03 December 2008

Defining Customers and Products in Education

Originally posted at EdNews.org.

Recently, I went to a local school board meeting where goals were to be set for the district. One thing that was plugged throughout the formal presentation was that the school district desires to become more aware of customer service. In fact, much of the talk revolved around the "customer". However, there was almost no discussion of who the producer is and what the product actually is. It seems that perhaps these were taken for granted. Surely everyone knows what the product of an educational facility is, right?

Definitions are important, especially when the stakes are high. The service provider would be the teacher, the school, and the school district. While this may seem like a big tent for this group, it's permissible because this group is not my focus. The customer, to use the term quite broadly, may consist of the parents and the local community. Indeed, the customer group might be "nationalized" – though I hesitate to be that bold. But the most problematic customer group belongs to the students.

If the student is the "product", then some conflicts that must be addressed. First and foremost is the obvious clash that emerges from the simple coincidence of customer and product in the student. If the student is not compliant or does not buy into the kind of "product" he is becoming, then the system simply fails. One product-chosen failure equals one failed student at or approaching 100 percent of the time. From a macro perspective, if 30 students out of a freshman class of 300 don't buy into the "product", that's a 10 percent product failure rate – and that's without adding students who fail while still buying into the "product". If certain "sub-populations" (which I've discussed before) don't value themselves as a "product", then schools flirt with failing under No Child Left Behind. Despite NCLB and its stress on accountability, the micro is more important here: individual student-chosen failure.

The convergence of customer and product in the student allows for a system with a singular failure point in all cases, and that single point is always free to choose to break the system all by himself. If the student chooses to fail, then there is virtually nothing that the service provider can really do to overcome that. However, since the student is also the product, the service provider (the teacher, the school, the district) may be (and publically usually is) held responsible for the failed product regardless of the actual performance of the service provider.

The most bothersome part of this is the equation of the failed student with a failed system. However, the perception of system failure is preventable when we realize that the student is not the product. This may trouble those who believe that schools revolve around students, that individual student success and failure are the hallmarks of good and bad schools. But that just isn't the case, and I suggest that it can't be. This is because the student-customer does not necessarily know what will make him a good "product". He doesn't know this precisely because he is not yet educated. It seems self evident, then, that the student must solely be either product or customer. Because the student is a thinking, feeling being, I submit that he cannot be the product.

So just what is the product, then? It is the teaching that is made available. The product is the information, techniques, and values which fills the space and time of each classroom. And this, too, is problematic, though for far different reasons.

Bureaucrats like numbers and percentages. The media likes them, too. People in general find it easier to judge things through statistics. It is easier to quantitatively measure two things and find out which is better (or worse), or which has more value. People can measure, judge, and move on. It's quicker and easier than the alternative, which is qualitative analysis.
Thus, the information, techniques, and values which fill the time and space of a classroom are problematic because they are difficult (if not impossible) to measure quantitatively. The "product" demands to be evaluated qualitatively, which requires subjectivity. Subjectivity invites all sorts of bias and requires a level of trusted professionalism that sadly seems lacking. To make matters worse, high-stakes testing and the quantitative analyses which result from it do not raise collegial relationships or deepen professional trust, rather they erode them. (For much more on this see "Below the Bubble" by Jennifer Booher-Jennings.)

So while more and more focus is leveled on tests, score, and student "success" (defined as passing the test) metrics, there seems to be less and less focus on teaching as an art in the real-world classroom. Yet ironically, teachers, schools, and districts are held accountable for students' test scores. And here is where there is a shift to the macro. Test scores themselves – the quantitative measurements – are used to validate what happens in the classroom regardless of student motivation or "buy in". To some extent, this is reasonable. However, when whole schools can "fail" based on student desire, drive, and ability, there is a clear problem.

The way to address this problem, I suggest, is a return to autonomy in the classroom and for the school. Teachers, under the professional (not quantitative) supervision of principals, should be given great latitude on how – and even what – they teach in their classrooms. This does not mean complete freedom; it means that year-end goals are set by the principal and the superintendant (where applicable) and teachers work to meet those goals. Principals, districts and states could then conduct qualitative assessments of teachers. Again, this would require a great amount of professionalism and trust between teachers and administrators – indeed greater professionalism at all levels. And it would have to be understood explicitly that the information, techniques, and values are being measured during an evaluation.

In this way, trusted professionalism among educators may be greatly increased. Students may rightly become consumers of learning instead of reluctant or hostile "customer-products" of schools. And folks at all levels may regain focus on what really matters in education: the quality of information, techniques, and values espoused in the classroom.

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