Corporate Involvement In Education Essay

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The relationship between public schooling and the economic workings of capitalist society has long been a concern of social theorists, from European neoMarxists such as Louis Althusser and Paul Willis, to American critics of industrial/corporate capitalism like Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, and Martin Carnoy. Early initiatives by the business sector to reform public education usually focused on tailoring the curriculum to the needs of industry; critiques of such initiatives stressed the school’s role in preparing students to be docile workers within a stratified labor market.

In the decades since these critiques evolved, however, both capitalism and public education have undergone profound changes. The U.S. economy, and public life in general, have been transformed by the advent of digital information and communications technology; corporations aggressively market their products to a huge student population with billions of dollars in disposable income; and beleaguered government entities are increasingly turning to for-profit, private corporations to manage public institutions like hospitals, prisons, and schools. Given the pervasiveness of these developments, it is hardly surprising that new and varied linkages have arisen between public education and private capital and that educational debates are increasingly articulated in the idiom of the corporate boardroom. This entry looks at this phenomenon by focusing on its evolving perspectives about students.

Students As Workers

Larry Cuban identifies two key periods of business inspired school reform. The first, from 1880 to 1930, was a response to the economic and social transformations that accompanied the rise of U.S. industrialism and the concomitant waves of European immigration. Despite the thousands of immigrants and rural Americans flooding the cities in search of factory jobs, employers had trouble finding workers with the technical skills they needed. Around the same time, the invention of the corporation revolutionized the organization of large businesses. The increasing concentration of wealth and power in corporations, along with the professionalization and bureaucratization of management, meant that U.S. capitalists were well positioned to reform schools to better meet their labor needs.

Industrialists also began to feel the pressure of global competition more acutely and to look to the European technical schools of the time as a model for U.S. school reform. The business sector found common ground with progressive social reformers, who saw public schooling as a potential solution to the social ills of burgeoning urban slums.

Armed with new principles of “scientific management” and new technologies of standardized assessment, this alliance gave rise to the vocational education movement; within a few decades, this movement had reshaped the purposes, curriculum, and organization of public schooling. By the 1930s, high schools had ceased to be selective, elite institutions that prepared the children of the wealthy for college, and had become mass institutions that prepared more than half of all U.S. youth between the ages of fourteen and seventeen to enter the world of work.

Students As Raw Materials

Reform initiatives of this era cast students not only as future workers, but also as the “raw materials” in a technical process of refinement. The business model of educational management focused on the quality of the final product, that is, young people possessed of the skills and orientations required by business. The apprenticeship model of learning gave way to the institutionalized transmission of skills, with the attendant emphasis on bureaucracy, hierarchy, standardization, and certification. In addition to teaching technical skills, schools were expected to instill in students habits of punctuality, obedience, efficiency, and other characteristics of a “good worker.”

In contrast to the “administrative progressives,” with their emphasis on education’s potential contributions to the national economy, “pedagogical progressives” drew on the ideas of John Dewey for inspiration. They focused on “the whole child” and on teaching and learning as a means to develop students’ intellectual gifts and civic sensibilities, thus deepening their critical engagement within an expanding, democratic public sphere. Although these ideas gained an important place within educational discourse, the administrative progressives had a deeper and more lasting influence on how most modern schools—their personnel, curricula, pedagogy, and assessment practices—are organized and managed.

To this day, the business model of management holds a firm place within the discourse of educational administration and policy making. Local, state, and national panels of “educational experts” invariably include business leaders, who often argue (or assume) that the primary goal of schooling is to increase economic competitiveness, and describe students in terms of “human capital” and “value added.”

From A Nation At Risk To No Child Left Behind

In the late twentieth century, corporations’ roles expanded in many aspects of public life. In 1983, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the link between schooling and national economic health was further strengthened with the release of A Nation at Risk, the report of the president’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. This report warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity” in education, sounding the alarm in explicitly nationalist terms. A much-quoted passage from the introduction reads: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

A Nation at Risk deepened the focus on educational outcomes (as opposed to pedagogical processes) and called for widespread reform based on the development of standards-based curricula, a longer school day and year, and more rigorous requirements for high school graduation and admission to college. These recommendations eventually evolved into the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, passed by Congress in 1994. However, given the limited federal role in educational decision making, the specific substance of reforms remained primarily in the hands of the states, and by the end of the century many of the stated goals had still not been reached.

It was not until 2002, under President George W. Bush, that the federal government assumed a more concrete and authoritative role in educational reform, with the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (actually the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965). NCLB, as it came to be known, set specific goals and deadlines for improving student performance and eliminating “achievement gaps” between students of different ethnicities and income levels. Critics argued that the measures established in pursuit of these goals were based on an overly narrow definition of student performance, and limited schools’ options with regard to pedagogical strategies to address achievement gaps. Furthermore, NCLB was in large part an “unfunded mandate,” in that it set strict requirements for school districts to continue to receive federal funding (which generally constitutes about 15 percent of their operating budget), but did not make available the fiscal resources to carry out the required measures.

The emphasis on “accountability” included sanctions at various levels if performance requirements were not met: students could be retained or prevented from graduating; merit pay could be withheld from teachers and administrators; and schools could face reduced funding or even reorganization, under which the entire teaching staff could be replaced. Simultaneously, school districts were experiencing a fiscal crisis brought on by the new federal requirements, increasing enrollments (especially of low-income and immigrant students), and squeezing state budgets. This combination of factors opened the door to a new era of corporate involvement in education.

Students As Consumers

Faced with rising costs, shrinking budgets, and the threat of sanctions, schools turned to the private sector for help. Corporations moved quickly into the gap, motivated in part by an important realization: that business had an interest in students not only as workers, but as consumers. As corporations became aware of the huge potential of the “youth market,” they began to seek new means and venues through which to tap this market. Shifts in educational policy provided a range of opportunities to reach students with corporate messages, from traditional forms of advertising, to product placement in educational materials, to the publishing boom in standardized tests.


Increasingly, businesses are “partnering” with schools, offering financial support in exchange for access to a captive student audience for their advertising. Examples include corporate sponsorships of school sports arenas and uniforms, school cafeterias serving fast food from Burger King and Pizza Hut, and soda contracts that pay schools to install vending machines in their hallways (often with “sales quotas” that put pressure on school administrators to increase students’ soda consumption).

In elementary schools, students’ academic performance may be rewarded with coupons for free meals at Sonic or Taco Bell. Printed materials sent home with students, such as monthly lunch menus and order forms for school book fairs, contain word games and advertisements featuring well-known cartoon characters with marketing tie-ins to movies, toys, and fast food. Forty percent of U.S. high schools also broadcast Channel One, whose daily program (which is obligatory for students under the terms of the contract) consists of twelve minutes of teen-oriented news and two minutes of commercials; its advertising rates are comparable to those for prime-time network television.

Curriculum Materials

In addition to explicit advertising through traditional media like television ads and stadium scoreboard signs, many corporations have developed curriculum materials for use in public schools. These materials use academic subject areas as contexts for promoting commercial products; for example, teachers can use brightly illustrated books and online lesson plans to teach young students “M&M Math,” with the colorful candies as counters; Revlon offers lesson plans that guide students to explore the relationship between their hair and their self-esteem; and Exxon produces classroom videos on ecofriendly oil-drilling practices.

Since these materials are sent free of charge to teachers (even teachers who have not requested them), they are often eagerly adopted by schools struggling under shrinking budgets. Furthermore, since they involve no financial outlay on the part of the school district, such materials are not subject to the (often lengthy) vetting and review process that regular textbooks undergo. Given these highly profitable developments in school-based media, it is hardly surprising that entire advertising agencies and trade journals dedicated to tapping “the student market” have sprung up.

Standarized Testing

NCLB’s emphasis on “accountability” dovetails with corporate interests in less obvious ways as well. The law gave rise to an explosion of standardized testing in public schools, and the “high-stakes” consequences of students’ performance on these tests leads many schools to invest thousands of dollars in test preparation materials. Schools’ financial outlay around standardized testing has been a huge boon for textbook publishers. Critics stress the financial cost to schools and the educational cost to students of making standardized tests the central focus of instruction and assessment. Some have also denounced the channeling of billions of education dollars into scandal plagued but profitable private ventures such as “Reading First” (owned by McGraw-Hill, whose CEO Harold McGraw is a long-time friend and supporter of the Bush family) and “Ignite Learning” (owned by George W. Bush’s brother Neil).

Other Indicators

In addition to school-business partnerships, ads in curriculum materials, and the publication of standardized tests and drill booklets, the incursion of private interests into public education is also reflected in educational policies favoring charter schools and vouchers (under the rubric of “parental choice” and “flexibility”). Over the last two decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations have displayed a strong commitment to free-market policies, as well as to expanded federal control over schooling; one result has been to apply the logic of the free market to education, by making schools compete with each other for students (especially “desirable” students, i.e., those who raise a school’s average test scores). Standardized accountability measures, which are published in local newspapers, serve as the basis for “comparison shopping” by parents.

Numerous critics have noted the growing trend of “contracting out” to private companies such government functions as military support, administration of social services, prison systems, and, increasingly, the delivery of educational services. Many educators feel that their professional priorities—prioritizing the well-being of children, encouraging a wide range of public debate, and deepening our democracy by cultivating well-informed, critical citizens—are incompatible with corporations’ inherent mission of maximizing profits and prioritizing the interests of stockholders. Nevertheless, given the growing corporate influence in all areas of public life, the corporation’s role in educational policy and practice seems unlikely to diminish in coming years


  1. Apple, M. W. (2001). Educating the “right” way: Markets, standards, God, and inequality. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
  2. Cuban, L. (2004). The blackboard and the bottom line: Why schools can’t be businesses. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Gerstner, L., Semerad, R., & Doyle, D. (1994). Reinventing education: Entrepreneurship in today’s schools. New York: Dutton.
  4. Giroux, H. A. (2005). Schooling and the struggle for public life: Democracy’s promise and education’s challenge. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
  5. Kohn, A., & Shannon, P. (2002). Education, Inc.: Turning learning into a business. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  6. Media Education Foundation. (2003). Captive audience: Advertising invades the classroom [Film]. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.
  7. Molnar, A. (1996). Giving kids the business: The commercialization of American schools. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  8. Molnar, A. (2005). School commercialism: From democratic ideal to market commodity. New York: Routledge.

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