The Sacred Enterprise of School

Schools are the most sacred and important enterprise on earth.  The consequences for both the failure and success of schools are felt throughout society, both presently and long-term.  No other enterprise has such high stakes.  The business of school is far bigger, more important, and inherently profound compared to all other business.  For these reasons, no other enterprise can provide a model for the successful operation of schools.

In recent years, educational leaders have addressed the topic of ‘twenty-first century schools’ and how schools can be better prepared for the future.  Many argue that school leaders should apply principles of success from other areas and that the use of business models (i.e. Microsoft, Google) is perfectly appropriate.  In the process of proposing solutions for schools, many have offered models of successful organizations that only remotely relate to the business of school.  Indeed schools engage in fiscal practices that require balancing a budget and, for independent schools, many marketing parallels also exist.  These similarities aside, the nature and import of every other business fails to equal the unique and distinct nature and societal importance of schools; therefore, schools should not be compared to or expect to learn significantly from any other business.  Thus, to use mostly irrelevant models of success as guides is to reduce the sacred nature of school.

Every generation has activity that should be applauded for its astounding success.  Today one of the 21st century standouts is Google.  In the 20th century, the progressive and insightful leader was Ford Motor Company.  In the 19th century, perhaps it was the General Store in every little town.  The one consistent enterprise during this, and previous times, is the business of school.  Yes, schools must apply success principles as they educate students and prepare them for the life that they will encounter.  However, given the complexity and uniqueness of schools they can rarely benefit from applying to their operations the successful business model of the era.  Schools have little to learn from General Electric.  Schools more appropriately learn from other schools that have mastered the business of school.

There are two primary dangers of the “deification” of current business superstars and the attempts to show application to schools.  First, the potential irrelevant or counterproductive application of business concepts and models could actually cause harm to the school.  If schools focus on short-term and simplistic metrics, as those used to determine success in business models, it would drastically oversimplify the business of school.  We must never measure school success only by a handful of quantifiable criteria and our primary governing focus must be long-term.

Secondly, representing businesses as ideal models for schools reinforces the attitude that educators are not as intelligent or ingenious as those who operate in the business world.  The application of irrelevant and different focused models to the business of school will no doubt confuse, de-motivate, and stymie the creativity of outstanding educators who are very capable of sustaining schools throughout the 21st century.  If the profession of teaching is to be elevated in societal stature, we should be looking to outstanding school programs rather than a steady stream of business models to emulate.  We should look to the creative genius of educators to develop strategies and apply success principles to schools to ensure optimal success.  We should look to educators to develop criteria for defining success in schools.  If deification must occur, let us do so of outstanding teachers and schools.

The principles applied for success in any endeavor are as old as the human race.  Although a shift may occur across time in the relative importance of these principles, and how they are applied, they remain quite consistent.  Whether it is a Neanderthal hunting party or a NASA team exploring space, the probability of successful operations can be accomplished by the applications of certain principles.  Examples of success principles valuable throughout history include:

  • Having a clearly defined objective
  • Understanding and adapting to the environment
  • Having knowledge of and appropriately applying tools available to accomplish the objective
  • Creatively evolving and adapting as the conditions change or are unresponsive
  • Achieving motivation of the group
  • Capturing the Gestalt power of the group

 

Companies that apply success principles have an opportunity to succeed.  Schools that apply success principles also will be positioned to succeed.  Absolutely, school leaders should be aware of success principles utilized by different organizations in different times in history.  The problem arises when the application of these principles in schools are done so with reverence and copyright attribution (i.e. Google’s Principles of Innovation) to companies that are historical “flashes in the pan” relative to the history of schools.

Most businesses have a very simple metric for success — value per share, profit, and numbers of consumers — all of which are quantifiable.  There is no easily quantifiable measure of school success.  Educators have difficulty defining success in a way that satisfies those from without.  School success tends to be more obscure and long-term and even when we know how to define it, we often fall short of being able to quantify our successes.  

Additionally, one of the problems with quantifying school success is the delay in seeing results.  If teachers and schools are successful, many of the results are only evident years after the student leaves school.  The complexity of school will never accommodate a business model where evaluations of success are immediate (or nearly so) and highly quantifiable.

The sacred enterprise of school will have greater impact and significantly outlast any other enterprise in our society.  Stakes are much higher for schools than for businesses.  Google builds tools for use by society.  If Google fails, so what?  Schools build societies.  If schools fail, then what?  It is a terrible mistake to exalt the genius of entrepreneurs, who approach their business based on a much simpler metric of profit, as models for schools of the future.  Doing so minimizes educators who necessarily approach their sacred profession with more noble intentions.

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