The Business of Schools Is…..?

Please take this forced-choice, 2-question test before continuing.

1. The primary business of public schools is to produce:

A. Educated students
B. Knowledge

2. Which more accurately describes the structure of public schools?

A. Teachers are ‘labor,’ and administrators are ‘management’
B. Students are ‘labor,’ and teachers are ‘management’

My hunch is that many of you selected ‘A’ as the better answer to both questions. After all, that’s the traditional model of school in which teachers teach and students learn. That is often known, pejoratively, as ‘the factory model’ in which teachers, the workers, teach facts and figures to students, who emerge from this assembly line after 12 years as ‘educated.’

Would most American businessmen and women select ‘A’ as the correct answers?

Probably, and therein lies the great paradox, or perhaps the confounding contradiction: Unhappy with the current system, American business devotes energy and money trying to ‘reform’ it. Someone needs to tell them that what they are doing is akin to buying faster ponies for the pony express. Faster ponies won’t get the mail delivered on time, and ‘reformed’ schools won’t provide the workforce that business needs.

(Nor will ‘reformed’ schools produce the healthy citizenry our nation needs, which means that business is on our side. They just don’t realize it–yet.)

Here’s what we know: Public school graduates do not possess the skills and capabilities that matter most to the CEOs of GE, duPont, Xerox, Amazon, JPMorgan/Chase and about 100 other leading companies. As a consequence, American companies are having difficulty finding the skilled workers they need. By some estimates at least 40% of corporations are leaving positions unfilled or are exporting the jobs they cannot fill at home. At a meeting of The Business Council in Chicago in May, duPont CEO Ellen J. Kullman spoke of having to screen over 600 résumés to find a few candidates worth interviewing (let alone hiring).

What does business value? For nine out of ten CEOs, the essential skills and capabilities are ‘work ethic,’ ‘teamwork,’ ‘decision making,’ ‘critical thinking,’ and ‘computer literacy.’ That’s according to a survey of 134 CEOs done by The Business Council and the Conference Board, whose ranks include most of America’s corporations. (101 CEOs responded.) Aristotle taught us that ‘we are what we repeatedly do.’ Applying that lesson to schools is simple enough: students ought to be engaged in activities that teach or reinforce those desired skills.

Unfortunately, these five skills are not taught in America’s classrooms. In fact, of the nine most valued skills, only two–‘basic reading and math’ and ‘writing and communications’–are school subjects. (The CEOs ranked them 6th and 7th.)

How well do the schools teach those two skills? Not very, the CEOs report. Asked to rate the capability of their current workforce, just 23% rated it as ‘very capable’ in basic reading and math; the ‘very capable’ rating for writing and communication drops to 15.5%.

In other words, schools are not emphasizing most of the skills businesses need, and the ones that school do stress–reading, math, writing and communication–they are not teaching effectively.

Why don’t our schools teach what business wants? It’s not as if American business hasn’t been involved in, and generally supportive of, public education at the local and national levels. The problem lies in the (now outdated) perception that teachers are the workers and students their product. That view must be scrapped before matters improve.

Here’s a brief history: In the last part of the 20th century, “school-business partnerships” were in vogue. These locally driven efforts often involved volunteers from businesses helping out in the schools, while their companies donated equipment and materials. When “partnerships” fell out of favor–probably because the results weren’t clear–they were often replaced by internship programs that put young people into ‘the world of work.’

Today many business leaders–impatient for results–support charter schools or charter school organizations like KIPP. Others put their prestige and dollars behind Teach for America, College Track, the Posse Foundation and other tightly focused programs.

The imprint of business is clearly visible at the national level. Although only two business leaders and one small businessman (a dentist) served on the 18-member commission that produced “A National at Risk” in 1983, its language and message could easily have been written by the US Chamber of Commerce. Its warning–our schools were ‘drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity’–sparked the school reform movement that continues today.

And while the first President Bush hosted the inaugural National Summit on Education in 1989, business soon took over. Summits #2 and #3 were convened by IBM CEO Louis V. Gerstner at IBM headquarters in Armonk, NY, with President Clinton an invited guest. These meetings and subsequent National Commissions coalesced around a central theme: the schools’ failure to produce enough high-caliber graduates was threatening our country’s economic leadership.

To business’ way of thinking, graduates were ‘product’ in a straightforward factory model paradigm: teachers were given raw material–kids–to turn into productive, capable young adults. In that factory model, teachers are the workers, so it’s not surprising that business leaders–management by definition–have not been natural allies of teacher unions.

If schools are going to improve dramatically, everyone–but especially the business community–needs to realize is that the old ‘factory model’ paradigm is no longer valid. Because of the information revolution, students–not teachers—must be the work force. They must become ‘knowledge workers,’ and their ‘product’ is knowledge.

In this new paradigm, teachers are now part of management, a concept that some people may have difficulty dealing with.

Here’s one way to understand what has changed. Before the internet era, schools served three primary functions: they (along with libraries) were the repository of knowledge–kids had to go there because that’s where knowledge was stored. Schools also socialized children–that’s where boys and girls, Catholics, Jews and Protestants, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans got to know each other. And, of course, schools provided custodial care so parents could work.

Today only #3 is unchanged–working parents still need a safe place to leave their children. But schools are no longer ‘the repository of knowledge,’ because today’s children swim in a sea of information, 24/7. However, ‘information’ is not knowledge, and so in this new paradigm our schools have a new duty and challenge: they must help teach young people how to sift through the flood of information and determine what is true. That’s the ‘work’ that students–now knowledge workers–must be doing, formulating questions and finding their answers. Unfortunately, our outmoded schools are little more than ‘answer factories’ where students regurgitate (often on bubble tests) what they have been told.

As for socialization, it’s not an exaggeration to say that kids have access to hundreds of apps that serve that purpose. It’s like pen pals on steroids. So ‘socialization’ takes on new meaning with our children, who are, in the popular lexicon, ‘digital natives.’ Today schools need educators who understand that their job is to transform these digital natives into digital citizens, not an insignificant distinction. These young digital citizens can use technology to create knowledge–their work. But when they are not encouraged and allowed to do this, many will–out of boredom or malice–use the dazzling variety of tools we call ‘social media’ to harass and abuse the most vulnerable among them.

If we allow schools to be regurgitation factories where students are mere product; if we judge teachers simply based on the test scores of their ‘product;’ and if we allow schools to ignore the awesome potential of technology, then we will have schools where the brightest students are bored and the most vulnerable are bullied.

In this new paradigm, where students are knowledge workers, what should schools look like? Recall Aristotle’s lesson: “We are what we repeatedly do.” If we do not want adults who do little more than regurgitate, then they should not do that day after day after day in classrooms. Instead, they must be developing the skills and capabilities that we want them to have as adults. It’s a tall order: Students must master the ‘basic skills of numeracy, reading and writing and the ‘new basics’ that include speaking persuasively, listening carefully and critically, working collaboratively, and the use of modern technology.

While this new paradigm, students as ‘knowledge workers,’ can be seen in hundreds of schools, the fact is we have nearly 100,000 public schools. We are a long way from the tipping point. Are we moving, educationally speaking, in the right direction?

We might be. America has embarked on a huge national experiment called the Common Core, a set of common standards for math and English embraced by all but five states. This moment of seminal change offers an opportunity for American business to speak up and demand a ‘common core’ where students repeatedly do what will serve them in good stead as adult citizens, parents and workers.

No one needs to create a curriculum out of whole cloth to teach decision-making, teamwork, a strong work ethic, communication and critical thinking. Those skills are fundamental to most extra-curricular activities: playing sports, working in theatrical productions, playing in a musical group, and producing the school newspaper, radio or TV program or yearbook. In those activities (let’s get smart and call them ‘co-curricular’), students are clearly the workers, and their work products are tangible.

That new/old thinking–”We are what we repeatedly do”–can transform public education, make school much more interesting and challenging for students, reverse that rising tide of mediocrity….and cure American business’ persistent headache.

18 thoughts on “The Business of Schools Is…..?

  1. The Excellence in Education Commission urged that we start improving schools by raising teacher pay to attract the best people to teaching.

    It’s been 30 years. When do we start?

    You want someone to make lifelong learners and problem solvers? Hire them. But you must increase pay, wholly apart from anything you do to screw up training and curriculum.

    If you don’t want turkeys in students, you can’t hire turkeys to teach them.


    • Agreed, but as I wrote in “The Influence of Teachers,” we must also make teaching a better job. Right now we seem to be doing the opposite.


  2. You present a forced-choice exam, which is exactly what has been being shoved down the throats of those in schools by the “reformers” in the process proving once again the truth of Campbell’s Law, as we focus on the scores of low-level exams and in the process cut out critical thinking, writing, judgment, and so much more. We will now move away from literature where students confront moral and ethical issues. And if students work together we call it cheating, even though what businesses really need is people who can think critically, who do not need choices provided for them, who have some understanding of ethics and morality, and who know how to work together.

    If business really wants a voice at the table when decision about education are being made, then stop lobbying for tax cuts that start schools of necessary resources, and if you want quality workers stop moving good paying jobs overseas and start providing decent benefits, instead of using everything as an excuse for downward economic pressures. Oh, and return the ratio of executive compensation to that of workers to a reasonable ratio, and by the way lift the cap on Social Security tax and we can once and for all get rid of the ridiculous idea that we need to cut or cap benefits.

    If we are worried about economic competitiveness, we sure as heck are taking the wrong lesson from our international competitors. Particularly when it comes to schools.

    I recently had a 90 minute conversation with Pasi Salhberg, and while the conversation is off the record one thing I can share was his focusing on how of the major Western industrial democracies the US has by far the greatest economic inequality. Unless and until we are willing to address that, no matter what we do in schools it will be insufficient.

    Do schools need to be totally redesigned? Absolutely, but those involved should not be those seeking to profit thereby, as is the case with Gates, Pearson, the hedge fund operators behind DFER, etc.


    • You know the forced-choice gambit was ironic, of course. My point is that too many in the business community don’t get it. We won’t help them understand by attacking them, however. They need good teaching, and we know that haranguing has never worked in the classroom or just about anyplace else.
      The work you do, the teaching you represent–that’s in business’ best interests.
      P.48 of Finnish Lessons, Pasi’s book, says it best: “High-equity education in Finland is not a result of educational factors alone.” He goes on, too long for me to retype here, to write about early childhood programs, voluntary free pre-school, comprehensive health services, and preventive measures to identify possible learning and developmental difficulties before children start school as important parts of Finland’s successful approach.


      • John. I actually loved your irony in the multiple-choice question. And the message in your blog suggests a transformative view of teachers, which policy makers and main-stream reformers (in the Michelle Rhee, Democrats for Education Reform) have yet to embrace. Enter the teacherpreneur.

        Our forthcoming book – TEACHERPRENEURS (late July 2013 publication from Jossey Bass) – highlights a group of these exceptional teachers who have combined expert teaching with their work as authors, bloggers, policy advocates, edugame designers, creators of teacher-led schools, community-school coalition leaders, facilitators of virtual communities, student assessment developers, and more.

        When I was tenured professors 15 years ago I routinely worked as a boundary spanner across several organizations to incubate and execute ideas

        I was not labor nor was I management. I was a professor who had both autonomy and responsibility (wjth reward) for being entrepreneurial. If it was ok for me to boundary span as a higher ed faculty member then it should be okay as a K-12 teacher. right?

        Thanks for your insight and contributions to informed and thoughtful debate over the future of teaching.


      • Barnett

        I agree that this can be PART of the solution, but only part. You know that as one who blogs, writes and speaks about education as I continued to do during the one year I have been “retired” (and yes, I am back in a classroom next month) I am very supportive of the kinds of mixed roles for teachers so that they can contribute beyond their own classroom, and be paid for their expertise without having to leave the classroom.

        But that is insufficient. The entire cohort model of education is wrong, designed for the convenience of adults and not necessarily addressing the needs of students. I fear this will be compounded by the direction we seem to be going with Common Core and associated tests.

        What would be helpful, as I suggested in my response to John’s response to me, is start a discussion among those of us who have been rethinking the entire structure of schools. There are some models to consider, including the work of Ted Sizer and those who tried to implement his ideas in the Coalition of Essential Schools. There have been various attempts at using portfolio as a means of evaluation, and it should be for both students and teachers. For those of us who teach, it is after all the major part of the process we undergo for National Board Certification, and it requires us to be involved in the reflective process. Unfortunately, rather than real reflection, the current direction is to explain why your test scores are not where they should be and what are you going to do about it.

        I hope it is not too late to save public schools. I worry about places where buildings are being sold off, or turned over to charters. I worry about the cutting of resources for public schools, class sizes escalating, the elimination of the electives that are sometimes the reason we are able to persuade struggling students to stay in school.

        And while I will in my new position be both in Social Studies and in STEM (teaching policy, environmental media, and research and data analysis), I worry that we put too much emphasis on STEM, and even tweaking by expanding it to STEAM to include the arts is still insufficient to meet the real needs and desires of all our students.


      • Yeah, I thought you might be being ironic, but thought it worth while using that for the larger point.

        Reading your recapitulation of some of the factors making a difference in Finland reminds me of one of things wrong with the NY Times editorial recently on high stakes testing, where they still insisted on taking part of what Finland does out of the larger context.

        At some point perhaps you should ask some of us who have thought long and hard on how schools should be redesigned to offer our ideas.

        Many of us have been thinking about this, reading about this (for example, the work of Ted Sizer), writing about it, and in some cases, within the limits of the traditionally structured schools in which we work, trying to implement some of it.


  3. There is considerable irony in this blog piece. The idea that a professor professes that he has the ability and knowledge to tell teachers in our public schools and the rest of us, consumers, what education and teachers should be doing is the ultimate irony. The reform movement, at least in recent years, certainly since “A Nation At Risk”, has been full of those professors, and business CEOs, and Departments of Education, all telling teachers what their classrooms should look like and what pedagogy they should be using. The current emphasis on testing, and now the Common Core, perpetuates the irony. Those with the most experience in dealing with and understanding the developmental levels of our children and creating a truly effective learning environment in our schools are largely ignored. Not only ignored, but, mostly, treated as lower class workers. As a nation we have to begin recognizing our teachers as the professional rather than an operator on the assembly line. Give them a real voice it the process and it will improve, as demonstrated is some of the more, not-for-profit, successful charter schools.


  4. It’s certainly not just a matter of money. The “money model” is part of what has corrupted health, education, law and finance: it’s not how much, but how much more than you need…. That model worked fine when industry measured how much you could buy as a metric of success. But, with “the 1%” corrupting such a metric, it makes both logical and fiscal sense to create a new and better measure: one that captures the intelligence of this (the internet) technology to make information universally and cheaply available, while supporting more fulfilling activities like creating knowledge, innovation, and new ideas. That doesn’t take a lot of money, and often pays off in ways far more fulfilling than Silicon Valley could imagine.

    Along those lines, John, I’d advise (a) the portfolios that Arnie Packer’s metrics for MacArthur created – the “verified resume” they funded through Learning Matters, and illustrated here (; and (b) the prescient insight of Rogers and Hammerstein (how’s that for a flip!) in The King & I a half-century ago, as Marie Osmond proved in the first minute here ( It’s not really complicated: just listen. That was also how Cesar Chavez defined “community organizing”: “first you listen to people, then to more people, and then to more people.” Teaching is more a matter of listening than talking.


  5. Business needs to understand that children and their learning are not “products” that can be stamped out like widgets in a factory. And trying to teach and evaluate by business standards is not only impractical, but impossible.

    A business can turn away unskilled labor, and it can fire bad workers; Education is compulsory, and can’t turn away any level student, nor “fire” anyone for poor work skills. Therein lies the rub.

    Pushing new curriculum or new testing practices can’t help teach a child who refuses to be taught. Only renewed respect for Education by society and business will refocus the idea of School as a needed ally in preparing children to be skilled workers, rather than a glorified childcare option for parents.


  6. The discussion of shifting the model away from the factory is helpful. However, while I agree that we should see the student as responsible for producing the product (hence, “labor”), I think the “product” definition is subtly but importantly wrong.

    Knowledge – like “being” – is a passive condition. Schools need to produce “doers”, and what all educated students need to be able to do is be good citizens. This requires knowledge, but knowledge per se is not enough.

    Good schools need to produce the right behaviors – the ones I associate with good citizenship: taking personal responsibility for caring for self and family, being active in our democracy, and participating in the health, growth and sustainability of our communities.


  7. For business to whine about the lack of qualified Americans to be engineers and chemists defies the facts. They aren’t hiring Americans because it would cost more than to hire those with H1B visas.

    Look at this:
    At the end of 2011 there were only 1 million more jobs than in 2002.

    Only 426,000 of these jobs are in the private sector. The bulk of the net new jobs consist of waitresses and bartenders and health care and social assistance. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the 9 years, employment for waitresses and bartenders increased by 1,188,000. Employment in health care and social assistance increased 3,087,000. These two categories accounted for 1,000% of the net private sector job growth.

    As for manufacturing jobs, they not only did not grow with the population but declined absolutely. During these nine years, 3.5 million middle class manufacturing jobs were lost.

    Over the entire nine years, only 48,000 new jobs were created for architects and engineers.


  8. This article prompted a couple basic questions.

    –When weeding through 600 resumes, how are companies assessing work ethic, teamwork, decision making, critical thinking, and computer literacy ? Is it enough to simply put those words in my resume for a keyword search to find?

    –Once a company finds a suitable resume to interview, how do they assess these critical skills in the interview process? I suspect that many or most of them are not using activities or simulations that might surface these skills, or even training their employees to ask interview questions that might probe these skills.

    –What are companies doing within their own cultures and training programs to foster and increase these skills among the workers they already employ?

    Personally, I’m skeptical that such a large gap truly exists between the millions of unemployed Americans and the jobs corporate America says that they can’t fill. It seems equally plausible that corporate America has simply gotten lazy about how they recruit, identified, and develop talent.


    • These are great questions. I will search around for answers and hope that other readers do so as well. I think the old resume is close to useless. Video resumes make sense to me. At Learning Matters we spent more than a few years trying to develop what we call a “Verified Resume,” a living document that employers could update. It’s an intriguing concept whose time may be arriving.


  9. Students should not be knowledge workers with knowledge their product!!! (Unless research leading to information is their career.) in fact, I’m not a supporter of phrases such as “teachers teaching” or “making ANTHING in education” or “any goal that involves extensive knowledge.” Effective learners become that because of what THEY do with teacher facilitation; no one rebelling against learning cannot be taught AND effective learning is best when facilitated bt teachers. Since effective learning takes place when the learner decides such is important, no one or no thing an make a learner. Beyond core knowledge, knowledge (really information) needs to be gathered, organized, evaluated, and used where / when appropriate.

    There’s a very good reason why home schooling is so successful!!!!


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