School & District Management Opinion

What Education Doesn’t Know About Business

By Robert Pondiscio — February 27, 2014 4 min read
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Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst writes to Deborah Meier today.

Dear Deb,

Thank you for your most recent post. Terrific piece. It reminds me what a privilege it is to share this space with you. Your humanity and decency shine through in every word.

The conceit of this blog is simple enough. Put two educators from different schools of thought together and let them fight like scorpions in a bottle. But we are not enemies, nor will we be. We may—we do—have different ideas about the best way to ensure that all of our children have “a voice, a vote, and the resources to decide their own future,” in your excellent phrase, but these are honorable differences, born of our different experiences, preferences, and biases.

I have some quibbles about the specifics of your piece, and your take generally on “corporate ed reform.” Businesses are “leading the current school reform drive,” you say. I don’t see it. You paint a bleak picture of business leaders as rootless mansion-dwellers with loyalties to little other than profit. And, honestly Deb, are there really teachers telling 5-year-olds that they’d “better get down to business or else they’ll never have a job?” Not in my school.

These dark, sweeping generalizations and our posts about Detroit hint at a difference that may need bridging more urgently than any of ours: the one between business and education.

A few days after my last post, I got a nice email from Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy and a fellow edweek.org blogger. I’ve long admired his writing; he’s a reasonable, measured fellow and a clear-eyed critic of education systems, both here and abroad. We had an interesting conversation about the mistrust and hostility between education and business. Tucker offered up the opinion, and I agreed, that education suffers from he called a “Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times view” of business and industry as soulless, dull, and repetitive work.

A hunch: If someone says “schools should prepare students for the world of work,” do you assume I mean “not college?” Do you assume they mean docile, compliant souls who follow directions and don’t ask a lot of questions? When you go to a modern manufacturing plant and talk to the people about the knowledge, skills, and mental agility they need, Tucker observed, “the last thing the people who run those plants will tell you that they want are kids who are compliant.”

Those you deride as “corporate ed reformers” can be equally obtuse. I have sometimes complained that if you put leading reformers in charge of the Edsel at Ford Motor Company 50 years ago, they would set about measuring the productivity of each assembly line worker, insist on a bonus plan to reward them when sales improved, shut down failing plants, and build new ones, no doubt staffed by bright and energetic Autoworkers For America. But they’d keep building Edsels.

Much of what you deride a “corporate ed reform” I have also viewed critically, not because it is business-led, but because it’s not businesslike. We “innovate” around process improvements, structures, and incentives, all of which assume the product is great; we only need to improve who delivers it and under whose roof.

A compliance mentality is far more evident in schools than in business. Aim and standard on the board? Check. Students seated in groups? Check. Updated work on the bulletin board? Check. Ask why these things are important and you might hear something mumbled about indicators of learning and “what research shows.” Press a little and it usually ends up with “it’s what they want to see.”

If we really ran schools like businesses you might find much to like about it. Your fondness for small schools, directly accountable to their communities sounds more like a successful small business than most of what we see in schools. You just might be a closet corporate reformer, Deb!

But what about job protections and workers rights, you will protest. Would you rather work in a school with a principal who shares your philosophy and approach, trusts and supports you, but has the power to fire you at will? Or a school where your duties are codified to the letter, where you know what’s on the checklist and spend all of your time working to rule while frightened administrators play “gotcha.” Where are you going to be happiest and most productive? Which of these feels “corporate?”

“People in business and industry know that compliance is the death knell of their company,” Tucker told me. Having spent two decades in the corporate world, Deb, I agreed. That said, business is equally obtuse about the work and challenges of educators. If you’ll allow me a two-part post, I’ll talk about what business doesn’t understand about education on Tuesday.


Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City’s South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.