The debate over the reform of public education in the United States has largely become an exchange of clichés, of orphaned terminology searching for practical meaning. For example, all sides in the debate are calling for school “restructuring,” although the architecture of the education edifice to be created from the ruins of the old is rarely defined. The National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, is running an advertising campaign with the theme “Invest in Education,” as though massive increases in education spending over the last two decades haven’t already tested the efficacy of investment without results.
Studies and surveys have identified the importance of what is called “parental involvement” in education, although what that phrase means is purposely obscured; many education leaders who call for increased parental involvement object to involving parents in the most critical educational decision of all—which schools children will attend. In many states, “back to basics” legislation has mandated that dance classes and driver education be available during the school day in every school district, large or small. From these and other examples, it is evident that phrases and slogans have replaced sound analysis and specific, meaningful reform proposals.
Slogans and clichés have been especially prominent in discussions about what role U.S. business should play in education reform. Business enterprises have done such things as enter into public-private partnerships, adopt schools, and form business compacts to encourage change and performance. But do America’s schools suffer for lack of private partners or adoptive parents? Not really. “So long as adopt-a-schools, partnerships, and cooperative ventures are the first, exploratory steps, they are important; as last steps, they are not worth the paper they’re written on,” commented Denis P. Doyle, a scholar at the Hudson Institute, in a special section of Business Week. “As a device to lay the groundwork for restructuring, they are invaluable; if they simply represent transient, cosmetic changes, they are wasted effort.”
Unfortunately, most business activities on behalf of education reform during the middle to late 1980s can only be described as cosmetic, not radical, surgery; and with each passing year, the health of American education continues to deteriorate. Furthermore, in a few cases, business leaders have become coopted by the education establishment, on whose watch public schools have performed so poorly, with the result that business has pushed for more of the same purported reforms that have proven to be wasteful and counterproductive in the past: massive infusions of cash, continued reduction of teacher productivity, and more centralized regulation of school operations, personnel, and curriculum. Such action is worse than merely cosmetic surgery; those business leaders are helping to kill the patient outright.