Education as Business Ramblings

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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.

One thought on “Education as Business Ramblings”

  1. I’ve posted this conversationally. D.A.’s post is in quotes, and replies are in separate paragraphs without quotes.

    “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.”

    Reply: Capitalism and competition can be good, but not always. The unregulation of the energy sector led directly to Enron. The removal of Glass-Steagall, mortgage bundling, and credit default swaps were all done in the name of capitalism and increased profit, but led to financial ruin. No, capitalism and competition are good, but it is an oversimplification to say that they are always good.

    I’d also raise a case against the failure of communism. Before I continue, know that I’m not a Marxist, or even really a leftist. But I have taught political philosophy, so I’ve presented it some. First, we’ve never had an actual communist government according to Marxist philosophy. We have always gotten stuck at the stage of a socialist dictator, but the socialist dictator never abdicates power to the people. So we have seen the failure of socialist dictatorships, but not of communism. Now, that could be a flaw in communist ideology, and probably is. But strictly speaking, there has never been a communist government. Further, when Marx advocated that communism would be victorious after the rise of the proletariat, he advocated that the victory would only occur after global capitalism, which has never been realized. That’s a second and admittedly smaller point. This is all to say that one could dispute the victory of capitalism without being entirely hamfisted.

    “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.”

    Reply: I can’t agree more with this part. Who benefits from public education, they ask? Gee, I don’t know. Who wants to live in a society of complete and utter morons? We all benefit from public education. It is part of what made America great. I whole-heartedly agree that teachers cannot effectively teach because of the requirements placed upon them. I think that these requirements also cause students to view education in solely instrumental terms, which has caused a devaluation of the humanities and contributes to the anti-intellectual movement within society in general.

    “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.”

    Reply: Preach it brother. Nothing to add here.

    “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?”

    Reply: I have often wondered in applying to jobs in academia as to what counts as proof of excellent teaching, and wondered what it takes to get a teaching award. If it is based upon student assessment of instruction, then there are important elements to good teaching missing. Few people appreciate those asshole teachers at the time. Not until later.

    “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.”

    Reply: Wow. At my college of employ, almost this exact thing happened. Enrollment is down so the budget is in a squeeze. Educators are being asked to keep students enrolled, draw more in, reach out to the community, and in general come up with magical spells that will keep the administrators of the university employed and able to give themselves raises while taking benefits and failing to award faculty with raises.

    I’ve been told in midterm surveys that I give that my students, millennials included, are loving our in class discussions. They actually wanted class to be longer. So I don’t believe this gunk about making everything electronic. Your president is full of shit, and probably feels like he lost a piece of his soul presenting something that the board of regents probably passed down.

    “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 leaders learn that lesson firsthand, we are headed for disaster under this current model.”

    Reply: Yes, a lot of good teachers are doing this. But businesses and the wealthy of America don’t want critical thinkers, because critical thinkers can see through the propaganda. The great American Plutocracy wants obedient workers, not critical thinkers. They don’t want to educate people—they want to train people for their future jobs, and nothing more. Anything else is superfluous and a waste of resources. My only contention with your last paragraph is that I think it doesn’t go far enough. I thoroughly enjoyed the read my friend. I hope this reaches a few ears and gets those readers behind a reinvigoration of education.

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