Schools are like businesses, but not in the way most think.
I frequently find myself in conversations comparing “how it works in business” with “how it works in education.” A popular version goes something like this:
Schools are like factories. They take raw materials (kids and textbooks) and, through years of education, forge a valuable product: young adults prepared for college, life, and work. In this analogy, teachers work the assembly line, supervised by the principal.
Most educators bristle when schools are compared to factories. The analogy doesn’t work.
This analogy has some problems. Are teachers really like factory workers? Are students really products? (If they are defective, asks Stanford education professor and author Larry Cuban, can we send them back?)
Here’s a more useful analogy:
Schools are like consulting businesses. The students are knowledge workers, organized into teams to analyze and solve problems, in the process demonstrating their mastery of valuable learning standards. In this more useful analogy, teachers are the managers, not the workers.
This analogy seems closer to the mark. After all, schools function only if it is the students who do the work. Teachers cannot do it for them. Like any managers of inexperienced workers, teachers’ truest aim is to bring out the best in their charges. They organize, assign, challenge, cajole, and motivate. Through success and failure, teachers develop their students’ capacity to take on bigger challenges with better results and increasing independence.
In this more useful analogy, teachers are the managers, not the workers
Thinking of teachers as managers also helps to shed light on the complex responsibilities of the school principal. Imagine running a knowledge-sector organization with hundreds of young, inexperienced, and sometimes unruly employees. Now imagine that your budget compels you to organize the business with a very flat structure, with only one group leader for every thirty or so beginners. This is the structure of most elementary schools.
Middle school changes everything. In business terms, it’s equivalent to a massive reorganization. From middle school onward, our young knowledge workers are assembled into six or more different teams per day, switching academic contexts each hour like fully-booked consultants jumping from one project to the next. They no longer have a clearly defined manager; teachers in middle and high schools often interact with more than a hundred students per day. What’s more, the relationships among teachers and students shift once per semester as students complete courses, or fail them.
Few if any knowledge-sector businesses would put managers in a direct reporting relationship with such a large number of workers, especially inexperienced ones. Nor would they shift workers among assignments with such casual speed, especially if they are struggling to complete the work. Schools do so every day. Is it any wonder students get lost?
Finally, the analogy faces this challenge: Who is the customer? Who demands the work that students produce with their teachers’ guidance? For lucky students, an engaged and prepared adult figure is the discerning customer, demanding good work and providing useful feedback. Some parents play this role well, but not all can or will.
Join the Discussion
- In what ways are schools organized differently from businesses?
- Are there practices from business that could help your school?
- Do students in your school feel that there is a “customer” for their hard work?
A version of this post first appeared on TopED, the predecessor to EdSource Today, in 2011
Image: Business Baby Pointing – CC Paul Inkles