If you’re going to treat education like a business, then follow the right business model!

I heard a story recently on NPR where they discussed the effectiveness of job incentives. They recalled a case study that’s very familiar to anyone who pays attention to these sorts of stories. The basic idea was that a company gave rewards to their best employees based on performance (it was sales, I believe), and it caused people to be selfish and competitive. When they removed the incentives, their employees started to work together, and resulted in a drastic increase in total sales.

There are a host of other stories like this. My old team at Amazon had the policy that you choose your own hours, so long as you get your work done. Google famously gives employees 20% of their working hours to pursue their own ideas for possible innovations and improvements to the company, and these ideas have translated into some of their best products. Even Microsoft, the dinosaur of tech companies, has realized it needs to ditch its competitive business framework in favor of something that promotes more innovation and success.

The message that pervades all of these discussions is this: learn to hire great people, and let them do whatever it is they need to do to make great things happen.

Unfortunately there’s one industry that apparently has yet to hear of this: education. My own personal view is that education (elementary through college) shouldn’t be treated like a business, but for all intents and purposes it is. The profit metrics might be test scores, diplomas, the size of a sports program, or research papers, but it’s business all the same.

But with public school teacher protests, asphyxiating testing standards, and the nuisance of snowplow parents, this raises an obvious question. If we’re intent on treating education like a business, why aren’t we using a model that we know works? In other words, why don’t we simply

  1. Find great teachers
  2. Pay them well
  3. Let them do what they need to do to teach

If business tells us anything, it tells us that market forces will attract qualified people. In other words, the administrators are there to attract great teachers and give them the resources and support they need to make great education happen.

It may seem like I’m oversimplifying things (of course I am, there are so many other issues), but it’s clear from the news and the protests and the teachers I know that this attitude is only present at the most blessed of institutions.

So my question to you is: why doesn’t education work this way? Should I chalk it up to incompetence? To inertia? To the greed of the people in charge? Are there just “bigger problems” in most schools? A little bit of all of it? Or is it that this model doesn’t work for education?

At least, I think it’s an important discussion to have.


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