Should schools be run like businesses? That’s a question that comes up a lot these days. At least one educator, though, worries that the arrangement is more of a misfit than even proponents of the idea might realize. This former high school teacher and current professor shared his thoughts in a Twitter thread today that got some attention. See a version here, published with permission.
The vision of schools as businesses is currently ascendant. That is: schools should respond to what their customers want.
I have a few major concerns about this.
First, businesses respond to individuals, because individuals foot the bill.
Public schools are publicly funded. Consequently, they need to advance the public interest. Hard as it may be to swallow, sometimes our own desires don’t always perfectly align w/ the public good.
Second, businesses are organized to respond to customer demands. Consider how many people in a typical business “make” something, vs. how many play supporting roles.
Almost everyone in a school is on the “making” side. That is, they’re teachers. These are very lean orgs.
Third, schools are not simple experience goods. I know immediately what I think of my store-bought coffee or my new headphones. I can offer very clear feedback.
But we want a million things from schools. And results often take years to fully understand.
Compounding the previous point is the issue of attribution.
If I like my coffee, I can thank the barista. But if my kid is thriving in school…who gets credit? The teacher? Her friends? Me and her mom? Her brain? Last year’s teacher?
I don’t know what number we’re up to at this point, but there’s also the principal-agent problem we need to deal with.
In schools, the “customer” is…who? The student, right? But the person demanding and deciding is often the parent/guardian. That’s not ideal.
Here’s a big one: If we all operate as consumers, then we are going to elevate one purpose of schools above all others–the drive to secure for our own kids an advantage over everyone else.
But that’s not what schools are designed to do.
If schools are businesses responding to parent demands, then there’s also a very real threat to equity.
That is: if you’re poorly served, it’s because you’re a bad consumer.
That’s a recipe for even grosser inequities than we see today.
Finally, there’s the issue of fragmentation.
There are very few places left in our society where we come together across our differences. We live in our self-selected echo chambers.
If schools are businesses, we should all expect total customization. But at what cost?
School often sucks. Bureaucracies are the worst. Democracy is hard. Advocacy is exhausting.
But the solution to these problems is not as simple as saying: “make it more like a business!”
That solves old problems by ushering in new ones.
Anyone with a simple answer to a complex problem is a charlatan.
I don’t have the right answer other than: I think we can get there together, if we remain committed to each other.
That’s cold comfort. But at least it isn’t snake oil.