Education is a funny business. In fact, some hate even describing schools and universities as businesses, for fear of reducing them to objective measures and taking away the creative and artistic sides of the craft. Yet, when it comes down to it, all education institutions operate just like a business.
And like most businesses, schools must follow a budget and are held accountable to certain performance metrics. However, whereas most businesses rely on the feedback of their clients to determine their success, schools rarely — if ever — take into consideration their customers’ opinions or satisfaction with the education they provide.
The easiest reason is to blame the budget. It’s no secret that schools already have dismal operating budgets and therefore must make serious sacrifices — reducing staff, teacher pay, and classroom resources — in order to execute their mission. So some might argue that schools have their hands tied in being open to their customers’ demands. And, ironically, it’s these types of decisions that negatively impact students and hurt their overall performance, leading schools to make even stricter decisions and ignore their customers’ needs even more.
In addition, due to the increasing standardization of education, there are more and more accountability measures that often prevent school administrators from risking their careers by listening to the ideas of the students they serve. Most administrators are so focused on test scores, attendance rates, and school rankings that they don’t have time to worry about the overall student experience in their district. In some cases, funding is tied to directly to these data points so many schools feel under threat to run a tight ship and completely ignore what’s best for their customers.
Finally, and this is the most critical part, is that the American education system operates with little threat of competition. There is simply no incentive for schools to care about involving their students in the decision-making process, because there are no consequences for their dissatisfaction. Students don’t get the option to switch schools if they aren’t satisfied with their education or if they want to have more inspiring growth opportunities. Students don’t get to submit their own rankings or feedback as part of the school evaluation process. And students don’t get to take what they’re worth in funding and spend it somewhere better suited for them.
Now I’m not advocating for a radical change in which students get to spend their education dollars however they please and transfer school districts as they see fit. And I know that a lot of people hate thinking about students like this, in terms of dollars.
But, as a teacher, I think this logic is flawed. What I am arguing is that we should be thinking about students as dollars insofar as schools should be showing that their dollars are being invested in the students. Instead, many schools waste money on frivolous expenses that add little to no value for student learning.
And this is the where the argument of schools acting like businesses makes the most sense. It’s a business’s job to make decisions that show a positive return-on-investment. Yes, performance metrics are important and student growth matters, but the current growth measurement system relies on subjective scores in terms of a school’s success.
For example, schools focus on the percentage of students who achieve “proficient” or “advanced” on a standardized test in a specific subject, which doesn’t take into account many other variables of student progress. Back when schools first started providing standardized education for all, this type of measurement made sense. Schools wanted to show that their students had properly learned rote information and were therefore ready for the Industrial Age workforce.
Now in the modern era, the Age of Technology, these same metrics simply won’t suffice. Instead, we live in a time when the “customer-is-always-right” and yet this same attitude doesn’t apply to schools. Students won’t be successful in the real-world when they grow up learning under conditions that prepare them for a standardized work environment.
So the accountability component for today’s schools should measure the overall percentage of growth for each individual student and for a variety of real-world skills, instead of disparate knowledge in isolated subjects.
In this way, students would have more direct ownership of their learning and schools would have the incentive to motivate and involve each student to grow their strengths and weaknesses. In looking at these types of metrics, schools could then show how the money they spend actually delivers a return-on-investment in the students they serve.
The Great Education Debate — often heated and controversial — puts a lot of importance on many different measures of success. Many of these arguments, however, miss the mark in terms of what’s missing in education. The truth is, schools simply aren’t doing enough to listen to their customers and fulfill their needs by meeting them where they are in their education and inspiring them to grow.
Students want choices. Students want real-world skills. Students want collaboration. Students want freedom. Students want self-awareness. Students want inclusion. Students want diversity. Students want involvement.
Schools can’t give students these things until they’re willing to listen to their students and use their input when designing the educational experiences they provide.
It’s time for schools to start serving their customers.