Schools—Should They Be Run More Like Corporations?

Picture3Over the last sixteen years, as I have headed private schools in four cities, I have encountered an increasing penchant among parents and board members in our school communities for using corporate lingo in their conversations about our schools and where they should be going:  Measurables, data, outcomes, entrepreneurial, innovation, cutting-edge, competitive advantage, business model, downsizing, incentivize—the list goes on and on. I know I cough up these terms as well, all too frequently, like a chronic respiratory disease.

When I’m on top of things and aware of the situation, I’ll counter these corporate terms with some moderating education-ese of my own.  But my words don’t seem to be effective at all. It’s as if American society has shifted somehow, away from the humanistic aims of a liberal arts education (are you old enough to know what I’m talking about?) and almost exclusively toward the commodification of education. In other words, it’s all about the extrinsic award—it’s about getting in (to that prestigious high school or college), instead of becoming a better learner, growing up, and being a more responsible citizen.  Value added? Who cares! Education no longer seems to be about itself.

Math Chart PicThen there are the rare, wise, intelligent people out there who understand this mess we’re in of corporatizing our educational missions. The one I will present to you here is Robert Evans, Ed. D., author of such wonderful books like Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with the Crisis in Childrearing and The Human Side of School Change.  Evans has written an excellent essay entitled, “Why a School Doesn’t Run—or Change—Like a Business.” You can read it on his website at

Basically, Evans points out how schools are really more like religious institutions or villages or families, rather than corporations.  The “outcomes” in a school are very hard to measure, and the school’s main personnel, its teachers, are essentially service oriented and have a strong security orientation—not the kind of people who take risks and thrive on competition. Schools move slowly and the core of the learning “product” is centered on conserving the past—values, skills, history, traditions, and of course knowledge, which is all past-related.  For me, Evans’ essay is so valuable, because he wrote it sixteen years ago, and his updated version written last fall merely confirms his initial perspective.

Now, because it’s in my nature to issue a counterpoint, I’d like to add a little bit of challenge to Evans’ article, enamored of it as I remain. I do feel there are aspects of education that deserve our attention and for which school leaders can have greater success, and the corporate world does have some lessons for us school leaders.

Here are just a few areas, drawn from the successful end of the business management world, that deserve our schools’ consideration: adaptive leadership, empathic thinking, the hedgehog concept and communication.

I’ll offer a brief comment about each of the areas I mentioned above and how they can have a positive impact on our schools.

Adaptive leadership—The multi-constituent world we encounter in the school business, whose mindsets seem to be expanding away from one another like an expanding universe, demands that we learn about our constituents and their values and behaviors in order to achieve successful partnerships. Parents, board members, faculty, students—they are all expanding away from one another, but they can be reached and brought into the grand partnership of the school community by way of flexible leadership models.

Empathic thinking—You hear this term coming out of the start-up business culture, which is really about training your own customer service mindset to think in terms of the customer experience. For schools, this means we educators must get out of our own tunnel vision and think in terms of the learning experience and perspective of our students as well as the families that are the context for their learning environment. Today’s students are exhibiting a broader and more pronounced array of learning characteristics, and our knowledge of how the brain functions best necessitates a more complex approach to our teaching strategies.  Being current with the research and shifting our focus away from the teacher and more toward the learner will contribute to greater teaching effectiveness.

Hedgehog concept—This of course comes from the Jim Collins book Good to Great—the chapter abhedgehog2-resized-600out focusing your mission on what it is that you do best and do better than anyone else. That’s tough for schools to identify, but the exercise is most valuable for schools in their effort to maintain mission integrity.

Communication—The marketing of our schools is central to both success and community support. The business models that focus on social media, the customer’s on-site experience, carefully managed messaging, setting the right tone, and even the designing of our image—these are areas of operations that can benefit tremendously by embracing the best that is out there in the business world.

Schools will always be likened to the family or the village—that is for sure—but it takes much more than the parading of familial values to meet the needs of all of the unique profiles that constitute our student bodies today and to partner successfully with an ever more complicated and challenging parent constituency.


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