Sunday, December 27, 2015

When Business Doesn't Get It

Peter Elkind just published a "special report" in Fortune that is an illuminating read. "Business Gets Schooled" is the story of the rise and fall of Common Core from the perspective of the business interests that became involved, and I recommend that you read the whole thing yourself. It can be hugely instructive to see how things look from another vantage point.

But for right now, there are just a couple of specific points I want to pull out of the piece, and one truly amazingly awful quote.

Business Is Not Limber or Agile

When business interests backing CCSS found themselves under attack, they were simply unable to respond in any sort of quick or effective manner. The business world by and large doesn't get social media much, and it seems that the bigger the company and the more highly-placed the executive, the more deficient the understanding of how blogs and twitter and facebook can mount a damaging attack by lunchtime on any given day.

They are, as Elkind puts it, "used to exercising power through traditional channels," and so it made sense to work the political connections, work the personal power connections (the article opens with a dinner meeting between Bill Gates and Charles Koch), and when under pressure, to work big lumbering PR campaigns.

Elkind recounts the story of how Rex Tillerson, head of Exxon, threatened to pull the company out of Pennsylvania if the state did not embrace Common Core (and quotes without citing Kris Nielson's blog response-- in Elkind's world, the businessmen and politicians all have names and faces, but only a few bloggers and activists get the same consideration). Business interests tried founding groups like the Collaborative for Student Success to gin up some CCSS love among the citizenry, says Elkind, but he neglects to mention just how many similar groups have been created-- all fruitlessly, right up to recent entries like Education Post and the74, both well-funded with the hope that CCSS fans can fight internet fire with internet fire. And yet all of these have fizzled, almost as if corporate chieftains don't understand why there is opposition or how it spreads.

One thing that jumps out at me is that Elkind mostly talks about corporations like Exxon and Intel and SAS-- companies where corporate executives are unlikely to ever face the business problem of "How do we sell our product to individual consumers." And so when they discover that Common Core is a product that individual consumers don't actually want, they are stumped. Their "marketing" usually consists of gathering the political and corporate connections to make themselves inescapable. If Intel convinces the major computer companies to use their chips, it doesn't matter so much how individual consumers feel about it.

In short, big business is neither nimble, quick, or smart enough to fight this fight.

Business's Hard Lessons for the Left

There's been some criticism that Elkind's article largely ignores the Common Core opposition on the Left. But I think that reflects some hard truths about the left-side opposition to the Core, most particularly that it just hasn't been as effective as the opposition from the right.

The dump common core movements that have been at least cosmetically effective in some states-- those don't come from the left. Huckabee and Bush and other lovers of the Core didn't dump it like a itchy disease because they were worried about folks on the left. In fact, one of the (unsuccessful) tactics adopted by Core supporters for a while was to try to slap one more "Thanks, Obama!" sticker on the Core in an attempt to get right-wing knees to jerk in a Core-friendly direction.

None of that worked. And at the risk of offending some of my right-leaning readers, it didn't work in part because some of the far-right arguments against the Core are fact-free and logic-impaired. I can go on all day about the reasons that Common Core is a giant pile of toxic waste, but I still don't think it's going to turn our nation's children into a bunch of gay commie welfare bums.

The left-ward opponents don't appear in Elkind's article because they don't appear on business's radar, at least not as anything more than the usual background buzz of people who always hate and oppose them every time they try to make a buck. And they can point at groups like DFER and the NEA/AFT early embrace of the Core and say, "Well, see. We've got some lefties on our side, too."

I have no doubt that these folks seriously underestimate the strength and effectiveness of progressives who oppose the Core. But for me, the article is a reminder not to overestimate your own effectiveness just because you're being listened to in a room of folks who already agree with you. Common Core's conservative opponents have been very effective in spreading the word to people who didn't otherwise have an opinion. (NY is perhaps our best model for how the Left can get it done)

Business Just Doesn't Understand The Purpose of Education in a Democratic Society

Tillerson is a central figure in Elkind's article, and it's Tillerson who gets to demonstrated just how completely, clueless, stupidly wrong these guys are. Elkind takes us to a 2014 panel discussion in DC.

But Tillerson articulates his view in a fashion unlikely to resonate with the average parent. “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer,” said Tillerson during the panel discussion. “What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation.”

The Exxon CEO didn’t hesitate to extend his analogy. “Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?” American schools, Tillerson declared, “have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.”

Man. The fact that anybody can shamelessly express such an opinion out loud, without recognizing that it is ethically dense and morally bankrupt, a view of both human beings and an entire country that is about as odious and indefensible as anything spit out by a Ted Bundy or an Eric Harris.

This is not an aberration-- just about two years ago I had my first widely-read post on this blog responding to Gates Foundation's Allan Golston when he issued what I called the "wrongest sentence ever in the CCSS debate." Golston said, "Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools, so it’s a natural alliance."

No. No no no no no no no no no no, hell no.

Students are not a product. Corporations are not "customers," and the public institutions of our nation do not exist to serve the needs of those corporations. The measure of public education is not how well it produces drones that serve the needs of corporations, not how "interested" corporations are in the meat widgets that pop out of a public education assembly line.

Tillerson's viewpoint is anti-education, anti-American, anti-human. It's a reminder that the education debates are not about Left versus Right or GOP versus Dems. The education debates are about the interests of the human beings who are citizens of a nation and stakeholders in its public institutions versus the interests of a those who believe their power and money entitle them to stripmine an entire nation in order to gather more power and money for themselves. The education debates are about democracy versus oligarchy. The education debates are about valuing the voices of all citizens versus giving voice only to the special few Who Really Matter.

Again, give Elkind's article a read. It explains both how business is losing (though he tries to make it all end on a "hopeful" note), but more importantly, it explains why businessmen like Tillerson and Bill Bennett and Bill Gates deserve to lose.


  1. Outstanding piece, Peter. Thank you.

  2. "TIllerson's viewpoint is anti-education, anti-American, anti-human."

    I was working on writing a very similar post. That was indeed a very disturbing quote by Tillerson.

    There was also a set of frustrating quotes in a video accompanying the article about Pearson, in which Jennifer Reingold says something like, "The left believes that an emphasis on testing created by corporations is somehow bad for students." Somehow? Frustrating. A) It's not a left/right problem, and B) the irresponsible use of assessment in the country is not somehow bad for students. It's bad for students in many, many very specific ways.

  3. This commercial from Exxon Mobil just aired for the first time today. Oh this will inspire kids to become engineers.

  4. Gave you a shout out, Peter:

  5. There is a little more to this. Whoever controls education controls the society--especially the politics of that society. The corporate elite wants an educational system focused only on specific skills and not ideas. The CCLS fits right into this. In the Common Core world, the structure, of let's say, Locke's "Second Treatise of Government" is more important than the ideas expressed by the document. Common Core does not want any debate or discussion of ideas--especially ideas that may have to do with the role of government. They want an educational system that does not teach individuals how to think, but only to accept what is. The only way you can create such a society is by force. The elite does not understand that the real choice is between continuing to have a democratic society or a totalitarian one that forces its ideas on its population. Interestingly, they believe in a marketplace, but not in the concept that there is a marketplace of ideas.