Education Reform: Treating Schools Like Businesses is Wrong


Over the last twenty years, there has been a seismic shift in the way that we think about education. From charter schools and teacher evaluations to data-driven decision-making and teachers’ unions (please do not let the unfortunate situation in Chicago completely turn you off to unions, though striking only hurts the students and weakens their public perception), the fact that we, as a nation, are concentrating on public education with such an intentional focus is extremely exciting.

Some of these innovations and policies make sense. Some are moving our education system forward in our quest to provide an equal opportunity for all of our young people. But there is one, in particular, that has completely altered the landscape of public education in this country without anyone really taking notice. 

That shift is in our thinking about education and what needs to be done to fix a failing system.

Schools, to the detriment of our young people, are being treated more and more like businesses. In business, a financial consultant can take a look at the profit margin of a company, analyze the competition, offer concrete suggestions, and, specifically, identify what needs to be improved. And if said company does not change its business practices – and another business down the street can offer a better product at a lower cost – that company runs the risk of shutting down because they could not compete in this free market.

Sounds pretty simple, right? 

Just identify the problem and offer suggestions to fix the problem. This is the business model, and if schools were actual corporations, this would absolutely work. But this is not the case, as schools are a little more nuanced than financial services companies or LLCs. 

Simply offering an intervention at the school level disregards the fact that young people do not live their lives in a proverbial bubble where everything revolves around school. Young people have communities, parents, financial realities, and perceptions of the world. All of these affect what happens in that school building from 8 A.M. to 3 P.M. every day.

In addition, students and families – the primary “customers” in this business analogy – do not always have the luxury of shopping around for the best deal on a packaged education. If a new reform does not work in a school district, there are real people that lose time – not money – that they could never get back as we wait for another “fix” to a problem.

In order for us to move education forward in this country, we need to have some real conversations about how poverty affects education. 

Very rarely have I heard anyone talk about poverty, or how the segregationist and racist policies of yesteryear affect our students today. (Someone please explain to me how concentrating impoverished people with inadequate housing and opportunities in the same area is okay. Or how doing so does not affect educational achievement. Go ahead, I’ll wait.) 

We need to stop looking at schools as businesses. In addition to seeing what works at the school level, we have to also look at what kinds of investments need to be made outside of school – in the communities and in the minds of our young people – that will make public education in this country finally work.

This is tough, but very necessary, work.