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What Is Big Business’ Interest in Education?

That is a question that troubles David C. Berliner, Visiting Professor and this academic year's Julius and Rosa Sachs Lecturer. In the first of three Sachs lectures this fall, Berliner examined the relationship between business and education.

To be sure, many business leaders ignore the business adage, which is that the only responsibility of the corporation is to its shareholders, Berliner said. But he said: "Very often the business community speaks out of both sides of its mouth. I do not believe it is always seeking what is best for America, and too often it is only seeking what is best for business."

The driving force for business' interest in education is the productivity of the American workforce. "Remember," Berliner said, "in 1983, the publication of The Nation at Risk made the case that we were unable, because of our terrible educational system, to compete with the other economies."

It is now 15 years later. Our number one international competitor, Japan, is grappling with a financial crisis that is affecting the world economy. "It appears that only one economy is still standing-shaky though it is-and no one on those doomsday committees has apologized. They still say our schools are awful and that we cannot compete economically."

Not only is that not true, Berliner said, but he added that America wins the "Triple Crown" in productivity. America has the strongest service economy and if it isn't number one, it is one of the top agriculture producers in the world. The third jewel of the crown is productivity.

For that point, he cites a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, which compares the productivity of Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom to the United States.

Of that group, the U.S. has the highest manufacturing productivity. Japan and Germany tie for second place. "And, still business complains," Berliner said with a hint of irritation in his voice.

Next he examined business' motives in a manner that the press never has. Neither educators nor the media questioned the motives of Louis B. Gerstner, Jr., of IBM when he said that "American education was broken and needed to be fixed."

But Berliner noted: "Mr. Gerstner needs a market for IBM computers and chips, and he needs a nation of qualified computer users. So why should his potentially biased voice in this debate about the schooling we need be privileged?"

Furthermore, if education became privatized, states could reduce corporate tax burdens-a notion that serves the interests of business leaders and of politicians who campaign on the promise of tax cuts.

That's not the only way business could cut costs. Corporate executives "want a more intimate link with education-building a school-to-work curriculum, particularly a technology-based curriculum, that serves their purposes," he said. Berliner quickly added: "This is not necessarily evil, but it ought to be acknowledged because in the extreme it could turn ugly, very ugly." For an example, he cited a conference for Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation. At the conference, Berliner said: "The Korean ministry of labor offered a paper that said ‘An emphasis on education for its own sake, or on education for democracy, must become subservient to an emphasis on education for economic development.' The report also states that school-to-work partnerships are needed to drive out those who advocate learning for the sake of learning," he said, adding, "Rest in peace, if you can, John Dewey."

Berliner continued: "This Korean report on education states that we have an oversupply of the educated and an undersupply of the trained. To shift the supply from the educated to the trained may require stringent high-stakes tests to help keep people out of the college preparation programs and thus out of college, while simultaneously channeling them into vocational and technical programs.

"If this sounds like the stuff of nightmares to you. If it sounds like there are movements in American education right now that seem to be in synchrony with these recommendations-welcome to my world," he said.

To take this example out of the abstract, Berliner, who is Dean of the College of Education at Arizona State University, cited technology standards adopted in 1997 by the Arizona Department of Education. The standards, which are included in the foundations for grades 1-3, state that students must know and be able to do the following: compare various computer processing, storage, retrieval and transmission techniques; read and follow directions in a technology instruction manual to construct a model or product; and demonstrate a basic understanding of computer theory including bits, bytes, and binary logic.

With a straight face, Berliner said flatly: "That's right-by the third grade!" He continued, "This is why I find the business community's involvement in education and the school-to-work programs scary. All the school and business relationships that sound so fine in the abstract, can prove quite harmful if not assiduously watched."

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