Education Opinion

Why Don’t Teachers Learn from Business?

By Anthony Cody — November 03, 2010 8 min read
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This week I received an email from a reader who shared some thoughts in response to last week’s post, A Declaration of Professional Conscience for Teachers. Here is what she wrote, followed by my thoughts.

What you outlined in your opening comments is what successful businesses have realized they must do to keep and attract the best associates and to keep and attract clients.

I am tired of people saying education is not a business or cannot learn from the business community on how to do things better. Look around at successful businesses in your community...ask them what they do to be successful and to stay successful...you will find they do exactly what you outlined. How many teachers will take this upon yourself and do this?

Successful businesses listen to their associates, their clients and their shareholders. Education has all three of these groups. Can you identify which is which? Do you truly ask for feedback, value suggestions and act upon them?

Successful businesses act on what their associates, clients and shareholders say and the results show. Do all things get acted upon? No, but everyone knows their voice has been heard and appreciated. Does this happen in education? Rarely if ever have I truly seen it.

Successful businesses regularly survey their associates, clients and shareholders to see how they are doing and what they need to do better. Then they act on those results and every associate has a role. This is not done in education.

If you want to be treated as professionals you need to look around you and see what other successful organizations are doing and see what you can incorporate. Educators think they are special, that they are unique, that no one understands their plight. In my opinion that
cannot be further from the truth. Educators have an incredible job to do...they are educating the future of the country...but you are not unique in the challenges you face to be treated as professionals or be the best your can be.

Business clients have real choice. If the product is not up to snuff, the value not in line with the price, they can leave. This is a big problem with government schools...the students and families are stuck and educators know it...it is the biggest weakness to true reform in education. What if you had to work to attract every student? I am so waiting for total choice to come to government schools...are you ready?

Come out from your self imposed isolation and monopoly and you will be astounded. Remember you are given every dime you have to operate your schools and systems...the money is literally taken from the people by law. This is not reality...successful businesses earn every dime of
revenue, the value the client...if this attitude could be adopted in education...watch out...the revolution would be mind blowing...

My approach is more for educators to look around to what they consider to be successful organizations and ask what makes them successful and the other ideas I threw out. I have no clue how to break up the monopoly with closing down the DOE and returning the responsibility of education to the states. I think it is too late for that. The Feds only provide 10% of education funding. If states weren’t totally dependent on those dollars this would a whole different conversation. Now that ten percent has basically give the Feds majority control. What am I missing?

Real change to education needs to come from within but not in a vacuum. Educators have historically told me if you are not a teacher or educator you don’t have a voice in change. I may not know how to manage 30 kids in a classroom but I and others have perfectly good, successful solutions for other parts of the school that could help that teacher be more effective and have a much more manageable classroom Why are educators fearful/reluctant to look around and see what others (outside of education) do to be successful and adopt/modify those practices for their classroom, school, etc?

(a reader)

First of all, let’s see if we can agree on some common ground.

Schools and businesses both work best when they meet the needs of their students or clients. Both schools and businesses need to be closely connected to their communities, and be accountable for the quality of work that they produce. In fact, my school district, Oakland Unified, conducts an extensive annual survey, called “Use Your Voice,” which asks students, parents and community members for detailed feedback on how we are doing our job as educators. We reflect a great deal on what our students, parents and community members want from us, and we have tried our best to respond.

But there are some significant differences between a school and a business, and I am afraid our students are worse off in some important ways as schools have been pushed to be more business-like.

Learning is not the same as making money. The primary goal of a business is to make a profit, measured by the bottom line at year’s end. Our schools have come under tremendous pressure to produce learning outcomes that are similarly quantified, through test score gains. This reduces learning to that which shows up on multiple choice tests, and more complex learning suffers.

But the heart of your argument is really about the issue of choice and competition.
Public schools are a service offered for free to every child in our community. We currently have some levels of choice available to community members. Those with money can choose private or parochial schools, while those without can still exercise some choice based on the various schools made available within the school system. I well remember the outreach my middle school principal did each year to the elementary schools feeding our middle schools, to convince parents to send their students to us. Parents do have some choices. But we do not have a level playing field where everyone has the same choices available to them. Instead, as in other markets, we have many choices available to those with cash to spend, and few choices available to those without money.

Let’s play out your proposal. You are critical of the public school’s “monopoly,” so I presume you favor some sort of system where the dollars currently going to public schools are made available to any school that provides education to students. Assuming we pay these vouchers across the board to parents who have already moved their children to parochial and private schools, we are taking money from public schools that must accept all students and shifting it to schools that are more selective. I fear this actually deepens the separation between haves and have nots, in that those with the resources can add to their voucher and get into elite private schools, while those without the additional funds needed will still be stuck -- and we will be no better off.

And this brings us to the heart of my concern about competition. Contrary to your assertion, schools have been greatly influenced by ideas from business. Charter schools are often cited as the best source of competition for regular public schools, but there are some significant differences between the two types of schools, which ought to give the charters significant advantages. First of all, some charters attract large donations that allow them to greatly exceed the funding levels of the public schools against which they compete. Second, many charters require some form of parental involvement. If public schools could screen out all children without parents willing to stay involved, many of their troubles would go away. In spite of these advantages, charters have NOT been shown, on the whole, to be more effective than regular schools at overcoming the effects of poverty. Could it be that student outcomes reflect the conditions outside the school as well as within?

What do we really want to see for the future?
My own vision for the public schools is rooted in my belief that our schools ought to serve as a microcosm of the society we want our children to graduate into as adults. For that reason, I really value the school as a meeting place for people of different ethnic and economic groups. I sent my own children to public school because I wanted them to learn to relate to lots of different people as equals. As a teacher I spent time working with my students to help them get along, to understand different points of view and respect one another. The public schools accept all students, and we help them learn to cooperate as well as compete with one another. As teachers, our most important asset is the community of professionals at our school. We all benefit when we collaborate and contribute to a common culture of learning at the school. It is strange to me that business-oriented people can understand the power of competition, but seem blind to the fact that cooperation and collaboration have great power as well.

And is it so terrible for our schools to be run by organizations that are owned by the public at large?
We do not complain about the government “monopoly” in law enforcement, or fire protection. Why is it so horrible to have a local neighborhood school governed by a locally elected school board, supported by our tax dollars? If only ALL my tax dollars went to support something as useful as a school system, instead of being squandered on bombs and drones, I, for one, would be a whole lot happier.

This blog is devoted to dialogue. I want to thank this reader for sharing her views with us, and invite her and others to respond below. What do you think? What should teachers learn from business-people? What do we want business-people to understand about schools?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.