What business are schools in?

by Steve Wyckoff on March 5, 2010

I was recently listening to the book The Knack by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham. It’s a highly engaging and informative read that I would highly recommend. Brodsky and Burlingham, both Inc. magazine columnists, offer a host of advice to budding businesspeople.

The thing that caught my attention in the book was a comment that the authors made, that most business people don’t know what business they’re in. I’ve heard many times that the business  McDonald’s is in is real estate. This comment got me to thinking, what business are schools in?

I asked several of my colleagues what business they thought schools were in. I received several answers but I was surprised at how consistent the answers were.  Here is what I believe the business that schools are in:

• Warehousing students
• Covering the Regents required curriculum
• Raising standardized test scores
• Propagating and protecting the system

I realize that this list is offensive to many educators, but many educators in private agree completely. I regularly have the opportunity to listen in to conversations held between and among educational leaders. They use different terms but the conversations invariably focus on these four areas.  They talk about their responsibility to look after the well-being of their students, which they do. They talk about how important it is to prepare kids for college, and improve achievement. And they talk about how important it is have all the pieces of the system in place for the well-being of the children.

However, all of their mission statements, in some manner, talk about preparing kids to be productive members of society. I never hear a conversation where they talk about what it looks like to prepare a student to be a productive member of a 21st-century society. I fear that they avoid this discussion because it might actually mean changing, rather than propagating and protecting, the system.

I would point out that the younger the students are the more focused they are on teaching the students lifelong skills. I think we do the best job in education in the primary grades. But starting about third grade the system becomes increasingly more about covering a college-bound curriculum, specifically the regents required curriculum, and raising standardized test scores, than it does about preparing kids for the world they live in. – Steve Wyckoff

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