Lets’ Be Clear: Schools are Not Business

We often hear that schools should be run as businesses are run. We also hear we should support school choice as it will increase competition, thus improve quality for all. Those who advocate these stances appear to misunderstand the realities of schools that make them different from businesses. The practices used to make business successful in competitive are effective because of certain characteristics of that endeavor; those characteristics are not shared by educational endeavors, especially comprehensive public schools. Consider these differences between businesses and schools:

  • Businesses have a clear bottom line, but schools do not. Despite attempts to measure the success of schools through tests, the reality is that learning can be defined with many and varied ways and measuring it is notoriously difficult. Business success is measured by the artificial measure of money, but learning is a natural process, thus measuring it is subject to the same error and uncertainty as measuring any natural phenomenon.
  • Closing is an option for business. If profits are insufficient, operations are too difficult, supplies are deficient or unavailable, the available workforce is unskilled, or the market is too small the business can move to a new location or close. In the US, public schools do not have this option.
  • Businesses can test solutions. Many business operations can be isolated, tested, and perfected before they are deployed. In schools, solutions cannot be effectively deployed until they are used with students, and the effects of those can have permanent effects. If students have a “bad math teacher” (for example), those effects are permanent (or at least very long lasting).
  • Most business functions are well-bounded. If we adopt a simple systems view, we can deconstruct business and school into input, operations, and outputs. Business generally “knows” what inputs it needs and the quality of the inputs they need. Because the products are also clearly known and customers or clients define what is acceptable, the outputs are clearly bounded.
  • Operations are not clearly understood in schools. The cognitive and learning sciences are elucidating what constitutes effective teaching in defined conditions, but those findings are ambiguous. Even if a teacher adopts “best practices,” the lesson may not have the intended outcomes. The reality is a lesson plan is more like a lesson guess; the dynamics and nuances of a particular group of students affects the effectiveness of all lessons. Despite the attempt to standardize curriculum, the variation of students (and teachers) make standardization (which is central to business operations) of teaching impossible.
  • Businesses can expand markets as necessary. Schools enroll geographically isolated populations. Geography, transportation, and other factors determine the limits of who can enroll in a school. Business can expand the market or shrink their operations to meet the available market.

We believe we know how businesses operate. Ideas such as supply and demand, diffusion of innovations, and quality improvement are applied to affect their goals. My friends in business indicate their work is more complicated than the textbook versions of these ideas, but they also agree business is a tame endeavor: within the organization, they agree on what needs to be done and they can understand what needs to happen and why it is effective. Schools are perhaps the most wicked of problems; there is little consensus on what needs to be done or why or how they might be successful.

I do think schools can be improved and need to be, but I am certain they will not be improved until we recognize they are not businesses.