Schools Are Like Businesses

by Jeff Camp | April 15, 2024 | 2 Comments
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Schools are like businesses, but not in the way most think.

I have found myself in many conversations comparing “how it works in business” with “how it works in education.” A popular version of the analogy 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.”

Most educators bristle when schools are compared to factories. The analogy doesn't work.

In this analogy, teachers work the assembly line, supervised by the principal. This analogy has some big 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, they demonstrate 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 of learning. Teachers cannot do it for them.

In this more useful analogy, teachers are the managers, not the workers

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.

Principals are executives

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.

A Reorg for middle school

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?

Who is the customer?

Finally, the analogy faces this challenge: In education, who is the customer? Who demands the work that students produce with their teachers’ guidance?

For lucky students, the answer is an engaged and prepared adult. A discerning customer demands good work, appreciates it and provides useful feedback. Some parents know how to play this role well, but not all can or will.

Parent and engagement is deeply helpful to high-functioning school communities, and it feels like this is where the analogy to business falls apart. When school systems invest in parent training and engagement, are they training their customers?

What do you think?

  • In what important ways are schools different 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?

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
LeeAnn Corral April 15, 2024 at 4:00 pm
I appreciated you thinking teachers are the managers, not the workers. I also enjoyed your last question about how students feel Is there is a customer for their hard work? I think that is where citizenship grades could be as important as academic grades.
user avatar
vpeterson_2001 April 28, 2015 at 4:03 pm
So glad you are trying to change the way teachers are thought of. Not factory workers but as providing a service. Now we need to get teachers to understand that they are in customer service and provide great service to all of their customers.
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