Book Reviews

The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can't Be Businesses

by Larry Cuban

Reviewed by Marilyn H. King
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction,
Bozeman, Mont.


Reviewed by Marilyn H. King Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Bozeman, Mont. In a recent interview about adequate yearly progress with a reporter from my local newspaper, I was asked why raising test scores is so difficult despite state standards and federal legislation. I used an analogy about widgets and students in an effort to underscore the profound differences between products manufactured on assembly lines and the education of children. Why then are school reform models often shaped by marketplace principles and practices? That is the question Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University and a scholar on the history of U.S. education, tackles in The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses. Take the slogan “All children can learn,” made famous by the effective schools movement in the 1980s, add industry-supported standards-based reform bolstered by federal clout, and we wind up with No Child Left Behind legislation. Cuban provides insightful historical, social and political perspectives on the influence business and industry has had on education from 1890 to 1930 and again over the last three decades, right up to NCLB. Why have industry-founded reforms been so influential in establishing new goals and modifying curricula, school organization and governance, yet they have had only a minor impact on the effectiveness of teaching and the level of student achievement? Among his more interesting angles, Cuban chronicles the introduction of the personal computer in American classrooms. He describes its mostly uneven and unproven effect on teaching and learning. More broadly, Cuban, a former superintendent, asserts that assessments of school reform policy implementation and results are largely absent. Even when present, he adds, such assessments tend to be ignored by educational leaders, thus perpetuating traditional school organization and teaching practices. (The Blackboard and the Bottom Line:Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses by Larry Cuban, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004, 253 pp. with index, $23.95 softcover) In a recent interview about adequate yearly progress with a reporter from my local newspaper, I was asked why raising test scores is so difficult despite state standards and federal legislation. I used an analogy about widgets and students in an effort to underscore the profound differences between products manufactured on assembly lines and the education of children.

Why then are school reform models often shaped by marketplace principles and practices? That is the question Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University and a scholar on the history of U.S. education, tackles in The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses.

Take the slogan “All children can learn,” made famous by the effective schools movement in the 1980s, add industry-supported standards-based reform bolstered by federal clout, and we wind up with No Child Left Behind legislation. Cuban provides insightful historical, social and political perspectives on the influence business and industry has had on education from 1890 to 1930 and again over the last three decades, right up to NCLB.

Why have industry-founded reforms been so influential in establishing new goals and modifying curricula, school organization and governance, yet they have had only a minor impact on the effectiveness of teaching and the level of student achievement? Among his more interesting angles, Cuban chronicles the introduction of the personal computer in American classrooms. He describes its mostly uneven and unproven effect on teaching and learning.

More broadly, Cuban, a former superintendent, asserts that assessments of school reform policy implementation and results are largely absent. Even when present, he adds, such assessments tend to be ignored by educational leaders, thus perpetuating traditional school organization and teaching practices.

(The Blackboard and the Bottom Line:Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses by Larry Cuban, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004, 253 pp. with index, $23.95 softcover)