Let’s Change Mindsets About Both Business and Education

By Dipl.-Päd. Renate Henning (OSTO Systemberatung GmbH) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In his most recent post, Will wrote about how the language we use to discuss education can impact our understanding. He wrote:

I hope that when we talk about schools and ecosystems, we can avoid the practice of using the vague, technocratic jargon of the business world to describe worlds where financial profit should not be the ultimate goal. The problems of schools and ecosystems are the problems of living things. Let’s talk about them in language that illuminates, rather than obscures, the complex and specific worlds that human beings inhabit.

Will raises an important point: schools are social institutions, not ones of profit. And while we must acknowledge and pay close attention to the operational side of running school systems, we must not lose sight of the most important function of education: to cultivate the character and minds of our children. While we can argue that a quality education has a long-run payoff in economic gains for our nation, the functional and everyday purpose of a school is not to profit off our children, but rather to instill and inculcate the values and knowledge we hold critical for citizenship.

When we talk about education, how easy is it to slip into language (I’m frequently guilty of this) of “human capital,” “social capital,” “achievement gains,” or other proxies of the mindset of business? As Will pointed out, this can obscure the complex and alternately beautiful and excruciating human reality that working in a school really requires.

Yet I also believe that schools should not be set so far apart from the realm of business that we can’t establish relevant and necessary connections between them, and that such isolation can even be damaging, given the amount of research and funding that goes into management topics such as leadership, accountability, training, diversity, relationships, and institutional/organizational health. When I was attending The City College of New York to obtain my Master’s in special education, I did a literature review on the topic of self-control, and found it remarkable that some of the most useful research came from outside the realm of education (sports is another area which has a lot to offer).

I also believe that when schools are so isolated from local economies and the realm of business that students graduate from high school with nearly zero skills or knowledge applicable to a career, this is highly problematic and especially damaging to students living in isolated areas with few opportunities.

Speaking of language, there’s also something about the fanatical inveighing against “privatization” and “corporate deformers” in the education sphere that bothers me.  Perhaps because I’ve worked as a manager in both retail and hospitality industries, or perhaps because I think that markets do have a connection to schools, and that we are putting blinders on when we pretend that education can be something wholly pristine and apart from the influence and interaction of markets. It seems to me that the districts that seek to leverage markets to develop better schools, rather than ignore them, are ones more likely to be successful.

But the fact that education systems at the moment are most responsive and beholden to large investments of money from philanthropists and “Silicon Valley investors” also seems extremely problematic, let alone completely unsustainable.

So how to resolve this conundrum? Well, let’s take a closer look at the other side of things first: the realm of the marketplace itself. Is capitalism and entrepreneurship really only about profit? Perhaps we do a disservice to entrepreneurs to reduce their efforts to such banality.

Muhammad Yunus, who has done inspiring work with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and is a proponent of the concept of “social business,” makes the following point in a speech when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. He states that our current conception of capitalism and business:

“originates from the assumption that entrepreneurs are one-dimensional human beings, who are dedicated to one mission in their business lives — to maximize profit. This interpretation of capitalism insulates the entrepreneurs from all political, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental dimensions of their lives. This was done perhaps as a reasonable simplification, but it stripped away the very essentials of human life.

Human beings are a wonderful creation embodied with limitless human qualities and capabilities. Our theoretical constructs should make room for the blossoming of those qualities, not assume them away.

Many of the world’s problems exist because of this restriction on the players of free-market. The world has not resolved the problem of crushing poverty that half of its population suffers. Healthcare remains out of the reach on the majority of the world population. The country with the richest and freest market fails to provide healthcare for one-fifth of its population.

We have remained so impressed by the success of the free-market that we never dared to express any doubt about our basic assumption. To make it worse, we worked extra hard to transform ourselves, as closely as possible, into the one-dimensional human beings as conceptualized in the theory, to allow smooth functioning of the free market mechanism.”

Interesting how Yunus’ sentiment on capitalism so closely parallels Will’s statement on the mindset and language around education!

Perhaps Yunus’ idea of a hybrid “social business” is a potential solution to the conundrum of what the service that a school provides stands in relation to the marketplace. School districts need sustainable funding and investment, but their goal cannot be one of profit. The goal is to provide the highest quality education to all children in that district:

Social business will be a new kind of business introduced in the market place with the objective of making a difference in the world. Investors in the social business could get back their investment, but will not take any dividend from the company. Profit would be ploughed back into the company to expand its outreach and improve the quality of its product or service. A social business will be a non-loss, non-dividend company.

Once social business is recognized in law, many existing companies will come forward to create social businesses in addition to their foundation activities. Many activists from the non-profit sector will also find this an attractive option. Unlike the non-profit sector where one needs to collect donations to keep activities going, a social business will be self-sustaining and create surplus for expansion since it is a non-loss enterprise.”

A school as a social enterprise. Perhaps such a recognition of schools could help break down the unnecessarily ideological and political divides between charters and district schools? This is an interesting realm of hybridization that I’d like to hear about more, rather than the tired old debates between charter and district systems.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Change Mindsets About Both Business and Education

  1. Will Johnson

    Interesting back-and-forth here. One point that seems important– you say that the conflict between charter and community schools is ideological and unnecessary. I don’t think I see how that’s the case, given the fact that there are resources at stake. Public school classes are extremely overcrowded in part because community school resources are being diverted to charter schools. If the private organizations that run charter schools would raise their own funds, the debate would be far less heated because the stakes would be much lower. But the heads of charter companies like Success Academy and Harlem Children’s Zone have used vicious anti-teacher rhetoric to attack the community schools precisely because they need to justify the diversion of funds from those schools into these people’s organizations. So, to me, as long as funds are being shifted away from the overwhelming majority of public school students to the tiny minority of charter school students, it’s extremely important to counter the rhetoric used to justify these shifts. It’s more of a material issue, to me, than an ideological one.


    1. Will, thanks for responding. I’d be interested in hearing more about what you think about the idea of a “social business” as Yunus describes it.

      In your comment, you make the claim that “community school resources are being diverted to charter schools.” I’ll admit, first of all, that you may well be right on this, as I’m not particularly knowledgeable about this issue. But it seems to me that this claim is up to debate. For example, an article by Joy Resmovits presents two sides to this question: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/30/charter-school-funding-_n_5242159.html
      It seems like Charter advocates argue that they actually get less funding then district schools, on average.

      My understanding of public resources is that money follows the child, and that any extra resources that some charter networks are able to drum up are private funds. Again, I could be wrong on this and am interested to learn more. But if I’m right, then you may well be proving my point!


  2. Heather Belbin

    You’ve really hit on several points here. First, I agree that the business world has been perhaps unfairly demonized, so to speak. Many businesses, large and small, do have a desire to help society in some way, although schools and boards must walk a very fine line connecting with them. It can be done, but doing it properly takes strategy and patience. The second point that resonated with me was about the education system being quite isolated from current and future economic realities. When I taught for a public board, I noticed this myself. It was almost like some schools and boards are so used to being chronically strapped for cash that administrators have mentally opted out of the larger economy. I hope to see some change here, but curating change in the education sector is an incredible challenge.


    1. Heather, thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s definitely a challenge to build constructive connections between the wider economy and education, yet so incredibly critical to improving social mobility. This work seems similar in spirit to the challenging yet critical bridges that some economists or entrepreneurs, such as Herman Daly or Paul Hawken, have tried to build between the economy and ecology.

      I think there’s brilliant strategists or thought leaders on both union and charter sides of things at the moment, but few seem interested in stepping across the aisle to better explore how to fuse larger markets with local communities. Politics, it seems, must perennially trump problem-solving.


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