Tuesday, September 1, 2015

4 Bad Business Practices for Education

"Schools should run like a business" is one of the modern reformster mantras, and schools are so obviously NOT businesses that we can end up overlooking the other problem with this idea-- that reformsters often mean to incorporate practices that aren't even good business practices.

If you have friends or family in the private sector, or if you've just been paying attention, you may have noticed that businesses are increasingly run very, very badly. Many of the principles that reformsters want to apply to education are, in fact, failures in the private sector.

1) Eliminate expertise.

Take, for instance, the belief that industry-specific expertise is not only unnecessary, but undesirable. Even the robber barons rose to power by working up through the jobs of their respective industries and knowing something about how the business work, but nowadays the Cult of Management insists that the only important skill is bean counting and managerial managosity. The last guy to come in to run what used to be one of the major companies in my area had previously managed a toy company and a soup company. He was brought here to run an oil company. He had never worked any job in his life except managing stuff.

These guys frequently make stupid mistakes because they actively avoid listening to people who have worked in their industry. The history of business failures in my part of the country is the history of upper management being filled up with guys who didn't know anything about the industry they were suddenly working in.

2) Aim at the wrong target.

Reams have been written in the past fifty years about the folly of focusing on short-term financial goals instead of the long-term health of the business. Never mind where the business will be in ten years-- how can we get the stocks to trend upward in the next six months. Since the management nomads will not be here in ten years, anyway, who really cares?

This mistaken direction of the company means that the main job of the company is no longer to make a good or a service, but to make money for stockholders and management. We are awash in companies that have literally forgotten what they do, and America is not better for it.

3) Hire and fire at will

Why should teachers have job security when nobody else does? That's a dumb question, the wrong question. The better question is why does nobody have job security any more?

It has not always been this way. My father, as was typical of his generation, took a job with a company right after he graduated from college, and he worked there until the day he retired. The company, a manufacturer of underground coal mining equipment, had been the linchpin of the local economy since the 1920's. When times got tough, they had guys with the company who would go looking for work-- any kind of work-- to keep the plant going and the workers employed.

This was not abnormal in the American business world. Yes, the big marquee companies run by the robber barons treated workers like disposable meat widgets, but many mid-sized and small companies felt that one of their purposes was to keep the people in their community employed and their community healthy. The people who ran these businesses felt a responsibility to the community and their employees.

Modern corporate managers want the power to do whatever they want to whoever they want for whatever reason they want. They hate unions and government regulations the same way a toddler hates being told "no." And they want to do all this free of consequences-- they complain about the lack of employee loyalty and the problem maintaining institutional memory and continuity and the fact that consumers these days don't stay faithful to a brand. In many cases they have fired all the people who used to help the company do good and replaced them with people whose job is to make the company look good.

And corporate America has systematically turned against skill, trying to reduce every job to something that a trained chimp could handle-- not because this makes a better product, but because it means that no employee will ever be in a position to tell management what to do.

4) No community ties 

Implied by everything above, but worth its own section. It's not just that corporations no longer consider the economic support of their communities a mission-- they aren't even interested in their country. We reached the point where a slogan like "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA" no longer sounds menacing and evil, but has become quaint. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were patrician, condescending, self-important, uber-controllling, worker-abusive jerks, but at least they felt some sense of obligation to make their community and their country better.

Our modern corporate overlords feel no particular sense of loyalty to their country, and their "community" is the insulated world of other corporate overlords. Communities are expendable collections of meat widgets that can be abandoned when they no longer provide the kinds of compliant meat widgets that the company desires.

These practices, with their disregard for community voices and health, their disinterest in sustainability, their warped idea of mission, and their disdain for real skill and expertise-- these practices have not made modern businesses better-- and in fact have impaired business leaders ability to even understand what "better" even means. They have not been good for business, they have not been good for communities, and they have not been good for the country.

It is the hugest kind of lie to turn to education and say, "Well, this is what all the cool kids, the big winners, are doing in the corporate world, so it's what you should do, too." These are bad ideas. They don't work for anybody (except the members of the 1%, and ultimately I don't think these practices are going to turn out well for the uber-rich, either), and they certainly don't belong in education.


  1. So many of us know this instinctively. Thank you for laying out the argument in such a constructive and useful manner.

  2. So many of us know this instinctively. Thank you for laying out the argument in such a constructive and useful manner.

  3. Yes. The emperor has no clothes. High time it got more notice.