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Virginia Journal of Education

No Sale

Why a school can't be run like a business.

by Tim Summers

This just in—public schools are to be run like businesses. Hallelujah! Finally, a model that will save failing schools, motivate apathetic students and teachers, and catapult America’s educated citizenry to the top of the world’s list of overachievers.

Just one problem: Schools are not now, nor have they ever been, remotely like a business. The business model cannot be made to fit the art and science of education. The process of awakening the mind and nurturing the growing intellect and natural curiosity of the student fares not at all well in a numbers-based business environment.

Students learn at different rates and, by nature, become prepared to receive information cognitively at different times. Given these real variables, and our emphasis on testing, only superficial understanding of concepts can be attained. In fact, only superficial understanding of concepts is required under the law. Which brings me to the point: Education is a process so dependent upon such a diversity of variables that the word “business” should be anathema to anyone associated with it.

This is the way I used to see it: Education cannot be seen as a business and cannot be subjected to the mechanics of applied business philosophy because education, as a system, is not designed to turn out a product with any degree of uniformity. Nor should this ever be its goal. That’s what businesses are for.

A business manufactures or markets a product which is economically produced and by its nature, therefore, exactly like or very similar to products of the same function. As long as similar models, be they Chevys, mouse pads or insurance policies, are produced and sold to consumers, everyone is happy and successful. In fact, theoretically, the longer a company is in business, the better it becomes at producing uniformity.

In education, there is no uniformity in product. If we consider the product of education to be an adequately educated student, we find that the raw materials required to produce it are so dissimilar that each individual unit is a different product altogether. A human being is a thinking, feeling, dynamic organism. Each child comes to education with different cognitive, emotional, social and economic resources. To expect each unit produced to possess the same attributes is ludicrous—not to mention the fact that I think most of us would agree that we expect and indeed celebrate differences among people.

Like I said, that’s the way I used to see it. Lately I have come to see things somewhat differently. The way the business model is actually being applied today is quite a different story. The product under this model is not the student: It is a score. The score determines the success of the business. A score fits much more easily into the concept of uniformity of product than does a human being. Very little consideration is given to individual circumstances and qualities of the raw materials. Bauxite makes aluminum, therefore children’s sub-cranial electro-fatty matter makes a score.

Let’s take this a little further. If the student is no longer the product, what is she? She is the employee. Her job is to produce the score. She works for the teacher who, in this analogy, is like a middle manager of a company, responsible for the productivity of the workers under him and beholden to the executives above him. The teacher could be rewarded lavishly if his team delivers an excellent product or, conceivably, be sanctioned or lose his job if productivity falls.

Now in the real business world, the middle manager assembles his own team of workers through the interviewing and hiring process and can fire employees who are hurting his team’s productivity. A teacher cannot do this, but must soldier on, seeking a way to reach every student, keeping all together in a protective, nurturing work environment, and never giving up on a single one.

There are, of course, other reasons why business and education don’t mix. Recently I heard it said concerning the preponderance of paperwork teachers are experiencing that, “You’re just getting a taste of what we in business have always done.” Poppycock! This extra work requires teachers who, by the way, are already working far in excess of their contracted hours out of a sense of responsibility (and for free), to put even more hours into the job, to the further neglect of their families and personal lives. Unfortunately, since there are only 24 hours in each day, students may begin to suffer as preparation time for their lessons and time for remediation opportunities fall victim to time spent by the teacher in test analysis and test administration itself.

When businesspeople put in extra hours, it’s usually to curry favor with one’s superiors, seek a promotion, or get some other purely materialistic reward. Businesspeople with comparable levels of education or even less than that of teachers, are as a rule given paid vacation and bonuses. Teachers are not paid for their “time off,” commonly viewed as vacation time. Actually, teachers are not paid for any time beyond their contracted hours spent in the school building. I have to work a couple of other jobs all year just to survive while supporting a family of four. I defy you to find a business professional who would be motivated to pursue a career with these excellent benefits.

While corporations typically sponsor trips, conventions, seminars and other training opportunities for their employees, teachers are often required to dip into their own pockets to pay for mandated training for license renewal. Some are forced to resort to the use of credit cards and other high-debt instruments in order to fulfill these obligations.

By the way, I realize that there are exceptions. There are people in business who are not rewarded in the aforementioned ways and there are teachers—not many—who refuse to work beyond the particulars of their contract.

But teachers do not teach for the money. Certainly not in Virginia, where in the 7th most prosperous state in the nation, teachers are paid near the bottom of the salary rankings among states. Teaching is done in service to society in general and to our communities specifically. Teaching is a service occupation and as such it once again does not fit the corporate model. Teachers ask for little in return for this service: Only that they be given the opportunity to teach as they know best how to do, that their students be successful in a variety of ways, and that they be afforded a modicum of the respect that they richly deserve.

As public support for education dwindles, as the media portray our schools as if they are all failing – it is always the schools that are failing, not the children, their parents or our society – teachers struggle to maintain their composure in the classroom, their morale in general and their love for their chosen profession. It’s a battle that, sadly, many of us seem to be losing.

Summers, vice president of the Roanoke County Education Association, teaches second grade at Oak Grove Elementary School.


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