Assessment Opinion

What Business Doesn’t Know About Education

By Guest Blogger — March 04, 2014 5 min read
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Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst writes to Deborah Meier again today.

Dear Deborah,

In my last post I pointed out some of the ways in which education misunderstands business. One of the points I made was that schools, more than businesses, tend to demand compliance. As if on cue, the same day I wrote that a video appeared on YouTube of Chicago teachers sitting through an infantilizing call and response “professional development” exercise. It was a depressing, demeaning thing to see. I can’t imagine sitting through it. I’d probably have walked out.

The misunderstandings go both ways. If education has an outdated view of business, the business world can be equally clueless about education. Business people tend to be frustrated by education’s slow pace of change and inability to be nimble. Schools resist or fail to respond to financial incentives, and when we respond to external pressures like testing, we often do so poorly. Like most institutions, schools are inherently conservative. That’s not a flaw of our education system; it’s a feature of it.

Education, by nature, is not forward-looking. We share the best of what is known about the past, not just in history but in all subjects. Newton’s famous remark about seeing further because we stand on the shoulders of giants applies here. We prepare children for their future by sharing and transmitting our accumulated knowledge and expect them to build upon it.

Businesses respond to performance incentives. Merit pay has a weak track record in education. New products and services are launched constantly to respond to changing tastes, markets, and technologies. A high failure rate is not only accepted, it’s expected. When schools try to emulate the forward-looking nature of business, we tend to do so very badly. We fall into the thrall of fads and charlatans (21st Century Skills, anyone?), or spend a lot of money with little to show for it.

Strong companies tend to do few things, but do them very well. Regardless of what product or service a company provides, it is commonly accepted that a successful outcome is the creation of shareholder value and profit for investors. There’s a single metric, and disciplined management ensures that all activities are focused on that goal. In schools, attempts to impose a single metric—test scores, for example—disregard and even thwart the broader public purpose of education.

In theory, and increasingly as a matter of public policy, we might say we want our schools to be singularly focused on academic performance, but in reality they cannot be. We can’t ignore the public purpose of schools in shaping habits, transmitting community values, developing character, and preparing children for citizenship. Whether we explicitly say so or measure it, we expect schools to reward not just academic performance, but positive behaviors such as caring, compassion, cooperation, and generosity in our children. If you question whether those are the proper role of education, ask how long you would allow your child to attend a school that was cavalier about these things, or where there were no consequences for their absence.

This broader public role requires and attracts people who are drawn to different values and respond to different incentives than business. “The thing that kills me about education is that it’s so touchy-feely,” Michelle Rhee sneered in her infamous 2008 TIME Magazine cover story. “Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job,” she said.

I remarked at the time that criticizing education for being touchy-feely is like criticizing accountancy for being detail-oriented. It’s the nature of the enterprise. A service ethic is more common among educators than an appetite for risk and competition, and that’s perfectly appropriate. Teachers enjoy the company of children; we are “touch-feely.” Would you want your kids to spend five days a week with people who aren’t?

To think schools should be more like businesses misses something essential about them. Schools have more in common with cultural institutions or churches than corporations. The profit motive does not apply, not because it is beneath the dignity of educators, but because it is not a core value. Teaching has more in common with parenting and pastoring than sales and marketing. Almost no one talks about “innovation” or “value creation” within families and churches.

Yet education can require a set of skills almost entirely absent from business. Marc Tucker told me a story recently about a group of senior executives loaned to him from Xerox CEO David Kearns to help reorganize the Rochester, N.Y., school bureaucracy. After studying the district for several months, they were exasperated. “They said, ‘You have every single problem we had at Xerox, but that’s only the beginning!’ They said, ‘I don’t know how these guys do it because they operate in a fishbowl. Everything they do is subject to public observation, public criticism, and public politics!’” Tucker recalled the execs saying. “What these guys realized is that it takes tremendous political skills just to keep the thing going,” he noted.

None of this is to suggest that schools should be impervious to change, allowed not to adapt, or operate free of accountability. As someone who has spent an equal portion of his life in business and in education, I am simply not surprised at how difficult it is to transfer “best practices” from one to the other. The goals, incentives, and values don’t transfer either.

I’m not sure we’d like it if they did.


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.