Education Is Not a “Business”

The more time you spend in school, the more you see the influence of business practices. … The corporate bible Good to Great sits on the bookshelf of nearly every principal, and a lot of Stephen Covey gets quoted at education conferences (98).

Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, published a monograph after learning that so many educators and other social service providers were relying on his book. In Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer, he clarified that while the fundamentals of leadership success translate throughout fields, people like principals not only are measured by standards other than profit, they also are restricted in decision-making in ways no corporate executives are. In 2002, an ice cream company chief named Jamie Robert Vollmer explained how he learned to stop criticizing schools for unbusinesslike behavior. Once he paid attention, he said, he learned that “schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night” (104-105).

Profit is easy and relatively simple. Education is harder, messy, imprecise, different every year or room or day. It’s like the difference between conception and parenthood.


Perlstein, Linda. Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade. NY: Henry Holt, 2007.

About G Bitch

A mad black woman in New Orleans.
This entry was posted in Educate, Excerpts/Quotes and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Education Is Not a “Business”

  1. boukman70 says:

    I remember when I was doing homeless advocacy/service provider work in the ’90s and everybody wanted to run these charities “like a business.” They never could quite get their minds around the fact that even businesses don’t run like businesses. But, if you want to look at how money does not necessarily provide a good education, you need look no further than DC’s public schools. They spend the most money than any other district, and yet, when I was running a literacy program there back in ’01-02, 73 percent of DC’s children still read below grade level.

  2. G Bitch says:

    DC–yes, a case in point. A case in which money is poured into the wrong channels. Teaching to a test creates numbers that make adults feel better but does not educate in any sense of the word. And caters to “businesses” that adhere to the belief, without evidence or experience, that “business” can do “better” and turn a profit.

    There’s a holy grailness to “business” ideas that needs to be challenged. Profit is simple. The world is complex. Look at the mortgage securities meltdown.

  3. Dave Shearon says:

    Whether schools should be run like a business , depends on what kind of business. A consutling operation like McKinsey? Absolutely, with teachers as the consultants. Follow David Maister’s advice about how to manage such businesses and schools will get better. Jamie Vollmer makes the classic mistake of seeing students as the raw materials and product. Not. They, and their parents and our society, are the customers. Lessons are the product. Get the metaphor right, and schools are likely to get better quicker.

    As for teaching to the test, if such behavior actually produced good gain scores, Tennessee would have it figured out by now. It doesn’t. The idea that bad teaching produces good test scores is based on the idea that the tests do not reliably sample learning. By and large, they do. And, if value-added analysis is included, their usefulness improves significantly.

  4. G Bitch says:

    Dave, why does the metaphor have to be that of the profit-driven business, with customers, raw material, product, etc.? Why is something well-run “run like a business”? I question the basis of the business metaphor. It oversimplifies. You know what else doesn’t work with a business metaphor? Parenting.

    Anything that can help anything run well–efficiently, humanely, productively–is good, of course. I’ll check out your links and thanks. Don’t expect rapid response–I’m drowning in My Real Life and may not bob near the surface for another couple months.

    Teaching to the test doesn’t help scores because of the nature of testing, the kind of rote and overly-standardized drilling required to teach to a test and the guessing involved. It’s not a belief that “bad teaching” will create great results. Teachers are simply a delivery system–back to the metaphor. They are efficient and productive or not, not good or bad. Make all right turns and cut your delivery time, for example. A mediocre teacher could teach to the test better than a master teacher who knows a little too much about child development, education theory, content areas, intellectual milestones and growth.

    Look for more quotes from Tested. It’s revelatory. And the author is not anti-testing or -standards or -NCLB.

Comments welcomed. Really.