Who is Education’s Customer?


Today I attended a session about the relationships between business and education. The session was put on by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a non-profit group that does really good work in my state to improve education on the policy level. The purpose of the session was to discuss how to get businesses more involved in supporting and helping improve education. There were a couple of consultants there who presented some findings of a Harvard Business School study looking at competitiveness in the global economy. Specifically they addressed recent policies or movements that have been most helpful to improving education and student achievement.  What struck me about the six bullet points the consultants shared as being the most important for improving public education was that four of them are incredibly controversial in public schools and politically. They were:

  • Common Core State Standards
  • Race to the Top
  • Third-party, independent teaching movements, like Teach for America
  • Charter schools

Nobody in the room protested. No one groaned. No one raised a fuss of any kind. Definitely not a public school crowd. So I spoke up, “You know, four of the six items you mentioned are not universally accepted in public schools” (the other two were use of technology in schools and “dynamic” schools, whatever that means). Everyone in the room agreed that this is true. (I should note that I support all of the efforts mentioned, though I do think all of them have room for improvement and all should be iterated on an ongoing basis with data feedback loops.)

So what accounts for this big divide between the perceptions of public school educators and, not only business, but much of society? The same data are available to all of us. Businesses tell us that they can’t fill the high-skill positions that they have available; that kids are graduating high school and passing standardized tests, but not having the skill competencies they need to help advance our economy. Businesses feel that the skill sets described in the Common Core and the problem solving and reasoning skills that are emphasized are exactly what they need kids to be able to do when hired for jobs. And businesses, in short, are looking at the data. They’re looking at PISA scores and NAEP scores and how much is spent on education in the U.S. compared with other developed countries. And guess what, they’re not liking what they see. Then, to boot, they get first-hand experience when high school graduates show up without the skills they need.

On the other hand, you have some educators (some, certainly not all) trying to explain why PISA, and sometimes even NAEP, are not good, representative measures…but without any recommendations of what measures and metrics ought to be used. And those educators among us who continue to say things like, “well, the really important stuff can’t be measured” are not doing us any favors. Because here’s the thing: society isn’t buying that any more. Society, for the most part, believes that the public education system in our country is weak and getting worse. It seems like the only people who believe it’s good and getting better are educators (for example, in the HBS study, when polled, the only respondents who said K12 education was strong and improving were school superintendents).

How can these two beliefs exist simultaneously? It makes me think that we have a huge gap in our respective languages to describe and define success. From what I heard today, businesses define success in education as the production of citizens who have the skills to contribute meaningfully to the workforce and the economy. That’s it, plain and simple. Content, critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, the ability to collaborate and to adapt. And the expectation of business is that there will be competency monitoring along the way so that by the time each student graduates they’ve mastered the skills they need. It’s a pretty unified definition. Yet I don’t think we, as educators, have a unified definition of success in education. And I certainly don’t think we have a definition that matches that of business.

boundary between company and customers

“The front line is the boundary between the company and its customers” by Dave Gray

Which begs the question: as educators, are businesses our customers? Do we have a responsibility to deliver a product (i.e., competent performers) that solves their problems? And by extension, is society our customer? If so, how do we deliver on that? And if not, who is our customer? Interested in your thoughts!

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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6 Responses to Who is Education’s Customer?

  1. Shari Andrassy says:

    Karen,
    Do you think perhaps business’ needs are so skill specific these days that their needs cannot be met unless THEY are willing to invest in training? Are they no longer willing to do that and just want to “hire off the rack” as it were? In the “old days” people moved up the ladder as their skills and expertise grew while on the job. Is everything moving so fast now that that model no longer works? If business wants people with a specific skill set (think of the technology sector), then the curriculum in the school system would need to be designed toward that industry. If a different business (think health care) needed a different skill set, the school system would have to provide that as well. That is why we have college/vocational schools. Kids choose a major, specialize and get hired. Are we asking kids to choose a vocation or direction at a younger age (high school) ?

  2. karen mahon says:

    Thanks for the comment, Shari. I don’t think so. Most of the corporations that I know of and read about are happy to train for specialized, industry-specific skills. But they’re looking for solid foundational skills….writing, problem-solving, critical thinking, communication skills, etc., onto which the industry-specific skills can be built. (The writing is really a big one that is horribly lacking.) I haven’t read of any industry people saying that the scope and sequence, per se, needs to be different, but rather that the levels of competency required to “exit,” if you will, need to be higher and enforced. Needless to say, even though we’re talking about high school (or later) by the time these skill deficits are identified, I think the social promotion problem throughout the grades must be a factor, don’t you?

    • Shari Andrassy says:

      I agree with the reasoning/writing skills piece. We had started working on that as early as Kindergarten in RUSD when I retired. One of the goals was that the children write a simple sentence using “inventive spelling” by year’s end.
      My experience is at the elementary level, so I can’t speak from experience re: social promotion. I’m guessing it occurs later (Jr. Hi/High School) and probably happens because of parental pressures on the teachers/district–threats of law suits etc. etc. I retained several students through the years; it was hard to convince parents. I would agree that it might be a motivation for students to put forth more effort if they knew they wouldn’t move forward unless certain criteria were mastered. However, it is also true that this forces some students to quit school. So much is beyond our control, i.e. the home environment. How fair is it to expect all children to achieve, when some come to school tired, hungry? You understand. It’s really a problem with our society and I don’t know how to “fix” the home piece. I am lucky in that I was loved, my parents were people who wanted their kids to have it better than they did, they sacrificed for the family and provided a supportive home. Not all kids are that lucky. So, now we get into issues of class–the “haves” and “have-nots”. It is so complicated and the issues so intertwined. It’s hard to know where to start so that all students have an equal opportunity. I’m still the idealist (hoping to level the playing field) after all these years and I still have hope.

  3. fran says:

    WoW! This is certainly a complicated issue. Maybe the tenure changes in the wind will help to staff schools with people who care and are competent, This would be a good start. Having worked inner city for 31 years, I know that home and hunger are present. However, I believe that – good teachers can motivate students , but it has to be consistent and continual throughout K-12 years. Why us it that a child can excel in elementary school, but starts to fail in Jr. High and High School????

  4. mconnell2013 says:

    I think uncertainty – and the associated risk – is a major factor here. The uncertainty runs through the entire educational system, and it is very corrosive to the entire enterprise.

    For starters, people disagree vehemently about – and many are not really sure – what the purpose of education is even today. This plays out, just to take one example, in the historical tension between the liberal arts crowd and the vocational / technical crowd. At different times and in different locations, schooling in the U.S. has been intended to: prepare the children of wealthy families to take on professional and leadership roles in society, to provide life skills for all students (like home economics and shop), to “provide something for everyone” (e.g., tracking, leveled reading, honors and AP classes, SPED, vocational training), to support a national identify through socialization and civic education, to prepare students for jobs, to prepare students for college, to reduce social and economic inequity (by “closing the achievement gap”), and so on. Sometimes several of these goals are in play simultaneously, and the relative priorities are constantly shifting.

    The challenge is, each of these goals requires a different kind of design. Vocational education, for instance, has a different cost-benefit tradeoff from a liberal arts education, and the design of the curriculum is very different. On the “pro” side, vocational training can be much more efficient and it’s much easier to measure progress and mastery there. On the “con” side, if the vocation for which you have been specifically trained disappears, you could be in serious trouble.

    To make matters worse, people are either uncertain or misinformed about which structures and processes support which kinds of outcomes. Everyone has an opinion, these opinions conflict with each other, and many of them are impulsive and misguided. At least in part because of the high degree of uncertainty + risk, there’s little trust in the system, and generally very little acknowledgment that there are people with greater and lesser expertise.

    Now combine this uncertainty in purpose and process with uncertainty in context: no one knows, in particular, what the world or the economy will look like next year, let alone two decades from now when today’s cohort of infants will be entering the workforce after college (if college still exists by then). No one knows which jobs will exist, or what skills will be relevant (or not). With rare exceptions (like early prodigies), no one really knows what any particular kid will be particularly well-suited for and motivated to do.

    Back to your questions:

    > as educators, are businesses our customers? Do we have a responsibility to deliver a product (i.e., competent performers) that solves their problems?

    I wouldn’t say business are our customers, exactly. Our primary goal should be to help individuals grow into capable, productive, ethical, and engaged adults. But economic instability and want undermines all of those outcomes. So we have a responsibility to help our students be successful economically, which generally means providing them with knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will help them find a way to meet their economic needs in the real world. Making them more employable is one way to support that outcome at scale. Taking input from businesses on what makes them employable is one way to shape what the schools are actually doing in this area. So, no, businesses are not our customers exactly, but there is nonetheless a strong argument for taking businesses’ needs seriously into account. I think this different framing is not just a matter of semantics, either – it has real consequences for how we make decisions.

    > And by extension, is society our customer? If so, how do we deliver on that?

    Society is an abstraction, and so I don’t think it can be a customer. Society certainly has a role to play in defining priorities and goals, and it seems obvious that we need to balance the good of the individual and the good of society in the way we design our educational systems and specify their priorities and goals. This tension is embodied in our Constitution, in fact. Where that balance point is set is a deep and difficult question. Again, in relation to education we can take it back and frame it in terms of the individual student. If we believe that the student will be more capable, more productive, more ethical, and more engaged in life if they are socialized to care about their impact on their community and society at large, then there is good alignment between what is good for the individual and what is good for society if we make that part of the educational program. If we are socializing students merely to maintain the status quo, as an alternative example, or to promote social stability by “keeping everyone in their place” (as caste systems do), then it’s less clear that this system does a good job of aligning individual and societal outcomes. More likely, it is asymmetrically maximizing some groups’ utilities at the expense of others’, while perhaps using a cover story of “social stability” as the nominal justification. Anyway, the point is, I think this is the kind of reasoning we should be engaged in when deciding how to balance and integrate the societal goals and priorities with the individual goals and priorities mentioned above as expressed through our educational systems.

    > And if not, who is our customer? Interested in your thoughts!

    As I said, I think our customer is the student. We should help them to grow into capable, productive, ethical, and engaged authors of their own lives as well as capable, productive, ethical, and engaged members of society. In some places, there is good alignment between these two sets of concerns. In other places where there is less alignment, we need some flexibility to figure out what’s best, which may not be uniform across the board.

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