Most people who know me know I’m not anti-business. Capitalism and competition are good when the invisible hand is left alone. In the real world laboratory, capitalism proved itself superior to communism, and those who believe otherwise are deluding themselves and living in the world of abstract ideals, not in the tangible world of human complexities. However, that said, education has no place as a for-profit enterprise, and we are crippling the long-term sustainability of our economy by viewing it through those prisms of fiscal efficiency.
I’ve often heard my successful, usually conservative, friends say that their children don’t attend public schools, so why should their tax dollars be used to support it? On the surface, that question may seem reasonable, but my response to that argument is that we all rely on public education whether we directly have children in the system or not. If you expect 911 to function properly, you rely on it. If you hire employees for your business, you rely on it. If you ever conduct any form of business transaction in any public setting, odds are that you’ve relied on public education because you have an expectation of competence from the other party. Right now, as business models and manufacturing principles are applied to the system, our teachers are incapable of effectively teaching what really matters. Instead, they are busy stuffing minds full of quantifiable information and prepping for the standardized tests, and we already have enough experience with this model to see that it is failing.
Currently, the trend in education, implemented by a top-down hierarchy, is to apply lean manufacturing principles into the system. In short, it means speed up the system to find where it breaks, improve that area, speed up some more until it breaks again, and repeat. In manufacturing, where speed and efficiency are keys to success, this process makes sense. However, real learning is not as simple as adding this part to that part to get this widget. I’ve taken a look at students’ notes after I’ve gone through a lecture, and even though multiple students heard the exact same words at the exact same time, they have often written down something far from what I said. In order for real learning to occur, a good teacher must be able to identify where students are straying off course and steer them back accordingly. The faster the system runs and the more students per section, the more difficult this becomes. Curriculum must become simplified and homogenized to ensure all students can follow along. If I have to explain why that is a bad thing, you may be part of the problem.
In business, customers must be pleased. Angry customers typically will not be repeat customers. That’s a fairly simple concept. If education runs like a business, how do you make the most customers happy in the short-term? Well, you make learning fun. You make sure students pass. You make sure you don’t make the customers angry. Those of you above the age of thirty or so, please think back to your best teachers, the ones who really taught you the most, the ones you appreciate today. Did they ever hurt your feelings? Did they ever push you to do better even when you thought you had done well? Did they ever make you angry? Those teachers are the ones being squeezed out of the system because they don’t keep the customers happy. Real learning is hard work. Real learning requires the occasional bruised ego. But that’s not good for business, so guess what’s happening to real learning?
This year, the college where I teach removed all pretense about our current modus opeandi during our start up week. To begin, our president, a man who I typically admire as a real education professional, laid out our four primary objectives: 1) get the students enrolled; 2) get them to show up on the first day; 3) keep them attending; and 4) get them across the stage. Anyone notice what is missing? After his opening, we were treated to a marketing presentation on how to make the workplace more exciting. It was reminiscent of the morning meetings we would have when I worked in sales, a “go get em” pep rally type thing. The marketing guy–a true pitch man if I’ve ever seen one–then proceeded to tell us that education is in fact a business and that our job is to make money from enrollment and also from alumni. Again, no mention of actually teaching them anything. During his section, I felt a little piece of my soul die. After that, faculty were treated to a four hour presentation on how we need to make learning “fun” for the millennials because they bore easily. The old methods, tried and tested over three thousand years of human development, are now obsolete because this generation prefers Google and YouTube to lectures and guided discussions. That issue will be a different topic for a different post all its own. My point here is that the college overtly expressed repeatedly that we are a business, that our jobs as teachers is now that of customer service rep.
Good teachers today are throwing up their hands and either giving up or walking away entirely. Until business leaders recognize the abysmal failures of this new model and demand that education reverts to producing critical thinkers instead of test takers, we cannot properly do our jobs. Until business leaders recognize that we cannot compete on a global scale with an ill-trained workforce, the system will not change. Education is not a business. It’s a long-term investment for businesses and communities, an investment that pays for itself through the innovations and efficiencies of the citizens it produces. Until business leaders learn that lesson firsthand, we are headed for disaster under this current model.