Readers weigh in on treating education as a business

Although education could benefit from some of the principles found in the business world, in the end, the two are fundamentally different in terms of how they measure success, most readers agreed.

In the recent article “Viewpoint: Why education is not like business,” contributing author Seth Rosenblatt wrote that, although there is a popular school of thought that says government—including public education—should be run more like a business, “government institutions exist for a different purpose than businesses, and they should operate by a different set of rules.”

This article prompted a lot of debate among eSchool News readers. While many readers argued that schools could learn a lot from business, a majority agreed with the premise that businesses and schools have fundamentally different missions and characteristics and therefore should not be compared.

Here’s what our readers had to say [edited for brevity]:

Why not learn from business?

“Business and education go hand in hand,” stated Pearcen. “Both are driven by a mission, responsible to the shareholders (community and parents, students), and should be able to adapt to a changing world. In a business, employees are hired based off of value they can bring into your company. A system engineer will cost you a hefty sum, a janitor, not so much. So why can’t most government schools, in general, pay more or less based on need? For instance, a school running on the business approach hires a 1st-year math teacher for $60K and a 10th-year English teacher for $50K. The business knew it was harder to acquire a math teacher more so than the English, so they paid more. However, our current teacher pay scale is nearly the same. Your worth is only based off of years of service, and if you have a master’s or doctorate [degree], and not the value you can bring.

“Citizens are revolting against schools and government today because they’re paying more and are getting less. The same citizens go into work and are expected to generate data-driven results, and are happy to lose pay, benefits, and retirement, if they can just keep their job. Those people are angry at seeing teachers on TV complain and protest a pay freeze or have to contribute to their awesome medical or retirement package. It kills them when they hear, ‘If you care about your kids’ future, you’ll give us a raise.’”

For more school reform news:

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“I think these are all reasons why schools should be managed as a business by business people rather than institutionalized educators,” said gramola. “If you accept the premise that our product is ‘producing educated students who will be successful in life,’ then we are failing miserably. Our marketing plan is way out of touch with the real world. Our curriculum is 30 years past usefulness. We are boring children and teaching useless information that the real world Googles. A fresh, innovative business approach is what we need to produce outstanding ‘products.’”

“I do believe that you missed a few key points,” said dtp_arundel, “which are: Governments are only open to a degree—it is very difficult, if not impossible to gain access to staff meetings or notes from those meetings where major decisions are made.  Also, there is a bit of a difference between the ‘consumers’ of governmental services and those of businesses. … Governmental organizations can be inclusive (in many cases) to support non-employee consumers, which is typically not possible by businesses. This is a potentially major resource that is not possible to all businesses. Lastly, in your example about fire fighters, this parallels ‘support groups’ in businesses. That is, if you want to have a certain level of support, you are going to have many people sitting around doing nothing if all they do is provide support over the phone. Now, if you are an effective business, you figure out a way that the employees can ‘back fill’ the time with performing other work that benefits the organization.”

“First, there are not-for-profit businesses,” John says. “They have to do sane budgeting and meet the needs of their customers. Government-funded public schools generally could stand significant improvement in these areas. There are many aspects of businesses from which traditional public schools could learn. Competition is one of them. School choice is one area where, if schools were more like businesses, customers would benefit! Second, if schools run as businesses are not such a good idea, why are private schools often so sought-after by the customers—parents and students?”

Other readers pointed out that schools already are learning from the business sector in how they operate.

“It seems there is a consensus that education can be run in many ways like business,” expressed pmaddock.  “I’ve been an employee in high-tech business, school districts, and nonprofits and have seen some great practices applied no matter what type of organization it is. Some of the best districts in the country apply these approaches to map out processes, identify root causes of waste and ineffectiveness, and innovate using technology to create highly efficient and effective administrative and educational operations. All of this works when you put the customer—students, their parents, and the community—first, when you create cross-functional teams to eliminate barriers, and measure using data, not opinion. These practices have all come from business, and they work!”

Businesses and schools are fundamentally different entities

Although education might benefit from applying some of the principles found in the business world, most readers noted that, in the end, the two realms are fundamentally different—and trying to compare them simply isn’t fair.

“I so wish that people would realize that the business of teaching cannot be compared exactly to that of running a corporate organization that mass-produces products,” said knmuray. “[Yet] we do need to look at accounting, and the lack of procedural checks and balances, we do need to look at protocols (consistency of rules/regs.), we do need to consider levels of management, and clean up top-heavy admin, so that monies (and manpower!) are focused toward our classrooms and students, where the resources would be most effective. I am still waiting for state and federal government to see that their data analysis is flawed—comparing ‘oranges and apples’—and that they need to track the same group of students longitudinally, if they are going to really see accurate, equitable movement of scores/progress. … No business would measure [its] gains using mismatched data.”

For more school reform news:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

“The business of schools is education, not to make money,” explained k12tco. “That is to say, when making spending decisions ROI is not always applicable (except for projects specifically proposed to save staff time/productivity or money). This makes it harder for schools to evaluate proposed projects, as they must attempt to evaluate factors such as student achievement, community relationships, safety, behavior, equity, 21st-century skills, and satisfaction. To properly evaluate these issues, it is imperative to understand proposed benefits in measurable terms and relate the benefits to the mission of the school or district. CoSN provides a methodology, tools, and case studies to help school leaders determine the Value of Investment for proposed expenditures:”

“We don’t produce widgets,” said Joe Johnson; “we educate a new generation to assume the roles, culture, and leadership of a new world.”

Several readers echoed Rosenblatt’s point that schools can’t choose their “products,” nor the raw materials used to create them.

“A widget producer has a product,” said m00r3t3ch. “It starts with raw materials that are controlled in their quality, price, and abundance (among other controls). If any of these raw materials don’t lead to maximum profit, they can be adjusted through negotiations with the supplier. Would the widget company allow the widget to leave the plant every evening to be influenced and changed outside of [its] controlled environment? A school’s only ‘product’ is the work and environment that [it provides] for students. So, unless businesses are willing to have no control over their raw materials, allow outside influences, be willing to make sure every widget is perfect, and still call the widget their ‘product,’ the term should not be used in comparisons.”

“A very important component of the business model is missing from this analysis, and that has to do with the supply side of the equation,” said friedma. “In education we have no control over the quality of the students who arrive at the classroom door. Some years ago, I read a great analogy which used the dentist-patient relationship as a model. A good dentist can go wonders to help her patient go through life with all her teeth, however, the patient needs to follow the dentist’s orders—brush her teeth the appropriate number of times a day and in a proper manner, floss regularly, abstain from inappropriate foods, etc. If the patient doesn’t follow the advice and her teeth decay, is it the fault of the dentist? Should we remove the dentist’s license to practice because of the patient’s failure?”

For more school reform news:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

“In education, we work with whatever raw products we get and try our best to make the best quality end product possible,” said Sharon Marlow. “Would we set a standard that every child must ‘walk’ across the stage to earn a diploma?  No, because the one in a wheelchair cannot. … How long could a business stay solvent if [it] had similar expectations? Businesses project profit, see how the markets are faring, then adjust their projections up or down based on that market analysis. … Education just sets the same standard for everyone and calls those who do not meet those projected expectations FAILURES!”

“Public schools must take all students:  the mentally challenged, physically challenged, the emotionally disturbed, the gifted and talented … or any other label, as well as the average, normal student—though I think few fit into that category,” said Janet Witcher. “When businesses make a product, they start out with the best product. Educators can’t, don’t, and won’t say, ‘You are damaged goods—I won’t take you to educate’ or ‘Your parent won’t, or can’t, help you, so just go away.’  Business can, and does, say that. Private schools and charter schools also say that.”

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