An Analysis of the Business Model for Education


History and Context
Classically speaking, education was generally regarded as an end in itself. Disciples of Socrates, Plato, Jesus, or Confucius didn’t show up for class in order to fulfill a requirement for graduation. If you asked a follower of Socrates, “why are you following this teacher around everywhere listening to his words?” he wouldn’t have answered, “I need to get a passing grade in this course in order to be a certified chariot driver.” The end of education was being educated. Being educated was, itself, a worthy goal, regardless of the economic value thereof.

Socrates teaching before his execution; his crime was teaching students to think critically. Has that become a crime again?
Socrates teaching before his execution; his crime was teaching students to think critically. Has that become a crime again?

The intrinsic virtue of being learned survived into the early history of the American Republic. According to the early Americans, religion, character, and education were cousins. The founding fathers wrote, "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." (U.S. Congress, 1787). People studied in order to be happy people and better citizens. This perspective remained even until the first part of the 20th century. But in the late 20th century, a cultural shift occurred that affected education as well as most every corner of American life. This event might be labeled the Business Model (BM) Revolution, a social paradigm shift where all activities are assessed with quantitative and economic measurements, and where all institutions take corporate practices as their model (Madrick, 2011).

In the corporate world, the chief ends are 1) profit growth, 2) efficiency, and 3) outperforming competitors.

Prior to about 1980, there was a rather clear line of delineation between business/corporate enterprises and societal institutions. Society was somewhat concerned about insulating the family, the church, and the school from the potential “greed” of corporate interests.

But that has changed. As far as family goes, gone are the days when most couples met for the first time face-to-face at church, school, or a chance encounter in the community. More people today “custom order” their mates via corporations such as and than meet in any other forum. And these corporations advertise that you can place your order for your future husband wife with a 29-factor checklist. There is little difference today between ordering a new pick up truck from RiverTown Ford, with all desirable accessories, and ordering your husband on a corporate website like EHarmony, with all desirable accessories (Heffernan, 2011).

ct-starbucks-jesus-logo.jpgIn the mid 1980s the business world also began to infiltrate religious institutions. The emergence of the “mega-church” was a result of business leaders teaching ministers and preachers the tricks of “focus-groups,” “surveys,” “marketing,” “spreadsheet analysis,” and “SWOT analysis.” Business execs convinced the Megachurch pastors to change the old paradigm of “preach what the people need to hear” to “preach what the people WANT to hear.” And it worked. Megachurches now have thousands of informally dressed participants every Sunday, and inside the church is a McDonalds and a Starbucks—custom ordered by the young adult demographic focus group (New York Times, 2002; ABC News, 2005Gite, 2001).

One of the principal institutions that has been affected by the Corporate Revolution is education. Success in education is now almost entirely measured by the analysis of quantitative outcomes generated through efficient computer-manufactured data. Efficiency goals have diminished the value of brick-and-mortar schools and led to a nearly frenzied obsession for online education (Christiansen, 2011).

Since education is no longer an end in itself, but only a means to the end of a diploma, degree, or certificate which entitles the holder to a paycheck, educational cheating has become an industry in itself. Businesses now exist that will sell students guaranteed “A” papers (Stevensen, 2001); other businesses will have one of their own take an online class in the customers name and guarantee an A grade (; still others will just sell the customer a diploma. Many administrators are now speaking in terms of students as “customers" (Sorrell, 2013).

This business advertises, "We take your online classes, quizzes, tests, and exams and you get the grade that you want on virtually any assignment."

The SWOT analysis is a convention of corporations that educators are adopting.
The SWOT analysis is a convention of corporations that educators are adopting.

The buzzwords in education now include old business jargon such as “data-mining,” “SWOT analysis,” and “marketing” (US Dept of Agriculture; Han, 2011).

What are the consequences of the BM? How has it affected the way in which teachers are prepared, teachers teach, and teachers are measured? What are the far-reaching consequences to society, to the nation, to the world? Is this a trend that needs to be reversed? Is it possible to reverse it? This article is designed to answer these and several other questions related to this important historical paradigm shift in American education.

Is this paradigm shift a trend or is it a persistent issue?

The move toward the BM for education began in earnest in the 1980s. But the shift is still in progress. The move toward entirely consumer-oriented schools has not been completed. In that regard, it is fair to call this matter a trend. But this trend causes us to be confronted with many issues. The obsession with data brought about by this trend is perhaps the most salient of issues. The nature of a student as a “consumer” is an issue that has changed the relationship and dynamic between the teacher and the student (Sorrell, 2013).

The main issue that the BM brings to the schools is an obsession with the “bottom line.” In business, the “bottom line” refers to profit, economic growth, and financial performance. Business people are trained to maximize profit and minimize costs. Efficiency is an idol of all in business. One of the most important ways that businesses achieve these goals is by eliminating poor performers within their operations. Poor performers hurt the data, the bottom line. In a school setting, the poor performers are the students who struggle the most. It helps the “bottom line” of a school when such students are “eliminated” (Bennett, 2013). Elimination means expulsion, drop out, or transfer. But is that what we want? Sir Ken Robinson cautions against "a culture of testing and standardization that has narrowed the curriculum and sees students as data points and teachers as functionaries rather than as living breathing people." (Robinson, 2013). Is it within our constitution to reduce students to “data-points”?

Robinson has articulated the consequences of the BM extremely well.

If you are interested in a model of learning you don't start from this production line mentality. This is essentially about conformity. Increasingly it's about that as you look at the growth of standardized testing and standardized curricula. And it's about standardization. I believe we've got go in the exact opposite direction. That's what I mean about changing the paradigm. (Robinson, 2011)
The BM demands data. But what data? And is the only goal of education the ability of a student to do well on a multiple choice test graded by a Scan-tron? Shouldn’t education have broader goals than that? Should schools be concerned with students’ ability to critically think? To be courageous? To be kind? To be good citizens? Those have always been a part of the aims of schools. But those factors are very difficult to reduce to data. The BM, then, has radically redefined the goals of education.

Perhaps the most notable formulation of the objectives of education was provided by Benjamin Bloom in 1955. “Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives” (Bloom, 2001) is classically represented as a pyramid upon which students move from lower order skills to higher order skills, culminating in their ability to think innovatively.

blooms_revised_taxonomy.pngBloom’s objectives begin with the student memorizing information, then understanding what they have memorized. Those are the “lower order” thinking skills. But Bloom felt it was ludicrous to end with those objectives. Next, according the Bloom, the student should be able to apply what she has memorized and understood. And then the highest order of skills is the student thinking for herself: her ability to form an opinion about an issue that requires a theory, and her ability to make value judgments based on what she has learned. Finally, Bloom wants a student to be able to think outside the box—go beyond the teacher—innovate. That has been the hallmark of America’s educational superiority (Hughes, 2004).

What the BM does, however, is chop off the top half of Bloom’s taxonomy. Assessing student learning must be done, for the sake of efficiency, by a computer, and a computer cannot assess higher-order thinking. Therefore, to serve the BM, half of the classic goals of education (perhaps the most important ones) have to be sacrificed. It was the absence of an emphasis of higher-order objectives in education that led Albert Einstein to offer his scathing critique of schools:
School failed me. I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but teachers wanted me to learn for the exam. I felt that my thirst for knowledge was being strangled by my teachers; grades were their only measurement. How can a teacher understand youth with such a system? . . . from the age of twelve I began to suspect authority and distrust teachers (Einstein, 1932).
Einstein actually attended school before this trend began in earnest; but his concerns were prophetic. But if he had been a student today, we can imagine that his rant would have been more passionate. One of the most significant elements of education that has been sacrificed on the altar of business efficiency is critical thinking. A strong case has been made that standardized tests, which are the idols of the BM, do not and cannot evaluate critical thinking skills (Gardiner, 2012). Insofar as teachers naturally target their teaching for test success, the result is that critical thinking has been devalued by many, entirely eliminated by others.

In Conclusion

The BM for education is having disastrous effects on the future of the nation. It is breeding a generation of American citizens who are severely handicapped in their ability to think critically. It is breeding a generation of American citizens who are educational "hoop-jumpers" who find buying a term-paper an activity entirely consistent with the BM (and rightfully so). It is breeding a generation of American citizens who have no real interest in education for education's sake, but only as an economic credential. Life-long learning is devalued. Character education is devalued. Personal interaction is devalued. Creativity is devalued. This is only a short-list of the negative consequences of this trend.

Reversing this trend must start at the top. The BM is a byproduct of the fact that most school boards are dominated by business men and women. If we wish to have a new reformation in education, it will only take place if the citizens demand of their leaders that their boards be comprised of people who are not slaves of the BM. Legislative acts to repudiate the BM would be a significant step in the right direction. The essence of such legislation would define the composition of the School Board to include members from various stake-holding areas other than Wall Street. Boards should deliberately be composed of students, retired faculty, teacher education professors, non-profit administrators, parents unaffiliated with corporations, and members of faith communities. Perhaps a very limited number of business affiliated persons could be included (see full proposal attached below).

  • ABC News. "Mega-Churches Offer Prayer, Play, Shopping" (May 27, 2005). A disturbing picture of how churches have merged with strip malls.
  • Bennett, Colette. “Why the Business Model is Not the Education Model,” Educator’s Room (February 18, 2013). A powerful critique of the BM.
  • Bloom, Benjamin, L.W. Anderson, & D.R. Krathwohl, eds. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Complete Edition (New York: Longman, 2001). An excellent revision of Bloom's Taxonomy that improves upon the 1950s version.
  • Brown, Patricia Leigh. "Megachurches as Minitowns," New York Times (May 9, 2002). An investigation of the way in which churches have embraced the BM.
  • Christiansen, Clayton. “The Rise of Online Education,” Washington Post (October 11, 2011). An article that advocates for the the innovations of online education.
  • Ediger, Marlow. “The Business Model of Education,” Teaching Social Studies (Discovery House, 2007). A critique of capitalist measures such as charters, vouchers, and "for-profit" schools.
  • Einstein, Albert, and William Hermanns, Einstein and the Poet (Brandon Books, 1983), 8. Einstein's powerful reflections on the wrongness of test-centered education.
  • Epstein, Marc. “Which Business Model Is Best for Education Reform?” Huffington Post (July 26, 2011). An article that explores the contradictions inherent in the BM.
  • Gardiner, Richard. “A Truly Radical Idea in Social Studies Education: Teach the State Standards," Journal of Contemporary Research in Education. 1(2) 2012; 86-92. An analysis of a standardized test. This article shows that the "standards" and the standardized tests are not aligned. Standards call for higher order thinking; standardized tests only test for lower order thinking.
  • Gite, Lloyd. "McDonalds Goes to Church," Black Enterprise (September, 2001). Announcing the opening of McDonalds in Brentwood Baptist Church.
  • Gonzalez, Juan. “Educators Push Back Against Obama’s 'Business Model' for School Reforms,” Democracy Now, September 3, 2010. An interview showing that Obama's "new" direction for education may not be an improvement over that which remains from the Bush years.
  • Greene, Jay P. "The Business Model," Education Next (Summer, 2002), Vol. 2, no. 2. A defense of High-Stakes Value Added assessments for teachers.
  • Han, Yaiwei. Data Mining: Concepts and Techniques (Elsevier, 2011). A standard text on this business technique.
  • Heffernan, Margaret. Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (Random House, 2011). A text including a discussion of the problems associate with turning relationship making into a business enterprise (eharmony).
  • Hughes, Thomas. American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970 (University of Chicago Press, 2004). A work which shows how important innovation has been to the success of the U.S.
  • Johnson, Shaun. “Consequences of the Business Model of Education,” The Chalk Face (July 15, 2013). A brief but incisive commentary on the BM.
  • Katopes, Peter. “The Business Model is the Wrong Model,” Inside Higher Ed (Feb. 16, 2009). Aimed at what is going on in colleges, the concerns expressed by Katopes are quite relevant to P-12 schools.
  • Madrick, Jeff, The Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (Random House, 2011). This is the book that best chronicles the BM revolution beginning in the 1970s.
  • Moyers, Bill. “Public Schools for Sale?” Interview with Diane Ravitch, Moyers & Co. April 2, 2014. Diane Ravitch is the leading voice in America against the BM.
  • Paige, Rod, Amy Wilkins, & Bob Schwartz. “The Business Model,” Frontline (March 28, 2002). Interviews of the most important leaders in education; this article reveals a lot of political double talk about the BM.
  • Potter, Claire. "What If Thinking About Education As A Business Were A Good Thing?" Chronicle of Higher Education, July 6, 2011. Explores some positive elements of the BM.
  • Robinson, Sir Ken. “Why We Need to Reform Education Now,” Huffington Post (May 3, 2013). Sir Ken Robinson is the most articulate scholar alive who has shown the flaws of the BM.
  • Sorrell, Patavious. “Students as Consumers,” Education Trends and Issues (Columbus State University, 2013). Excellent work by a predecessor at Columbus State dealing with very similar struggles.
  • Stevensen, Seth. “Adventures in Cheating,” Slate Magazine (December 11, 2001). A guide to how to beat the BM on it's own terms.
  • Sylvia, Crystal. “The Corporate Hijacking of Public Education,” (Accessed May 27, 2014). Insightful critique of the BM.
  • United States Congress. Northwest Ordinance (1787). A part of the organic law of the United States that links education with religion, morality, and citizenship.