12 years ago this article made frightening predictions. Sadly, they are a reality today in American education.
PHI DELTA KAPPAN
The 500-Pound Gorilla
By Alfie Kohn
The best reason to give a child a good school. . .is so that child will have a happy childhood, and not so that it will help IBM in competing with Sony. . . There is something ethically embarrassing about resting a national agenda on the basis of sheer greed.
– Jonathan Kozol
I give a lot of speeches these days about the accountability fad that has been turning our schools into glorified test-prep centers. The question-and-answer sessions that follow these lectures can veer off into unexpected directions, but it is increasingly likely that someone will inquire about the darker forces behind this heavy-handed version of school reform. “Aren’t giant corporations raking in profits from standardized testing?” a questioner will demand. “Doesn’t it stand to reason that these companies engineered the reliance on testing in the first place?”
Indeed, there are enough suspicious connections to keep conspiracy theorists awake through the night. For example, Standard & Poors, the financial rating service, has lately been offering to evaluate and publish the performance, based largely on test scores, of every school district in a given state – a bit of number crunching that Michigan and Pennsylvania purchased for at least $10 million each, and other states may soon follow. The explicit findings of these reports concern whether this district is doing better than that one. But the tacit message – the hidden curriculum, if you will – is that test scores are a useful and appropriate marker for school quality. Who has an incentive to convince people of that conclusion? Well, it turns out that Standard & Poors is owned by McGraw-Hill, one of the largest manufacturers of standardized tests.
With such pressure to look good by boosting their test results, low-scoring districts may feel compelled to purchase heavily scripted curriculum programs designed to raise scores, programs such as Open Court or Reading Mastery (and others in the Direct Instruction series). Where do those programs come from? By an astonishing coincidence, both are owned by McGraw-Hill. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have some influential policy makers on your side when it’s time to make choices about curriculum and assessment. In April 2000, Charlotte K. Frank joined the state of New York’s top education policy-making panel, the Board of Regents. If you need to reach Ms. Frank, try her office at McGraw-Hill, where she is a vice president. And we needn’t even explore the chummy relationship between Harold McGraw III (the company’s chairman) and George W. Bush. (1) Nor will we investigate the strong statement of support for test-based accountability in a Business Week cover story about education published in March 2001. Care to guess what company owns Business Week?
Stumble across enough suspicious relationships like these and your eyebrows may never come down. However, we don’t want to oversimplify. The sizable profits made by the CTB division of McGraw-Hill, as well as by Harcourt Educational Measurement, Riverside Publishing, Educational Testing Service (ETS), and NCS Pearson(2) – the five companies that develop and/or score virtually all the standardized tests to which students and prospective teachers are subjected – cannot completely explain why public officials, journalists, and others have come to rely so heavily on these exams. Let’s face it: for a variety of reasons, people with no financial stake in the matter have become boosters of standardized testing.(3)
More important, even if one could point to a neat cause-and-effect relationship here, the role that business plays in education is not limited to the realm of testing. Indeed, its influence is even deeper, more complicated, and ultimately more disturbing than anything we might reveal in a game of connect the corporate dots. Schools – and, by extension, children — have been turned into sources of profit in several distinct ways. Yes, some corporations sell educational products, including tests, texts, and other curriculum materials. But many more corporations, peddling all sorts of products, have come to see schools as places to reach an enormous captive market. Advertisements are posted in cafeterias, athletic fields, even on buses. Soft drink companies pay off schools so that their brand, and only their brand, of liquid candy will be sold to kids.(4) Schools are offered free televisions in exchange for compelling students to watch a brief current-events program larded with commercials, a project known as Channel One. (The advertisers seem to be getting their money’s worth: researchers have found that Channel One viewers, as contrasted with a comparison group of students, not only thought more highly of products advertised on the program but were more likely to agree with statements such as “money is everything,” “a nice car is more important than school,” “designer labels make a difference,” and “I want what I see advertised.”)(5) More…