I think that how we look at students has a huge impact on how we treat students. Let me give you three examples to get your thinking started.
Are students widgets?
This would be a Chrysler, as in a car is a widget. People design cars, design processes for making cars, selling cars, and fixing cars. Once a car is designed we can work on a better design, once a process is in place we can design a better process. Marketing changes to accomplish more selling. It is an interconnected process from start to finish that has many opportunities for revising, improving, changing. In some ways students look like widgets. Each student enters the assembly line in Kindergarten and is put on the track to graduate at the end of 12th grade. Along the way certain standards must be met, if the standards are not met the student gets pulled off the line, reworked a bit, hopefully brought up to standard and then put back on the line to keep moving toward that graduation date. We rate schools on how many successful widgets they produce. We define success from the corporate offices at the state or federal level and refine the “success determining process” so that millions of students can easily be coded into success or non success categories. With students as widgets schools need to manage objects, sort, organize and maintain quality control. Principals manage teachers as assembly line machinery, if one is not working we just switch it out with a working one, boards manage schools as factories seeing which ones are producing the most widgets. Management centers on those numbers that define success.
Are students employees?
We can also look at students as employees. Employees are hired by a company to get a certain job done and in return receive a fair compensation. Along the way they need to be managed, pointed in the right directions so to say. They need some inspiration at times, other times they need some controlling. Employees can take on many different forms from the assembly line type employee being very compliant to the process to a Google employee with significant leeway to define his/her process. Employees are there to get the work done that is under the umbrella of the company. Students are “employed” to meet the standards, put in the time, and in the end we will pay you with a grade, a diploma, and give you a recommendation for your next place of employment. That recommendation will vary depending upon your performance. With students as employees schools need to manage people as part of a large human resource process. Teachers manage the students under them, principals manage the teachers, superintendents manage the principals, school boards oversee the entire process as a large corporation. Treating students as employees makes for a very different organization than treating students as widgets.
Are students customers?
What if schools treated students as customers? Customers have money to spend to get what they need and want. In the US customers have a myriad of choices in front of them, they need to investigate, shop around to find the best deal. They talk to each other about the deals they got, or the high quality product they found, or the piece of junk they just paid for. Customers get to choose how to allocate their spending, sure getting groceries is a high priority, but even with that how much fruit do you buy, how much ice cream? Stores cater to the needs and wants of customers and work to be just a bit better than the other guy down the street. Products that are no longer needed are no longer produced or even supported. Schools that treat students as customers realize that students can come to their school or go to another one but also realize that with the student comes the revenue. Teachers work to meet the needs of students and find ways to support each student. Principals work to support the teachers finding out what the teachers need to better support the students. Success comes when the customer is pleased with the product s/he purchased, not when the company is pleased with the widget it produced. The students end up “owning” their education because they bought it.
In the end teachers, principals, and schools get to pick their point of view. But I think one of the problems in education is that the corporate board thinks students look like Chryslers. As you move down the ladder to individual interaction between student and teacher students look more like Chrysalides with each student growing and developing quite differently and uniquely from each other. These are extremely different viewpoints and I would argue that an organization living in both worlds will have tensions – possibly extreme tensions. The customers desire an individually hand painted picture by an artist of his/her choosing. The company board wants to produce many prints of one picture and produce it on time, in quantity, and at a certain level of quality. To help increase the tensions the company board also has trouble finding the one picture it should produce. To further increase the tensions the board usually picks a new picture to produce even before the “factory” has time to complete very many of the previous pictures.
So with all the politics around education and the seeking of the silver bullet solution, maybe we should start by deciding who these students are?
Keven Kroehler is a husband and busy father of four who is very passionate about education reform. After 24 years in the classroom in addition to administrative roles he shifted gears to have a larger impact on education as the Executive Director of the national non-profit EdVisions Schools. Keven has a wealth of experience in both charter and traditional schools including project-based learning, technology, school finance, & school leadership. Follow Keven on Twitter @KevenKroehler .