Business Principles Don't Always Work in the Classroom
STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—Any idealistic business person who has an opinion or two about some practical ways to improve the nation's schools would be deflated to hear Professor Debra Meyerson discuss the challenges of educational reform.
Meyerson, who teaches in both the School of Education and the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, recently spoke in a faculty seminar series sponsored by the two schools. She warned administrators to act with caution when applying business principles to schools.
The recent move toward standards-based accountability, which has inspired the No Child Left Behind Act requiring students to pass standardized tests before progressing to the next grade, sometimes results in a set of arbitrary standards being the ultimate goal—often at the expense of individual student learning.
Teacher incentives work only if teacher motivation is the problem in the first place but do nothing to address limited teacher or school resources, she added.
Meyerson also poked holes in the concept of introducing choice and competition into education. In the business world, a "survival of the fittest" model works well in producing high-quality goods and services, but a practice of letting the weakest schools languish would serve only to harm their students.
"This is all not to say that strategic thinking in education isn't a really important discipline," she said. "But it is problematic."
Meyerson offered a brief history of educational reform in the United States and the ways it had mirrored business trends. During the 1920s and 1930s, she said, education was influenced by the need to produce more people with basic skills to work in the nation's factories. More recently, the rising profile of entrepreneurship has led to an emphasis on alternative approaches to education such as charter schools.
Currently some 1.1 million students are enrolled in 3,625 charter schools around the country, she said. The success of this movement is due largely to the schools applying efficient business models.
"Charter schools come in lots of different forms, but one key notion is that they manage more than one school. Scalability is used as a rationale. There is a strong argument that scale can actually increase the quality of education because it allows for the centralization of services. And, if you're doing a good thing, more is better."
Meyerson has identified some practices that seem to work in the world of business as well as the world of learning. She said that teachers, like business people, need to be able to connect their work to some larger purpose, but acknowledged that purpose was often hard to quantify in the nonprofit educational sector.
Perhaps more important, she said, schools need to foster an environment where everyone from students to teachers to administrators feels safe asking questions and admitting mistakes. Drawing a parallel to business, she cited one study of an offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, where any mistake in routine operations could be life threatening. Management had recognized this danger by setting up what Meyerson described as "an elaborate process to learn from mistakes," including a Millionaire Club for people who had made mistakes that had cost the company a million dollars.
"It was not to encourage mistakes, but to legitimize learning from mistakes," Meyerson said.