Commercialization Of Schools Essay

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Over the past two decades, business leaders have gradually instituted commercial logics and practices across the educational landscape for the purposes of making a profit, attracting a generation of loyal customers, and creating a positive image of the corporate involvement in social affairs. The commercial involvement in schooling has had a profound influence on how educators, students, and the general public view the purpose of schooling, on the state’s role in relationship to its citizens and institutions, and on the nature of life inside classrooms. This entry examines the constitutive forces behind the commercialization of schools; documents how commercial imperatives are altering institutions of higher education, specific programs such as teacher education, and K–12 schools; and documents how educators, socially conscious students, and concerned citizens have taken action against this trend.

The Roots Of Commercialization

The commercialization of schools is not a new phenomenon; businesses leaders have earned a profit from selling textbooks for many decades. However, a new tide of corporate involvement began in the 1970s and 1980s. During the Ronald Reagan administration, the Commission on Excellence in Education prepared a report, A Nation at Risk (1983), which found that U.S. students had fallen behind their counterparts elsewhere in academic achievement and placed the blame on schools. Critics of the report said that it unfairly targeted schools for outcomes that were really owing to the globalization of capital and deindustrialization.

From this point forward, a marked shift took place in the influence corporations would have in the domain of schooling. Under conservative administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, Western governments cut funding to their public school systems, which opened avenues for increased corporate involvement in the education system. Increasingly, educational institutions turned to corporations for funding, resources, and guidance. In the case of underfunded K–12 schools and urban community colleges, this outside funding was needed to meet students’ basic needs. In the case of public colleges and universities, these business linkages were needed to remain on a par with competing private institutions across the region or country.

Commercialization And Higher Education

Within the context of higher education, corporate policies, practices, and market ideologies have braided together to infiltrate all aspects of campus life. For instance, many public institutions of higher education in the United States have lost significant amounts of funding from state governments and face strong competition for student dollars from the growing pool of for-profit higher-education institutions. University administrators are compelled to base hiring decisions, the utility of academic programs, faculty research, and student learning with a “bottom line” mentality. Not coincidently, contingent adjunct faculty members are growing as the dominant teaching force; teaching assistants are used to replace full-time faculty members; prospective faculty are compelled to secure grants to obtain tenure-track positions; and programs that are not economically attractive are generally eliminated.

Meanwhile, university personnel often feel pressured to treat their students as “customers.” They must meet student demands or face the possibility of losing needed resources with their institution, which may translate into losing their own positions. Since students have often come to view education as merely another commodity, deeming education as important to the extent it provides value in the marketplace, faculty modify their pedagogy to keep them “happy.” They teach students what they find practical, rather than preparing them to become active citizens in the pursuit of forging a society predicated on justice and democracy.

Teacher Education

Looking more specifically at one academic program, teacher education, provides a view of how corporate dominance is now woven into the fabric of higher education. Over the past decade, business and government leaders have instituted an array of business oriented policies and practices for the purposes of making a profit and blocking teacher educators from guiding pre-service and in-service teachers to challenge institutional forms of oppression inside and outside of their classrooms.

For example, in 2001, President George W. Bush, with support from corporate leaders, proposed and later implemented the No Child Left Behind Act, which has had the effect of linking K–12 teaching expertise with mastering a fixed body of knowledge on corporate-sponsored examinations. While corporations gain financially from the standardization of teaching “expertise” by producing “teacher-proof” curricula, teacher educators are in turn compelled to redirect their pedagogies. This is done by forcing them to focus on helping students who plan to be teachers to internalize the basic facts and skills needed to pass certification examinations and demonstrate potentially questionable “accomplished practices” in the classroom instead of creating pedagogical projects that help future teachers become better teachers.

Likewise, teacher accreditation agencies, such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), have supported a market-driven approach to teacher education. They support Bush’s NCLB and aim to regulate teacher-educators’ labor in a similar manner. Such accreditation agencies envision teaching and learning as exercises with simple, quantifiable “outcomes,” while concomitantly instituting learning standards that keep in-service and pre-service teachers from examining the social, philosophical, and historical dimensions of schooling.

Many corporations have also been behind the proliferation of market-driven teacher programs instituted across North America. For example, corporations, such as Kaplan Inc. and Sylvan Education Solutions, have designed technical coursework, computerized examinations, and professional development initiatives to help in-service and pre-service teachers earn their teaching credentials as quickly as possible. Schools of education and other corporate conglomerates have created similar, fast-track, alternative route programs. As a result, many future teachers are earning credentials without taking any courses that might help them orchestrate classroom practices which might reveal or discuss social and economic inequalities.

K–12 Schooling

Irrespective of context, the vast majority of schools in North America have been forced to secure resources from corporations to meet students’ needs. In exchange for monetary compensation, school districts have given corporations the exclusive rights to sell, market, and advertise their products to teachers and students.

Private firms have promised the antidote to decaying public schools and communities. They have gone into the business of building, financing, and wiring new, state-of the-art schools in economically depressed areas. Corporate leaders argue that building technologically enhanced institutions will help marginalized students and communities lift themselves out of poverty. These school structures, however, may be challenged to overcome conditions such as urban blight, crime, and violence, or to destroy institutional practices that inhibit the educational performance of marginalized youth.


Some working-class people and educators have argued that commercial involvement in schools is part of a much larger agenda to commodify all social life. On a large scale, global citizens have protested against international policies and institutions that have supported commercial over public interests, such as the WTO (World Trade Organization), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). On a micro-level of education, teacher unions, other labor councils, and socially conscious university students in Canada and the United States have written position papers, launched strikes and demonstrations, and adopted policies that oppose corporate involvement in public schools. Finally, teacher educators, schoolteachers, progressive organizations, and concerned parents have created online resources, hosted international conferences, and developed curricula aimed at challenging these forces and reconstituting the notion of education as a public good.


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  8. Washburn, J. (2005). University Inc.: The corporate corruption of higher education. New York: Basic Books.

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