Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Should schools be run more like a business?

You cannot answer that until you define your terms. Before the recent near-collapse of our economy, business did have some sort of cachet that implied efficiency and productivity, likely wrought due to competition. Now, of course, we see the seamy underbelly of what competition and loose oversight can produce: fraud, greed, immoral exploitation, no adherence whatsoever to any kind of social contract.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we are talking about business ideals being applied to public education. Would that work?

My answer would be: only to a point. There are things educators can (and have) learned from business gurus. For example, that there is no perfect model for any operation; rather, efforts should be made to foster continuous improvement. Or, that true leadership helps us face complicated and difficult problems, rather than imposing a simple and/or painless “solution.” Or that real change requires us to internalize our commitment to it so that we don’t slide back into old ways. Or that resistance to change is normal and natural, but it should be dealt with through collaboration and teamwork rather than by bulldozing through or over it. So, yes, “acting like a business” can be good for schools.

But I also believe that the unstated premise behind much mandated “school reform” is that schools should be run like factories. The factory model assumes that all we have to do is fix upon the perfect content (curriculum) and process (teaching) in order to produce perfect, identical products every time. So, if we aren’t getting the right outcomes, it must be because those doltish teachers are messing up the content and process. The answer is ever more detailed prescriptions with, ideally, every teacher teaching the same material the same way on the same day in each grade.

But, folks, any successful manufacturer prizes quality control that begins with accepting only standardized raw materials. In public schools, our suppliers are not sending us uniform raw materials! The children who enter our doors start from different places, they learn differently, they have different advantages and handicaps — so how can this system work? The answer is more individualization, not more regimentation.

A major component of reform efforts like No Child Left Behind is to mandate “highly qualified teachers.” But qualification tends to mean “credential,” because it is so hard to quantify what makes a great teacher. I’d prefer to spend a lot more effort on the process itself. We align and articulate and define and refine our curriculum, but we don’t spend enough time on ways to impart it. Many teachers never see that, just because they give the perfect lecture, that doesn’t mean every- or even anybody “got it.”

The process includes learning as well as teaching — and we all do that differently. In order to get the teaching-learning job done, we have to realize that people often learn better by doing than from lectures; that some people can demonstrate what they know in essays but not on multiple-choice exams; that if we truly prize synthesis of ideas, then maybe we ought to reward that in our assessment systems. Speaking from personal experience (I was a great memorizer!), many of us who did get it long enough to spit something back on a test never really understood or retained it. Valid assessment should indicate whether the student has gained true understanding and the ability to apply knowledge in various contexts.

So, the standardized processes of efficient manufacturing have no place in schooling. Instead of moving raw materials inexorably down a single production line, education should work more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book — branching off in many ways according to individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests.

Nor, if you value the success of every student, can cost-benefit ratios be your standard for how much to spend on each child. Some need more help than others, even if they will never be rocket scientists or particle physicists. Do we value their potential contribution to society or not?

<>And then there is the whole issue of whether or not competition and market discipline will bring out the best in schools and teachers, as it purports to do in the business world. That is the impetus behind the charter school movement — the notion that, if parents can vote with their feet, all schools will improve. In fact, public schools in Michigan are scrambling to market themselves as neighboring districts and charters lure away their students and funding. I’m not sure whether the results are what people were hoping for and, certainly, the playing field is never level.

Competition, and the greed that it motivates, can also inspire fraud and abuse, just as it did on Wall Street. Last week, for example, a U.S. Attorney subpoenaed officials from 13 Philadelphia charter schools in an investigation of various kinds of questionable financial dealings. At minimum, charters should be required to have annual public audits, just as public schools do. Oversight of public funds is important to our collective faith in government.

It is also, dismayingly, true that charter schools appear to be resegregating America — by race, religion, gender, and socioeconomic status. A February 2010 report issued by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, “Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards,” examined and analyzed federal data and charter schools in 40 states and Washington, DC, finding that “charter schools continue to stratify students by race, class, and possibly language, and are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the country.” Is that kind of resegregation good for society — or for individual children?

We must pay attention to side effects and collateral damage when we radically change an institution (public education) that is so vital to our democracy.


  1. As a not-so-hot memorizer, I understand the distinction between teaching and learning. I have my own cautionary tale regarding attempts to run an operation "like a business". The last few years I worked at UCSD, that was the battle cry in tthe procurement division I worked in. We had to call our colleagues "customers" and our goal was customer satisfaction. We were expected to get them whatever they wanted, and quickly, and that was the measure of success. Procurement rules (many of them from the Federal Acquistion Regulations, or FAR) were mainly approached from a standpoint of creative disregard. Forget about getting bids, evaluating suppliers and negotiating prices. Our customers didn't care, and I was smarter than most of the auditors, so it was a win-win.
    I can see something like that in education and assume that's the weak spot with No Child Left Alone, or whatever it's called these days.

  2. In the current Education Week, Diane Ravitch offers a briefing source on the failure of top-down technocratic reform: “I recommend James Scott’s wonderful book Seeing Like a State, which treats these issues very insightfully. Scott describes monumental disasters caused by policymakers who had zero understanding of the consequences of their decisions on those who had to implement them.” It's waiting in my stack.