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What if schools were run like a business?

September 19, 2009

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion again of school funding, expenditures, stimulus dollars and “sacrifices” schools and districts have to make because of the economy.  While I recognize that there are many factors that go into decisions made by district and school administrators, sometimes the choices and tradeoffs that are made seem arbitrary and questionable.  I have this unfortunate tendency to views these cuts and expenditures through the eyes of a business-person and I often ask myself, “Why?  How does this contribute to the overall mission of the school or district?”

Children are our future.  What they learn today, they use tomorrow as adults.  They represent our future doctors, engineers, researchers, skilled labor, service pool, lawyers, politicians, and even our future teachers.  What we teach them today provides rewards to us tomorrow as they mature and replace today’s adults in the workforce.

It is for this reason that I wonder why we as a society do not put more energy into improving our schools.  Yes, I know we pour $Billions into our education system each year, and on a per capita basis, no country in the world spends more on each student to provide an education.  It is therefore discouraging to me, and should be to all Americans, that there is no direct correlation between money spend per child on education, and the value of the education they receive (if you doubt this, check out my previous post, “Underfunded” for more).  Nearly all schools would be “out of business” if they were held accountable “like a business.”  They would all be bankrupt because the “product” produced would be inferior to the expectation, if traditional commercial “value paid for value received” measures were use.  The shareholders (taxpayers) would have pulled the plug on their failing operations decades ago.

If only it were true.  The cost of educating our children would be reduced, the quality of the education they received would be considerably higher, and our future workforce would be properly prepared to compete in a competitive global marketplace.

I think it’s an interesting argument to consider how things might be different if you ran schools like a business.  Here are some examples to ponder. 

  1. Let’s start with money received being tied directly to the product produced.  “Ship” a great product, expect to get top dollar for it.  Ship a poor product, expect that few will be buying.  Those responsible for the production would be held accountable for the quality of their work.  There would be no tenure – the best at what they do would be recruited, and rewarded, for their work output. They would be expected to continue to output good product, and if they didn’t, would be expected to improve, or find other employment.
  2. Budgets would be carefully scrutinized, and wasteful practices would be reduced or eliminated.  One of the first budget items to get the ax would be top heavy management.  Too many managers managing too few teachers is currently a norm in most school systems.  Management would be reduced to the minimum level required to effectively maintain a quality work product.  Facilities would also be scrutinized, and instead of continually asking for more and smaller classrooms, teachers would be rewarded for being able to manage larger classes, in fewer classrooms.  Commercial companies do this all the time, continually looking for ways to produce more, at a higher quality, with fewer expense dedicated to overhead.  Those managers who are successful in making that happen get promoted, and get rewarded.  Today, however, it appears “success” in public education is measured by how big the budget is, and how many sites are being built and managed, how many teachers are employed, or how large the school is.  The priority is 180 degrees out-of-sync and makes little sense.
  3. Continuous improvement techniques would be in place, and weekly, monthly and quarterly scrutiny of data would confirm that all students are progressing as expected.  In the manufacturing world it’s a known fact that the earlier you find a flaw in the “raw materials” used to produce a product, the less costly it is to fix the problem before final production.  How often do we just move the product (the students) down the production line without ever putting in the corrections that would assure a quality product at the point of shipment (graduation)?  In Washington State, during a recent re-election campaign, the incumbent State Superintendent of Public Instruction boasted that “92% of our high school seniors graduated ‘proficient.'” Imagine if our airplane, automobile, medical equipment, or food suppliers just “passed the product along” even though they were aware that 8% didn’t meet quality requirements?  We would be outraged.  Yet we allow the school system to move our kids from grade to grade, and even graduate students without their learning even the most basic math, English, civics or science to be able to succeed in the workplace.  That SHOULD be unaccepatable and we should all be outraged
  4. If we ran schools like a business, all employees would understand who they work for, and would be required to provide excellent customer service.  In addition, they would be required to know just who the customer is, and it is NOT their union, their Principal or the school district.  A focus on the student’s welfare and education would be of prime concern. The recent strike in Kent, WA was proof that the “customers’ welfare” (the students) was not first and foremost. Regardless of whose side you were on — district’s or teachers’ — the reality was that the kids were the ones suffering because of the strike.
  5. Prior to making ANY changes — whether additions or cuts — there would be a tough analysis of how this would contribute to the mission of the “business.”  For example, the custom school-branded planner that parents are “required” to purchase for their students — how does THIS improve the students’ education over a $5 generic planner they can buy at the local office supply?  Will cuts in transportation truly add money back into the system that can be used to improve education, or is it just a line item to be reduced at the potential risk of student safety? You have to be willing to examine everying with the perspective of how it supports the objectives, and when you look at the “penny-wise but pound-senseless” changes that are being made, it makes you wonder whose objectives are being met.
  6. Finally, there’s one more important difference between schools and businesses.  In business, when you see reductions in revenue, you start analyzing expenses.  While both schools and businesses DO cut expenses, there appears to be one significant difference: businesses generally don’t beg for bailouts (I say, generally, because this has become an alarming trend in too many businesses of late).  The most common practice for businesses experiencing budget shortfalls is to take a hard look at where money is going and seeing first what can be cut and second, where you can decrease waste or increase efficiency.  It takes a very enlightened district to look at areas of waste and really take pro-active steps to increase productivity.  That doesn’t mesh with the “more money, smaller classrooms” paradigm.

Ultimately, if schools were being run like a business, there would be true accountability for successes and failures, and rewards for exceptional work would be readily meted out, instead of finger-pointing or excuses for why “we can’t achieve our education objectives.” We’re not talking about merit pay only for teachers, but for everyone in the educational food-chain. Everyone would have a vested, direct interest in the outcomes of the students and continuous product-line improvements would be encouraged, regardless if it was “within the cycle” to consider new options.

If only it were true.  The cost of educating our children would be reduced, the quality of the education they received would be considerably higher, and our future workforce would be properly prepared to compete in a competitive global marketplace. And our schools would be something to be proud of, where parents looked forward with confidence to sending their children, and the end product was the best it could possibly be.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2009 2:40 pm

    At it’s heart teaching is about the relationship between student and teacher. Students aren’t products, they’re individuals. There are so many aspects of teaching and learning; it’s incredibly complex and difficult to measure. There’s the level of engagement in class, the way students catch their teacher’s enthusiasm for a subject, the light in a student’s eyes when he understands a concept for the first time, the joy in a song or poem.
    It’s a mistake to reduce all this complexity to a business model because it trivializes all that’s unique about education.

  2. ProudParent permalink
    September 20, 2009 10:13 pm

    Ruth Manna’s comment is correct: Teaching is about the relationship between student and teacher. Or at least it should be. Unfortunately, in too many school systems it is really about the relationship of teacher and pay, teacher and class size, teacher and union politics, and teacher and agenda’s. If only it was universally about student and teacher.

    The point of the Corinne’s blog was pretty straight forward. Teachers are hired to teach, a business relationship. Pretty simple. One of the ways to measure if that effort is paying off is to measure how our students are learning, and sadly, what they are learning today is considerably less than they were learning 10, 20 and 30 years ago. Once upon a time it was learn the material in class or be “held back” a year until you learned what you needed to advance. Today, teachers routinely advance students to the next level even when they clearly have not demonstrated they are ready. This is not compassionate, but expedient. In nearly any other business allowing an inferior product to go uncorrected would be considered a dereliction of duty. In our education system, it is accepted as normal.

    While schools have many special circumstances and one size fits all thinking would not work, it really is appropriate for tax payers and parents to expect some correlation between money expended on our schools, and the quality of the learning received. This should not prevent any teacher from having a special relationship with their students.

  3. Dmaas357 permalink
    June 5, 2010 11:46 am

    Ok, so which businesses shall we emukate? BP & Haleburton? Or maybe Goldman Sachs & Lehman Brothers? Or Chrysler perhaps.

    Lucky for you, we DON’T run our schools like business because we don’t destroy the environment and try to lobby ourselves out of accountability. We don’t lie about our budgets and actually contribute to economic growth… not leech off it. We don’t get bailouts that we can claim to repay with borrowed money. We DO get more mandates with less buying power in our budgets. We have raised achievement and closed gaps. We have produced the highest literacy rates, graduation rates, college entrance rates in American history. And through decades of being a “Nation at Risk,” our GDP and patent creation still leads the world. See Yong Zhao “Catching up or leading the way” if you care to see the real data…

    Back off, do some research and volunteer at a school before you tell us how to do the job.

    • Corinne Gregory permalink*
      June 5, 2010 12:39 pm

      Thanks for your comment.

      It does appear from your tone, however, that I hit a nerve. There are several points in your response that aren’t quite accurate or “provable.” You say we have the highest graduation rates in our history — do you mean to tell me our present 25-30%+ (as high as 50%) drop out rate is the best we’ve done or CAN do? It’s ridiculous. Our literacy rate hasn’t increased in 40 years, in spite of the increasing amounts of money we spend trying to improve it. I could go on, but then I would just be showing off — I, and many others, have done the research for years. The data I share comes from many, many verifiable sources.

      And, perhaps YOU should do a bit of research, too. I am a frequent volunteer in my kids’ school; I have continual first-hand knowledge of what I share here. If you want to get another objective perspective with tons of research backing it, I suggest you read the Washington Policy Center’s recent report on Seattle Public Schools’ collective bargaining agreeement. Draw your own conclusions about hidden budgets and costs:

  4. Mike O'Hara permalink
    November 16, 2010 12:55 pm

    You can’t bring a bucket of water to a grease fire.

    Businesses operate in objectivity. The endgame of a Business is, quite simply, the bottom line. Are we in the red or black? How do we get out of the red? How do we make the black bigger?

    It’s relatively easy to analyze a business you can always ask the same question about every business process; How does this effect the bottom line?

    Schools endgame is not the bottom line. It’s educating children. Evaluating the education level of a child is a lot messier than checking a box next to their name: You are educated and you are not.

    For example, should the education of a rich kid in Alaska be exactly the same as a poor kid in Georgia? Not an easy question to answer.

    The question you need to answer first is “What should an educated child in the US look like?” Once you start attempting to answer that question, you’ll realize how hard the problem of the US educational system is. It can’t be solved by cutting the budget, dumping tenure, creating standards, removing administrators or forcing everyone to be on the same page. It’s a lot messier.

    • Corinne Gregory permalink*
      November 22, 2010 3:16 pm

      You might not want to bring water to a grease fire — that’s a typical response. What you could do, however, is use baking soda. In other words, use a different approach.

      I believe the business metaphor does apply because no other “organization” would continue to allow a default 30% waste in its product or services and still survive. But that’s exactly what our schools do, and they get away with it year after year. When their “funding” doesn’t cover their costs, they ask us for more and more, promising to improve the product, yet with no better results.

      Look, I’m not saying the education “product” has to be the same across the country. But, the basics of what a child should learn in order to be a functioning, productive member of society isn’t a mystery. Schools say they don’t have enough money to provide this basic education, but we’ve been giving increasing amounts for the last 40 years, while the actual improvements in academics is zero. That’s a fire that needs to be addressed and certainly not with more “liquid” solutions.

  5. February 6, 2011 3:23 pm

    ;” that seems to be a great topic, i really love it “`.


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