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Running Schools Like a Business Is a Crazy Idea

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I've been learning which posts are likely to bring comments, and which are never heard from again.

A lot of the comments have been helpful and on-point, which I greatly appreciate, because the whole point of this blog is to start some conversations about how we can better serve students, how we can be better educators, and how we can gain some support for the things we know are needed.

But almost every post also brings the "we should run schools like a business" comments.

And that's just nuts.

These guys -- and they seem always to be guys -- inevitably mention the "bottom line," and that comparison is crazy for several reasons.

First, what businesses do y'all have in mind? Lehman Brothers? Bernie Madoff's funds? GM before the bailout? Do we really want the folks at the top of a school or district to risk the whole enterprise on ill-informed bets, or on actively ignored institutional entropy? I don't think so.

Second, what kind of business? Not an extractive business. Not a mining company or oil corporation that externalizes its costs by leaving a damaged environment for someone else to clean up. Nor a venture capital firm [Bain, anyone?] that cuts operating budgets to the bone, knowing that they'll be long cashed out before the chickens come home to roost. Certainly not a Microsoft or Samsung or Flip Video, that might make needed products and sell them at a reasonable price, but that never get better than "just good enough," that never pushes the envelope. We can't pattern schools after any of these models.

Third, what do real businesses mean by the "bottom line?" Most businesses are small, one or a handful of employees, owned by the founder or their families. What's their bottom line? Sure, they want to make a profit, and must in order to keep the doors open, but is that what they're really about? The bar I like to go to, because they're nice and have a great kitchen, has to clear a profit, but the owners are focused on the kind of place it is, where you can get drunk and shoot pool, or take your kid in for a burger. Our neighborhood dry cleaner is family owned, and the lady running the place used to be a high-school student working in her dad's shop, and she still calls me "Mr." because she was about sixteen when I first started going there.

These businesses understand that the "bottom line" is more than the cash left in the drawer at the end of the month; it's the relationships that have been built and the fact that they know your kids and you know theirs.

That's the bottom line we have in education. We teach the kids of people we know, and those kids then work in the local businesses and, if you stay in the game long enough, you teach their kids down the road. Former students are the ones who say hello to you at the football game, or church or Wal-Mart; they may even end up teaching your kids.

But let's get past the idea that "running a school like a business" would somehow solve all our problems, because:

  • More businesses fail than make it, and that's no batting average to emulate with our schools.
  • When a business fails, its creditors are hurt and its customers inconvenienced, but a failing school can ruin lives.
  • What is the dollar value you put on the improvement in a child's life from a good education? Or the price of a bad one?
  • Do you really think a standardized test or one-day inspection tells you what the bottom line is? Really?

Running a business like a business isn't even always the answer, and it's sure not the solution for our schools.