Public schools are not businesses. Furthermore, no business could succeed let alone survive if it had to abide by the same rules and restrictions that apply to our schools especially in New Jersey. The successful processes by which schools educate students and factories manufacture products are as different as they can be. Because students and schools can vary widely across every dimension, it is harmful to apply business principles that assume the efficiency of a one size fits all mold. Still, this does not seem to stop those reformers who promote a simple business-based remedy for what they believe are the shortcomings of our schools.
It seems, however, as though our schools are in the middle of a period during which the chorus from the business community and policymakers is calling for reform. In their view, the educational system is not producing what they believe to be the desired product or outcome. Not surprisingly, the remedy offered by these reformers is consistent with business models that have worked well in the private sector such as for increasing manufacturing output, but ignores the complexities of improving public education.
The business model proposed for improving education as well as reducing its cost is the application of standard business principles and processes to our schools including mass standardization, assembly line manufacturing methods, cost-benefit analysis, return on investment (ROI), and a for-profit orientation. It seems as if those who advocate this business model for schools believe that the mission of education is to prepare students for the world of work in ways similar to those required for manufacturing a product ready to be sold in the marketplace. In this view, the students are the inputs who are manufactured by the teachers, who are supervised in turn by the school administrators according to the rules and regulations as legislated by the county, state and federal governments.
While the use of this kind of business model may have a profitable history of manufacturing production, it falls short when it comes to educating students to become fully functioning members of society. Therefore, it is essential to understand not only why our schools are not the same as factories but also why business-based remedies will not ultimately lead to the improved performance of our schools. Once this is understood, perhaps policymakers, legislators, and governmental administrators alike will be better able to make decisions using the proper framework.
In a demonstration of not only why schools can not be businesses but also why attempts to treat them as if they were seem to result in a leveling-down of education, Cuban (2004) concludes that the application of an industrial model would be counterproductive. Cuban examines the viewpoints of many of those who advocate for trying to transform schools into manufacturing facilities to prove his argument. He provides some pertinent examples of the industrial model rationale including a quote by Cubberley (1916), “Our schools are in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life” (p. 338). He also quotes a former Secretary of Education (Paige, 2003), “Henry Ford created a world-class company, a leader in its industry. More important, Ford would not have survived the competition had it not been for an emphasis on results. We must view education the same way. Good schools do operate like a business. They care about outcomes, routinely assess quality, and measure the needs of the children they serve” (p. 12).
The concept of lean manufacturing is also being increasingly promoted for use by public schools. McClung argues that such an application is neither cost effective nor sound because of the extreme heterogeneity of students in terms of nearly every characteristic. According to McClung (2008), “Lean manufacturing concentrates on reducing costs by standardizing processes and raw materials. This minimizes waste, including wasted time. Any variation in raw materials or processing requires adjustments to achieve the same output at a consistent cost.” But “lean manufacturing has little tolerance for variation in any aspect of the process, whether it is the skill of workers, the schedule, the tools, or (especially) the raw materials. In fact, the principles of lean manufacturing call for strong controls over the raw materials that are accepted into the process. If variations in raw materials are tightly controlled, then the manufacturing processes can be easily optimized to provide consistently high quality outputs—at a price much below the cost of less efficient manufacturing methods. If we look at raw materials as student background, process as teaching methods, and output as graduates, the analogy would be that every variation in student background or teaching methodology requires adjustments in cost in order to produce consistent graduates” (p. 2).
Many business-based reformers also advocate for the use of cost-benefit analysis despite what seem to be some inherent contradictions. Viadero (2008) summarizes the challenges associated with applying cost-benefit analysis to education and concludes, “What can make cost-benefit analyses controversial is deciding which costs and benefits to account for and what estimates to use. The scholars contend their estimates are not out of the ordinary, but concede that no hard-and-fast rules exist in education for determining when an expense is or is not reasonable” (p. 5).
To be sure, not everyone in the private sector argues in favor of treating schools as if they were businesses and some of those who do find themselves switching their stand. One such example is reflected in the “epiphany” (Cuban, 2004) experienced by former CEO, Jamie Vollmer (2002), who had sought business-type reforms for schools but changed his mindset during a speech to a group of educators.
“If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!” I stood before an audience filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of in-service training. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.
I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the 1980’s when People magazine chose its blueberry flavor as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”
I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the Industrial Age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society.” Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! Total quality management! Continuous improvement!
In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced—equal parts ignorance and arrogance. As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up … She began quietly. “We are told sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.” I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, ma’am.” “How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?” “Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed. “Premium ingredients?” she inquired. “Super premium! Nothing but triple-A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.
“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?” In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap. I knew I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie. “I send them back.”
“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with attention deficit disorder, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business, it’s a school!” In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aids, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!”
And so began my long transformation. Since then, I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, completing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night” (p. 42).
Policymakers and legislators who seek to apply business principles and practices to schools and then analyze school as well as student performance on the basis of how well business-type goals are achieved, do not understand the complexities of the factors that combine to form a quality education. In addition, there are a number of important variables for improving school and student performance. For example, improving Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) involves many of the factors that are essential to quality education including but not limited to differentiated instruction, aligning curriculum with standards, student skill deficiency-based professional development, quality teachers, small class sizes, and engaged parents.
Moreover, a school system’s ability to respond to ever changing conditions and to solve new problems as they arise should be also taken into account when assessing its quality. Education transforms those who attend our schools so that they are better able to contribute meaningfully to society. Therefore, in order for policymakers, legislators, and administrators to develop policies that will establish the proper framework for school-based decision making, it is essential to share an understanding of the unique nature of our public schools and why a school should not be treated as another business entity.
Cuban, L. (2004). The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press.
Cubberly, E. P. (1916). Public School Administration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
McClung, K. (2008). Lean Education. Teacher Magazine, http://www.TeacherMagazine.org April 9, 2008.
Paige, R. (2003) Letter to the editor, New Yorker, October 6, 2003.
Viadero, D. (2008). New Center Applies Cost-Benefit Analysis to Education Policies. Education Week, http://www.Edweek.org April 8, 2008.
Vollmer, J. R. (2002). “The Blueberry Story,” Education Week, March 6, 2002.