Business Sees Profits in Education: Challenging Public Schools

Article excerpt

Education in the United States is undergoing a rapid and dramatic series of changes caused by private enterprise moving into the field.

Education attracts the private sector for three reasons. First, it can be financially rewarding: Education is estimated to be a $600 billion market, more than the budget for the Department of Defense. The biggest single market is kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12), valued at $310 billion in 1998. Additionally, lifelong learning and training programs for businesses and organizations are growing areas.

Second, education has received such bad press that confidence in the established system is low, in spite of all the internal efforts at reform. In response to public education's many failures, home schoolers and charter schools have increased, and both are customers for educational products and services. Home-schooling parents regularly attend regional conferences at which exhibitors offer their products and services.

Third, education is there for the taking: The general attitude is that professional, public educators have had sufficient time to turn the system around. They have no one but themselves to blame for corrective intervention from the private sector, even if that intervention is financially motivated, and especially since these actions promise to achieve results.

Almost all of the new educational products and services now being marketed bear the stamp of technology. Such technology replaces teachers altogether or reduces their number, thus solving several critical weaknesses in traditional education. For instance, replacing teachers reduces the high cost of an excessively labor-intensive instructional process while still serving the same number of students. Then, too, it eliminates tenure, which unfortunately locks in instructors who do not have the training or knowledge to keep up with changing fields and new approaches. Finally, technology, like the best of teachers, is infinitely patient and reassuring. It accommodates the speed of each student and his or her level of learning. It never wearies.

Below is a description of the many different companies competing for the educational market, grouped by the main technology they use. Because the situation is in flux, not all the major players may appear here. The aim is not to produce a definitive picture but rather to demonstrate the extent to which education is changing.

Satellite Links

Channel One, viewed by over 8 million students, provides a 12- to 15-minute newscast and review of current events adjusted for different age groups. This service, free for schools, is sponsored by advertisers. Feedback from students as to what designer labels they prefer and what advertising they enjoy seeing on TV is then sold as marketing data.

The Educational Management Group provides virtual voyages for over 4,000 classrooms. For $30,000, the company equips classrooms with a live satellite link and interactive speaker phones so that students can ask questions directly to a traveling series of TV crews visiting sites all over the world. Visits include archaeological sites, underwater explorations, scientific labs, and artists' studios.

Software

Lucas Learning was launched in the fall of 1998. The company uses the Star Wars format to teach 10- to 14-year-olds basic scientific principles. For example, their first software product is Star Wars Droid Works. Set on the floor of a robot factory, it takes students through all the principles and applications of energy, light, magnetism, engineering, and motion necessary to design and build robots.

The Learning Company and Broderbund: The result of a recent merger between Broderbund Software (which produces Carmen San Diego and Myst) and the Learning Company (which produced MayaQuest), this new company has almost doubled its registered users to about 20 million. Some of the most popular software programs are ClickArt, Family Tree Maker, The Print Shop, Games Strategies, Red Orb Kids, and Mudball Wall (which builds the logic skills of eight- to 12-year-olds). …