A Dirty Business

Sharon Beder


Citation: Sharon Beder, 'A Dirty Business', AEU News, September 2009, pp. 16-17

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Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

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Australia has evolved politically into a business-managed democracy. Major political parties are dependent on business funding for election, governments rely on business-funded think tanks to develop policies, and public opinion is routinely shaped by business-funded public relations campaigns. Schools are no exception.

Business coalitions around the world have pushed for a more business-like approach in schools that focuses on competition to drive innovation, and efficiency in attaining measurable outcomes for less cost. Chris Whittle, who founded Edison charter schools in the US, said the “biggest contribution business can make to education is to make education a business”.1

However businesspeople have no deep understanding of educational processes and how they are fundamentally different from production processes and cannot be judged by the same criteria. Writing in the business magazine Fortune, financial journalist Peter Brimelow, cheerfully put aside issues of quality to compare learning to factory production: “Leaving quality questions aside, public school productivity, measured by the number of employees required to process a given number of students, seems to have declined by 46% between 1957 and 1979”.2

The ‘reforms’ that have been sweeping the English speaking world for the past three decades reflect a business agenda; one that goes beyond regional education bureaucracies, and beyond national governments. It is an agenda pushed by transnational corporations around the world and embraced by governments including the current Australian federal government, as can be seen by Julia Gillard’s desire to import elements of Joel Klein’s New York City schools business model into Australia.

Business-driven school ‘reforms’ have been helped along by a series of media-manufactured education ‘crises’ in North America, the UK and Australasia beginning in the 1970s. Perceptions of declining international competitiveness have been blamed on schools, in particular the claimed failure of public schools to produce literate and numerate employees for the workforce.

In fact public schools have been doing a remarkable job given their declining funding base, which has been eroded since the 1980s when neoliberals targeted government spending and educational funding shifted from being an investment in the nation’s future to an expense that needed to be justified, rationalised and reduced.

In Australia, payments from the federal government to the states fell and state tax revenues declined in the early 1990s. State governments cut educational expenditure, hundreds of public schools were closed and “over 8000 teaching position were designated in excess of need”.3 Public spending on school education declined from 5.9 per cent of GDP in the mid 1970s to 2.7 per cent of GDP at the turn of the century, despite the desire of a vast majority of voters that more be spent on schools.4 As a result class sizes increased, school facilities deteriorated, teachers and students were demoralised.

Governments which cut school funding were vulnerable to criticism that they were harming the quality of education. So, as a defensive measure, government and corporate-funded think tanks propagated the view that what really matters is outcomes and that outcomes do not depend on the resources available. Instead of increasing school resources and interpreting accountability in terms of how funds were spent and what practices were adopted, the emphasis shifted to evaluating student performance without reference to funding inputs.

The need to shift responsibility for performance outcomes from government funding to school management and teaching staff led to the restructuring of the school system, in English speaking nations, so that budgetary and administrative management devolved to schools. Following lobbying by the Business Council of Australia, schools in most Australian states were given responsibility for school budgets. Principals were refashioned as corporate managers and school councils took on management responsibilities.

Individual public schools are now responsible for turning out highly skilled students despite declining resources. More budgetary control does not mean more resources. Yet failure to meet centrally-determined quality objectives is blamed on poor school management and poor quality teaching rather than a lack of resources and funding. The goal is to educate as many children as possible for the least investment and to do this schools have been encouraged to view themselves as businesses. School principals are now entrepreneurs, teachers are workers, parents are clients or customers, and students are the product.

Because businesses depend on quantitative measures they insist public schools rely on them also. The shifting emphasis from inputs to measurable outcomes means that test results have become the main way of making schools accountable. This form of accountability has meant that education department bureaucrats around the world do not have to judge teaching methods, which would require educational professionals in senior positions. However, test results more often reflect are the resources the school receives and the socio-economic background of their students, rather than the educational qualities of a school.

To ensure that the standardised tests are taken seriously by teachers, even though they have little educational value, educational authorities in the US have attached various rewards and punishments to performance in them, including merit pay for teachers and bonuses for schools where students perform well. The publication of school league tables in the UK is another way to ensure that high stakes are attached to test results.

However, high stakes testing encourages poor teaching practices. A UK Select Committee found it “has led schools and teachers to deploy inappropriate methods to maximise achievement” by students in tests.5 A national survey of teachers in the US found that two thirds of teachers claimed that standardised testing encouraged them to “use rote drill in my teaching” and “to emphasize the teaching of factual recall knowledge”.6

High stakes testing shifts the focus from learning to achievement. Performance-based assessments that involve doing projects, essays, science experiments and reports become undervalued. Instead of aiding their students to develop their potential teachers help them to remember the authorised knowledge modules for long enough to pass the test. The emphasis on this shopping list of knowledge leads to the teaching of grammar and spelling as technical skills to be mastered, rather than a means of self-expression and understanding of others.

Because many business leaders do not understand education they think that the way to improve it is for students and teachers to spend more time and expend more effort.  High stakes standardised testing is supposed to provide the rewards and punishments to ensure that students work long and hard on a core curriculum and teachers stick to that curriculum.

The consequent narrowing of the curriculum in no accidental by-product of standardised testing. Business leaders have campaigned for standardised testing in the belief that it will force schools to focus on the basic skills they need their employees to have such as reading, writing and mathematics, the subjects that are tested. What they don’t want is a curriculum packed with electives irrelevant to the workplace, or worse still subjects that expose children to differing views and values and that promote critical thinking.

It is not enough for schools to be managed like businesses and to treat students like products. Business reformers also want schools to compete in an educational marketplace for students. Various Australian states have restructured schools to introduce competition. In Victoria, where ‘reforms’ were the most radical, schools were dezoned during the 1990s and their funding became dependent on enrolments.

The right of every child to a high quality education is being replaced by the superficial right of every parent to choose the school their child attends. The political agenda behind the promotion of these consumer-oriented rights is the reconstitution of education in the business model. Education, once a public good and a human right, is becoming a commodity and parental participation in school education has been reduced to consumer choice. The main reason why the Australian government wants school test results available to parents is to encourage the exercise of that choice.

As  part of the push for schools to become more like competing businesses there has been a major push for the private provision of educational services in many countries. The introduction of business management structures into education, along with the elimination of many of the functions and professional services provided to schools for free by government education departments, was an early step in this process. It opened the way for “a host of private agencies, consultants and professional firms” to fill the gap on a commercial basis.7

Private provision has occurred at three levels: supplementary services such as catering and cleaning; private educational services provided outside of school hours, such as tutoring, educational software and after school care; and core education services such as managing or operating schools. At the extreme end of the privatisation spectrum are schools that are run as businesses for profit, as are many US publicly-funded charter schools.

In many countries a public abhorrence of for-profit education combined with a scepticism on the part of the business community that profits can actually be made from running schools, has ruled out for-profit schools. However in the UK public schools are increasingly being run by private entities, including businesses, with public money. In Australia private schools receive an increasing share of public funding, ensuring that private schools are an increasingly attractive option for parents encouraged to view education as a consumer choice. In each case the ideals of public education are being eroded in order to encourage a private market in education.


1. David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools, Cambridge, Mass., Perseus Books, 1995, p. 151.

2. Peter Brimelow, ‘What to Do About America's Schools’, Fortune, 19 September, 1983.

3. Terri Seddonet al., ‘Remaking Public Education: After a Nation-Building State Changes Its Mind’, in Alan Reid (ed.), Going Public: Education Policy and Public Education in Australia, Canberra, Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA), 1998, p77.

4. See for example Linda Doherty, ‘Affordable Learning Top of Wish List’, Sydney Morning Herald, 31 July 2004, p. 10.

5. Children Schools and Families Committee, ‘Testing and Assessment: Third Report of Session 2007-08’, House of Commons, 13 May 2008, p. 21.

6. Teachers Network, ‘Results from a Survey of Teachers on No Child Left Behind’, New York, Teachers Network, March 2007, p. 7.

7. Hedley Beare, ‘'Enterprise': The New Metaphor for Schooling in a Post-Industrial Society’, in Tony Townsend (ed) The Primary School in Changing Times: The Australian Experience, London, Routledge, 1998, p. 15.


Professor Sharon Beder is an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at http://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb