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The changing business of education.

Amity Paye | 4/12/2011, 5:31 p.m.

The Financial Times has dubbed Cathie Black, "The First Lady of American Magazines."

Hearst, her former employer, touts her executive work, saying, "She has managed the financial performance and development of some of the industry's best-known [magazine] titles...At Hearst Magazines, aggressive, international development worldwide as well as significant digital expansion are two key priority areas for Black."

Sounds like your typical CEO or chairman of Hearst Magazines, as Black was. So what place do all these skills have in public education? The answer is that in an educational atmosphere, where underperforming schools are quickly becoming privately funded charter schools and test scores are becoming the overall fiscal target, the school system in New York City, and across the country, is becoming a for-profit business in need of a CEO.

"There is a growing trend to appoint non-educators to 'run' urban school systems, and this is not a good idea," said Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at NYU, the author of "The Myth of Charter Schools" and a former assistant secretary of education under the Bush administration.

"In the business approach," she said, "branch offices and franchises are closed down when they don't make a profit. But schools are not franchises or branch offices. They are the heart of the community, and when a school is closed, the community is weakened."

Annual reports for schools--unlike a company that depends on monetary increase--use test scores as their way of monitoring progress. But without a focus on actual education, and the ability to pass tests instead, many students miss out on larger educational possibilities.

"Non-educators tend to focus too much only on test scores, and many urban students then don't have a chance to study the arts, music, history, geography, foreign languages and other important subjects," said Ravitch. "When too much attention is paid to scores, it warps the educational process."

While hiring business advisors as school administrators may "warp the educational process," schools themselves are changing as well. According to the Center for Education Reform, "Charter schools are one part of a five-part cure for fixing public education detailed in 'Mandate for Change,' and a critical component in American schools' Race to the Top."

Observers charge that as charter schools become more prominent, many underperforming ("less profitable" in business terms) students are being excluded and forgotten. Public schools must take every student that walks through their doors, while charter schools do not, opening up the possibility for an achievement gap between the two types of schools.

Charter schools, while not all bad, are used as a threat for current public schools, activists charge. On November 5, the New York State Education Department released a list of underperforming schools. Statewide, these 532 schools could be closed, as last year New York City's Panel for Education Policy voted to close over a dozen underperforming schools. If a public school is found to be underperforming, it can also be disbanded (as you would a business) and made into a charter.

"We need wise educational leadership, not a ruthless corporate approach that shuts down schools, disperses the staff and sends the children to schools across the city," said Ravitch. "This model has not produced good results anywhere. The best education strategy is support, encouragement, inspiration and improvement, not punishment."