and golf -- it strikes me they have no understanding of what motivates a teacher. As people who have marked their own success in life through the accumulation of income, investments, and property, they find it hard to respect people whose personal satisfaction comes largely from non-material rewards. They think it odd that a person as competitive as I am on the court could possibly devote myself to a field which has no chance of making me rich. They look on most teachers and professors with a bemused contempt -- I only get an exemption from it because of my sports skills.

This is why it is frightening that business leaders have taken charge of education in the United States, because the only things they take seriously as motivation are material rewards and fear of losing one's job or business. They are convinced that schools in the U.S. can only be improved if a business-style reward-and-punishment system is given primacy. They love the idea of performance evaluation based on hard data (with student test scores being the equivalent of sales figures and/or profits), of merit increments for those who succeed, and the removal of those who fail.

Because they fail to understand how much of a teacher's job satisfaction comes from relationship building and watching students develop over a lifetime, however, they create systems of evaluation which totally eliminate such experiences because they cannot be reliably measured. The consequence, sad to say, is that measurement trumps real learning. The inevitable results are the massive demoralization of the teaching force (teacher morale is now at the lowest in recorded history), a narrowing of the curriculum to constant test preparation, and a "brain drain" of talented teachers from high-poverty schools to those located in more prosperous neighborhoods.

Why we actually allowed people who are successful in one field to be given control of a field in which they have no experience and no track record is a question historians of the future will need to ponder, but the results, so far, have been near catastrophic. All across the country, we have more and more teachers who hate their jobs because their job security has been destroyed, and more and more children who hate school because of the constant testing.

It's time to change course. The Great Recession should have shattered once and for all the idea that the measurement and motivation systems of American business are superior to those in the public sector. (E.g. do we want the same quality of teacher ratings as Moody's and Standard and Poor's applied to mortgage-based derivatives?) American business needs to clean up its own act, not applied its flawed methods to other fields. If we continue on the path we are on, we may well see the American Education system become as corrupt, and unstable as the Global Financial System.

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