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Should Schools Be Run Like a Business?

Updated: Jul 30

There’s been a debate in education (actually one of many) that I always find fascinating to discuss. And a couple weeks ago an article caught my attention which raised the issue once again - Whatever Changes Come to Education, Schools Shouldn’t Be Run Like a Business.


The article was published in EdSurge, an online publication for the edtech industry, and it popped up that week in just about every edtech newsletter I subscribed to. So I jumped in to see what it had to say.


This debate is not new, and I’ve been in some pretty heated discussions over the years with colleagues who felt strongly one way or the other.


This most recent article boils the debate down to one key concept - the customer. Businesses, he points out, are focused on responding to the needs of their customers and this model is not in the best interest of our schools.


But in education, who is the customer?


Students as Customer

In business terms, a customer is someone who buys your products and services and generates revenues for your business. However, applying this concept to public education isn’t exactly straight forward.


Some folks argue the customer in education is the student. Take the popular business mantra of “the customer always comes first” and you have “the student always comes first.” Putting students in the center of the conversation suggests we look at everything we do based on how the outcomes would best benefit the students. This sounds ideal.


The challenge with this concept (and hence the debate) is that parents are closely connected as a key influencer in the process. Putting students at the center of our focus requires input from parents (as their decision maker). And you can see where this quickly creates a problem for schools that prefer to keep parent involvement at a distance.


What About Taxpayers as the Customer?

While I agree students (and their parents) are key stakeholders, they aren’t the ones funding our schools. So what about a different perspective?


Consider the taxpayers as the true customer of our schools. This would include our friends, family, neighbors, community members and businesses in our local communities. These are the individuals providing a majority of funding to our schools through taxpayer dollars.


These individuals are also the true beneficiaries of the service our schools offer, namely educated and civic-minded individuals. Public education has always been about preparing students for productive work while developing them to be responsible citizens.


Although most recently public education seems to have become obsessed more so with increasing students' academic performance with a particular focus on grades and test scores. Is this the result of a “student-centered” approach taken to the extreme? Perhaps we need to consider a broader, more holistic view of the customer in education.


We Actually Have the Same Goals

You might find this surprising, but I do believe we are closer to being on the same page than we realize. This thought occurred to me after debating the issue with my husband for a couple hours earlier this week. Actually I’m not sure if he was truly disagreeing with me or just enjoyed playing devil's advocate to my argument as he often does.


Oftentimes, it feels like we put more effort into finding ways to disagree instead of looking for common ground and ways to collaborate. Running a school like a business, or not running a school like a business really depends on your view of a business. There are plenty of service-based businesses with models that would be applicable to education. Heck, I even use some of these business strategies in parenting all the time! But we’ll save that for another blog.


The point is, the majority of us have the same goals for our schools -


We want students who can help our local communities thrive.

We want business leaders to have the confidence the students they hire are well qualified.

And we want students to be kind, respectful, confident and self-aware.


Join the Discussion

How well are our schools meeting the needs of their “customers” today? Whether you view the “customer” as the student, parent or taxpayer, or perhaps you refuse to use the term “customer” in your discussions, I expect we might all agree that our schools can do better.


How can we get there together?



About the Author

Jennifer Larson is an entrepreneur, charter school founder and mother to four children. Connect with her @startupjen.


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