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NC Principal Poses Question: If Schools Are a Business, are Students “Customers” or “Employees”?

August 24, 2017

In an ASCD Journal article earlier this month, HS Principal Vance Fishback laments the persistent analogy that schools should operate like a business and, in doing so, should treat students like “customers”. He suggests that using a customer service model is the wrong approach: that if the public insists on using the business analogy the schools should conceive of students as employees. He writes:

although we do want our students and their families to be satisfied with their school and feel like it is a great choice, it is inaccurate to operationally define our students as our customers because that assumes education is something done to or for students while they simply consume it. Prior to high-stakes testing and accountability programs, this definition was valid. We just needed students to stay satisfied enough with school to earn their diplomas….

For public schools, that reality no longer exists. In today’s schools, students are more like employees than customers. They are expected to perform, and schools are held accountable to the results they produce. Instead of looking for ways to make students happy consumers, we need to find the factors that motivate employees.

Mr. Vance suggests this shift in perspective would result in schools operating differently in four ways:

  1. School leaders would rely on motivational theory instead of customer service theory.
  2. Teachers would emphasize leadership over pedagogy.
  3. All educators would need to gain a deeper understanding of what motivates each student in order to have them be productive workers… and understand that “what motivates this generation of workers is not what motivated past generations.” Drawing on the work of Deep Patel, Mr. Vance suggests that today’s “Generation Z” students: “(First), Crave independence and want to take ownership of their work, but they also want formative feedback and social interaction. (Second) Are the first true digital natives but will need help limiting distractions. (Third) Need to understand the meaning of their work—Generation Z employees might be hard workers, but they are not there to just do a job.”
  4. Since schools and businesses are facing similar challenges in motivating the workforce, they should join forces in researching motivational theories.

Mr. Vance’s thinking on this issue is not completely original. In 1990 William Glasser wrote an article for Phi Delta Kappa titled “The Quality School” suggesting that teachers should conceive of themselves as managers and conceive of their students as workers who need to be motivated to want to learn. He hypothesized that if this model was applied that students engagement would increase and, consequently, classroom management problems would diminish and learning would increase. Original or not, Mr. Vance is on to something: if schools are expected to prepare students for the world of work or a world where learning is expected to continue indefinitely, teachers need to focus on what motivates students more than what results students achieve on tests. Understanding each students’ motivations would be the basis for a truly personalized learning environment. Guiding those motivations to be team-oriented as opposed to individualistic is what we need for democracy and civility to thrive.


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