Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Reason 4,237 Schools Are Not Businesses

It’s the vision thing. Business primarily concerns itself with the near term. Once a product is sold and the money received it loses its value to the business and the next product to be sold comes to the head of the line. Of course the wise CEO looks down the road trying to spot trends, opportunities and threats, but the bulk of his or her attention is focused around quarterly, or yearly sales goals, inventory and labor costs and the  Profit and Loss Statement. At the end of the year everything is wrapped up and the process starts all over again with the previous year being but a fading memory or touch point to use in evaluating the new year.

Schools are just the opposite. Naturally they are concerned with short term goals like teaching the alphabet or the multiplication tables, but the bulk of their attention is focused on placing these accomplishments into a developing pattern of achievement. The alphabet and multiplication tables are not products to be consumed, but talents to be developed and their value comes from their scalability because contained in the student’s recitation of the alphabet or multiplication tables is the potential to write great literature, or successfully send a probe to Mars, whereas a Chevy Impala, once it is assembled, will forever remain a Chevy Impala.

Businesses like standardization because it reduces costs and makes things more predictable. Once an efficient and cost effective production process is in place it essentially needs to be monitored and supported until changes in the market or technology make it no longer efficient or cost effective. The assembly line model, for example, brought to the production of automobiles by Henry Ford in 1913 has remained fundamentally the same since then, being updated over the years through technology and automation.

Schools have to be careful about standardization because what a particular student’s potential is, or can be is not necessarily known at any given point along the way, making surprise and unpredictability important indicators that not only need to have attention paid to them, but may in fact need to be nurtured if a student’s true capabilities are to be discovered and developed. Mike Rose, author the award winning book Lives on the Boundary in a chapter called I Just Want To Be Average writes about being incorrectly placed in the Voc-Ed stream. The mistake was discovered and he was able to move to a place more appropriate, but many students are not so lucky.

 This is not to say that a school isn’t like a business, in certain respects it is. Schools take in money, pay bills, salaries, buy products and a host of other activities similar to those engaged in by the business community. However, when you look around schools today and you see Common Core this, and standardized that, you see districts encouraged to buy “Systems” and “Packages” and whole curriculums it’s obvious that business practices, particularly manufacturing business practices, have leaked out of areas where they could be beneficial and into areas where they are often detrimental.

 To return to our car metaphor, the Cadillac assembly line produces only Cadillacs, and if you want to make a Chevy you have to use the Chevy assembly line, but in schools Cadillacs, Chevys, Lamborghinis, Fords and a host of other “models” are all produced simultaneously in classrooms and individual teachers often don’t know which “model” they are dealing with at the time they work with it. To complicate matters even further, a “model” that starts the process as a Honda Civic may end up as a Corvette.
 The bottom line—to use a business phrase—is that business starts with a known quantity, raw materials for example, which are put it through a process that is designed to produce one known result: create the product which was originally intended. Nothing is new, nothing is discovered.

 Schools are all about the new, and discovery is at the core of their mission. Each student who walks through the door is a unique mix of potentials, talents and opportunities waiting to be discovered. The process that they are put through needs to be flexible, responsive and adaptable because the result is not known at the beginning. Even to refer to the ultimate end of education as a “result” can be misleading because students can continue to grow and develop years after they’ve left the school house behind, unlike say a new car which, as the saying goes, loses 20% of its value the minute you drive it off the lot. Depreciation in other words, which is OK for cars, not so great for students.

1 comment:

scripto said...

I was kind of a Yugo - so maybe Voc-Ed would have been a better path.