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The Bad Business of Education Reform

An MBA student says that the business-based ideas creeping into education are as outdated as the Model T.

By Susan Altman, Oxford University

As someone with an understanding of what current companies consider “good” business practice, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The  “business-based” assumptions and strategies being used to justify much of contemporary education reform are as outdated as the Model T. Which makes me wonder, would these ideas even be taken seriously by mainstream operations experts in any other industry?

First, following standard operations practice, we must establish whether education reformers see education as a service or a product.  (As an educator, every bone in my teacher body screams service to all humanity with a damn it thrown in for good measure). If the reform crowd agrees with me, they should, according to my nifty Pearson textbook, endorse “a high degree of customization, a move away from standardization, and focus on “intangible deeds and processes.”  Conversely, good product manufacturing requires heavy standardization, a reliance on quantification, and cost-efficiency above all.

As we are all too aware by now, Education Reform, Inc. has a hearty appetite for big tests, education-in-a-can and MOOC hyping along with little if any autonomy for teachers. Putting on my Harvard Business School case-study hat, I can only conclude that reformers view education as a product. Which explains a lot.

Think manufacturing, think Henry Ford and Model Ts on a conveyor belt. Think Taylorism. Now substitute fourth graders and math class for steering wheels and fenders and you have a disturbingly accurate picture of the business principles that inform much of contemporary education reform. According to this factory vision, students are all identical widgets while teachers are nothing more than mindless factory workers. (Lots has been written has been written on Taylorism and its creeping influence into education. Here’s a summary).



But what’s worse is this.  Even if we say that students are products and that teaching can be broken down into an assembly line of measurable tasks, old-fashioned Fordism isn’t even how good business operations are done anymore.  That ugly, dehumanizing, and elitist way of thinking about factory work went out of fashion with the poodle skirt.  In contrast, the Toyota Production System, which business school students are taught is the best in the world, relies on a philosophy rooted in respect for people, teamwork and employee empowerment. The Toyota approach replaced Fordism as the gold standard for product manufacturing decades ago.  Further, mainstream operations managers employ a method known as statistical process control or SPC to measure effectiveness without assigning blame.  If a part of the production process is found to be lagging, it is given additional resources, not punished needlessly.

The ridiculous “business is best” language that infects so much of our conversation about public education is a throwback from the Gilded Age, cleverly hidden in flashy, PowerPoint-ed rhetoric.  Here’s a thought: if education reformers are going to use the language of business to justify their policies, how about they at least use business ideas from this century?

Susan Altman attends Oxford University where she is pursuing a master’s degree in International and Comparative Education and Business Management. She formerly taught at a private boarding school in the US and is the proud product of public schools. Follow her on Twitter at @suealtman.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Susan Altman

Susan Altman attends Oxford University where she is pursuing a master’s degree in International and Comparative Education and Business Management. She formerly ta...

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