This book review was originally published in Partisan issue no. 21, printed September 2005.

Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?
by Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian
(Heinemann, Portsmouth NH, 2004)

Is your kindergartner having trouble sitting through phonics lessons? Your eighth grader agonizing over algebra? Perhaps you are a teacher eying this year's testing schedule, and wondering when you are supposed to teach.

Parents, teachers, and anyone concerned about the future should read Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?, by Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian. The book explains how the movement towards standards and testing works against improving education. The authors document how businesses and corporations joined with politicians, both Democrat and Republican, to take public education away from the public.

The "standards" movement

The con job started with a media campaign to get us used to the language of "school reform." Business leaders masquerading as educational experts demanded "rigorous standards." When a California teacher and parent looked up "rigor" in the American Heritage Dictionary she found these synonyms: "stiffness, rigidness, inflexibility, severity, austerity." So much for a nurturing learning environment!

Edward B. Rust, Chairman and CEO of State Farm Insurance companies, is one of the many executives who talk about "prepar[ing] all students for the challenges and opportunities of the twenty first century." (p.7) But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has different projections for 2010: only 22% of jobs will require four years of college and another 9% will require an A.A. degree. (p.26) The big challenge will be finding any job opportunity, as the 11,000 people who lined up for 400 jobs at the recently opened Oakland Wal-Mart can tell you.

While claiming to prepare students for college, the proponents of standards and testing are pushing poor kids out of high school. The tool for the job is the high school exit exam, which is required for a high school diploma in California and many other states. Recent events in California illustrate the problem. After the state came out with its figure that about 88% of incoming seniors have passed the test (they will have three more chances during senior year), researchers at UCLA counted the dropouts. The class of 2006 had 490,000 students when they were sophomores and now numbers fewer than 450,000 seniors. The pass rate for the original class is 80%.

Who passes the test?

The real question is which students are passing. The UCLA researchers found that one fourth of California schools had a pass rate below 70%. Compared to the schools in which over 90% of students passed, "The low pass schools were three times more likely to be overcrowded, four times more likely to have critical shortages of fully credentialed teachers, and 13 times more likely to be eligible for state relief under last year's nearly $1 billion settlement of a lawsuit against the state over substandard conditions at schools across California."

(San Francisco Chronicle, "State test estimates excluded dropouts," August 24, 2005.)

Emery and Ohanian explain that the standards movement shifts the blame for school performance from the economic conditions of the students to "low expectations" on the part of teachers. The corporate sponsors impose a rigid testing policy instead of funding schools. They cite the 2000 report Things that Matter, by Public School Forum, a Raleigh, North Carolina think-tank related to the Business Roundtable: The report "argues that state funding formulas for public schools should not try to narrow the gap between amounts spent on rich and poor districts." (p.187)

Corporations are redefining education as the "delivery of skills." (p.149) But learning is not like signing for a package. The authors describe the difference between how business interests and scientists view the new science standards. Business applauds the requirement of memorization of endless facts (in California fifth graders are supposed to memorize the periodic table of the elements which I remember permanently posted in my high school and college chemistry classes). Scientists wonder whether students will get to investigate and understand scientific concepts. (p.150)

Looting the schools

Besides imposing a system of rote learning and testing without adequate funding, some businesses have found ways to loot school districts of their limited resources.

Take IBM's "Education Village" project in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina. IBM gave a $2 million grant, consisting of computers, software, consultants, and up to 25% in cash, to the schools. The school district paid IBM $6 million for land adjacent to IBM headquarters and floated an $82 million bond to construct the complex. When it turned out that two-thirds of the students in the new school were from the wealthy neighboring subdivision, the school board acted to come up with a fairer system of enrollment. This did not sit well with the local business leaders, who were more interested in real estate development than in education for everyone. (pp.190-191)

Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? is full of facts, diagrams, and references. Reading it will help people who are uneasy or angry about the current state of education gain knowledge and understanding of what is wrong and who is responsible. The next step is for teachers, parents, students, and community members to join together and fight for meaningful education for all and the economic resources to support it.

Ask your local independent bookstore to order Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?, or order it online from

More at the authors' websites: and

-- Reviewed by Marsha Feinland

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