Run Schools Like Businesses? Absolutely!

02/01/2010
Business Plan in a Day book
Image by Raymond Yee via Flickr

I’m about to say something radical.

Okay, it may not seem so radical to you but to the people who have known or read me for some time this will be startling.

Schools SHOULD be run as businesses.

I ran a business for almost 20 years so I think I understand some things about how to do it.

The business leaders who complain that schools should be run more like businesses don’t get it.

They don’t get it so much that I don’t understand how they stay in business.

The people who oppose running schools like businesses also don’t get it.

They think that schools run like businesses will be even more like factories than schools are already.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: the folks talking about running schools believe their customers are their product.

All businesses have at least one product. It may be cars, or widgets or accounting services, whatever.

All businesses that want to stay in business also have customers who buy or rent those products.

It is essential, in business and in the rest of life, that products and customers, both essential for business survival, are not the same thing.

Any smart businessperson will be able to tell the product and the customer apart.

Actually, there are a lot of not-so-smart business people who can also tell you what their products are and who their customers are.

It really isn’t that hard to do.

But, somehow, the people who insist that schools should be run like businesses can’t.

They think their customers are their product. I have no idea who they think their customers are.

The school-as-business advocates cling to an industrial model of school.

This industrial model emerged in the last part of the 19th Century and the early-to-mid parts of the 20th century to teach children who grew up on farms, children who grew up in other countries, and the children who grew up on farms in other countries how to be good, obedient, factory workers.

The industrial model of schools taught and teaches how to be in place at the assigned time, not a big farm skill but essential in industry.

The industrial model teaches how to follow directions, also useful in industry.

The industrial model also teaches how to produce on a rigid schedule, and we all know that assembly lines move on a rigid schedule.

Despite all the talk that schools are bad, they actually are exceedingly good at doing what they were designed to do: take in raw youths and produce compliant, punctual workers.

The problem is that our schools are designed to feed students into the industries that America no longer has.

All those jobs that initially moved to Japan and more recently to China, Vietnam and India not only led to the decline of industrial centers like Detroit, Youngstown, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana, they have led to the obsolescence of the American model of education.

Now there are various efforts to “reform” schools in some way.

Most of these efforts, charter schools and the like, are small adjustments in a model that more and more people say needs a major overhaul at the minimum.

In any case, these charter schools have come into existence to give students, guided by their parents, choices about where to go to school.

Competition, it is claimed, will force public schools to become better.

In other words, public schools, private schools, parochial schools and charter schools are all competing for the same student just like McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and Five Guys are all competing for the same stomach.

Those folks who say schools should be run like businesses still think of the student as their product even though their customer, industry, has fled to the hinterlands and is unlikely to return no matter how compliant the students schools create.

The student who used to be the product of the school system is now the consumer, the customer.

So I think it is now essential to run schools like businesses.

Schools-as-businesses now need to focus on the student, figure out what the student wants, how much of it they want, in what kind of package, and where they want to buy it.

Schools and school systems need to sell themselves to their customers the same way Chevy, Ford and Toyota have to sell to drivers.

Now the problem of keeping students in high school is a marketing and management problem, not a legislative one.

Now creating schools that students want to attend will take more than new packaging and other tweaks.

It will take new products, new formulas and new locations.

This is big.

It’s like the day after Thanksgiving for retailers, now get the customers to come to your school.

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