Schools are not steam shovels…

I read an article for a course last week that compared schools and steam shovels. Steam shovels emerged as a disruption to the pulley shovel system that used to be used in construction. The authors felt that those shovels were a good historical data point to use when talking about how online learning might disrupt education in the Unite States. To add insult to injury, the authors moved on to comparing schools to steam engines, personal computers, and electric cars. On the face of it the entire thing seems ridiculous but, unfortunately, it isn’t.

We have stopped seeing schools as Horace Mann’s great equalizers or the places where, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “tender minds [are imbued] with Principles of Rectitude and Morality” and instead have started seeing them as businesses. We demand annual accountability reports in the form of testing that resemble share holder reports. We turn to business leaders to “improve” our schools from Betsy DeVos as the Department of Education to all of the superintendents emerging from the Broad Center Academies. We demand transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility from schools just like we do from businesses. We try to apply lessons from Fortune 500 companies to the classroom. Is it any wonder that authors have started feeling comfortable equating schools and shovels?

The problem is that schools are not businesses. Businesses turn out widgets. Schools turn out the future of our world. The stakes aren’t exactly the same. Businesses can refuse to serve customers. Schools can’t. Businesses make decisions based on the bottom line. Schools make decisions based on a complex web of needs and priorities that include figuring out what type of world we want to live in. Businesses can change course midstream. Schools can’t—have you seen the chaos that comes when teachers are switched out mid-year due to layoffs or school numbers? Can you imagine what would happen if you changed curriculum mid-year? The school calendar with only a few months notice? Businesses are responsible to only a few stakeholders—their customers, shareholders, and employees. Schools are responsible to everyone—and everyone has an opinion and a right to have that opinion heard.

I could keep going but the bottom line is that schools are not businesses. What works for a business is probably not going to work for a school. What is true for a business is probably not true for a school. Yes, both have people and organizational structure and finite resources. But that doesn’t make them the same. Approaching schools like they are a corporation is a recipe for disaster.

And yet, in the age of Trump and DeVos, the voice of dissenters is getting weaker. The voices of those who think that schools and steam shovels belong in the same sentence are getting louder.

I don’t know how we change that—how we elevate our dissenting voices—but I know that we need to try.

Here is the article if you are interested:

Christensen, C., Horn, M.B. & Staker, H. (2013).  Is K- 12 blended learning disruptive?    An       introduction to the  theory of hybrids. Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.