The Bad Business of Education Reform

An MBA student says that the business-based ideas creeping into education are  as outdated as the Model T.

By Susan Altman, Oxford University

As someone with an understanding of what current companies consider “good” business practice, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The  “business-based” assumptions and strategies being used to justify much of contemporary education reform are as outdated as the Model T. Which makes me wonder, would these ideas even be taken seriously by mainstream operations experts in any other industry?

First, following standard operations practice, we must establish whether education reformers see education as a service or a product.  (As an educator, every bone in my teacher body screams service to all humanity with a damn it thrown in for good measure). If the reform crowd agrees with me, they should, according to my nifty Pearson textbook, endorse “a high degree of customization, a move away from standardization, and focus on “intangible deeds and processes.”  Conversely, good product manufacturing requires heavy standardization, a reliance on quantification, and cost-efficiency above all.

As we are all too aware by now, Education Reform, Inc. has a hearty appetite for big tests, education-in-a-can and MOOC hyping along with little if any autonomy for teachers. Putting on my Harvard Business School case-study hat, I can only conclude that reformers view education as a product. Which explains a lot.

Think manufacturing, think Henry Ford and Model Ts on a conveyor belt. Think Taylorism. Now substitute fourth graders and math class for steering wheels and fenders and you have a disturbingly accurate picture of the business principles that inform much of contemporary education reform. According to this factory vision, students are all identical widgets while teachers are nothing more than mindless factory workers. (Lots has been written has been written on Taylorism and its creeping influence into education. Here’s a summary).

But what’s worse is this.  Even if we say that students are products and that teaching can be broken down into an assembly line of measurable tasks, old-fashioned Fordism isn’t even how good business operations are done anymore.  That ugly, dehumanizing, and elitist way of thinking about factory work went out of fashion with the poodle skirt.  In contrast, the Toyota Production System, which business school students are taught is the best in the world, relies on a philosophy rooted in respect for people, teamwork and employee empowerment. The Toyota approach replaced Fordism as the gold standard for product manufacturing decades ago.  Further, mainstream operations managers employ a method known as statistical process control or SPC to measure effectiveness without assigning blame.  If a part of the production process is found to be lagging, it is given additional resources, not punished needlessly.

The ridiculous “business is best” language that infects so much of our conversation about public education is a throwback from the Gilded Age, cleverly hidden in flashy, PowerPoint-ed rhetoric.  Here’s a thought: if education reformers are going to use the language of business to justify their policies, how about they at least use business ideas from this century?

Susan Altman attends Oxford University where she is pursuing a master’s degree in International and Comparative Education and Business Management. She formerly taught at a private boarding school in the US and is the proud product of public schoolsFollow her on Twitter at @suealtman.


  1. Great post!

    Toyota’s management practices are based on Deming, an American who actually had a greater influence on management of manufacturing plants in Japan than in America. A variety of business management models, such as this and others, were integral to my training in education management, as well as service-oriented models like Clinical Supervision. I don’t think the people who are in charge of education “reform” studied EITHER business management or education management, including the Broadies. They seem to have a natural tendency to believe in McGregor’s Theory X model, probably without even knowing it, where managers assume that workers are lazy, don’t want to work and thus need authoritarian leadership, along with carrot and stick incentives and punishments.

    Sound like Duncan? Yep. So I tweeted him regarding this awhile back and tried to teach him about other models, but to no avail…

    1. Ha yes exactly, love Deming.

      Here are a few of his points that informed the Toyota system… let’s see if they could apply to education!

      – Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality.
      – Eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce and numerical goals for management.
      – Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship, and eliminate the annual rating or merit system.
      – Drive out fear
      – Create constancy of purpose
      – Break down barriers between staff areas

      there’s an article in there somewhere….

      1. Yes, I know that management based on Deming’s model could work because I’ve implemented it as a school administrator. To be effective across public schools, your aims would have to be to preserve and improve public education, but I think the business plan is to alienate and eliminate veteran teachers and privatize public ed, which Taylorism is likely to expedite.

        Ravitch says that you don’t win a war by firing on your own troops –and she is so right. If the hidden agenda is to take out your army and barter the real estate they occupy though, then you engage in “friendly fire” and contend that disruptive creativity leads to innovation.

        1. P.S. My school leadership experiences were in running private schools, so I also know how critical is for both administrators and teachers to be given autonomy for that to work.

          1. Interesting that your background is in private schools. I worked in an independent school and loved teaching because of the autonomy and creative space it allowed me. Why our counterparts down the road at the public school are not trusted with the same freedom seems strange and very unfair– to the teachers and the students.

          2. I agree. Freedom, autonomy and trust are invaluable assets of being a private school educator. I always appreciated that, but I didn’t fully realize at the time that public school teachers didn’t have those same kinds of “luxuries” –and that makes no sense to me either.

  2. These points about Taylorism and Deming are quite correct, and echo what I’ve written on my blog.

    Taylor the “business expert” of 100 years ago was also a fraud. None of his recommendations helped (except to enrage the workers); they were not acrually based on real information about the job at hand, and certainly never involved asking the workers how the job could be done better or safer. But they made Taylor a very wealthy man.

    Sound familiar?

    1. Yesiree, and it’s making a lot of folks who are feasting at the public education funding trough very wealthy today as well.

  3. Ms. Altman, regarding the punch line you finish with, the educational ideas that form the basis for conventional public education are not from this century, either. Or the last century. They are nineteenth century, mainly Prussian ideas about controlling the workers, (sorry, that would be pupils.) Lifelong mindless obedience to the establishment is the purpose of the kind of schools I went to and taught at. The boys must be formed to be willing to kill or be killed at the behest of the ruling classes. And the girls need to be able to function as second-class citizens and not kill themselves in spite of the pain of inequality and abuse that is endemic. Learning is at best incidental, and usually temporary, which is why the same material is repeated year after year. Just as well, as much of the material is not true, as in “History” and often destroys any enthusiasm a student could have for “subjects.” Math, Foreign Languages, Literature, etc.

  4. Thought this was interesting:
    ““Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.” 
― Wendell Berry

  5. I only wish our leaders would be honest. If you want to cut costs by cutting wages just say so. It has nothing to do with quality but at least if they said so we could get it all over with and learn how to live in the world our ‘betters’ are creating for us.

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