Management thinking in schools is a bad business


Social ScienceThere is no doubt that education has become a large industry, the second biggest in the world behind health, according to most estimates. In Australia, education spending is over 7 per cent of GDP, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (health spending is higher at 9.5 per cent). 

And it is growing fast. Government school expenditure is expected to increase by 24.6 per cent in real terms from 2013–14 to 2016–17. According to Universities Australia, education is Australia's fourth largest export behind iron ore, coal and gold.

An industry it may be, but is it a 'business'? That certainly seems to be the assumption in much of the training of teachers.

Having recently undertaken teacher training after spending three decades as a business journalist (with a particular focus on management), it quickly became apparent to me that much of the language in both the teacher training courses, and the administration within schools, bears an eerie resemblance to the language of business management.

Phrases like 'intersections of pools of knowledge and expertise', 'distilling vision, strategies and solutions that can be shared/owned and driven by stakeholders' and 'ensuring quality assurance standards are maintained across the delivery spectrum' abound.

Allowing such a flimsy discipline as management to co-opt an area as important as education is as absurd as it is saddening. Education has been with us for thousands of years and encompasses some of the most profound thinking the civilisation has produced. Management thinking has been with us for a few decades and has accomplished next to nothing.

Indeed, the only distinct insight management thinkers have ever come up with that survives any reasonable scrutiny is Total Quality Management (TQM). This is an insight about randomness within any repetitive system (which most industrial systems and businesses are). It shows that if the potential for randomness is removed from the system, quality standards can be met without any additional cost. 

TQM is excellent for producing cars. But it is almost entirely useless in education. Worse, TQM's spin-off, known as Quality Assurance (QA), the version that is heavily used in education administration, has been largely shown to be ineffective and more likely to increase costs and inefficiency.

Whereas TQM relies on workplace democracy — workers are encouraged to find ways of removing randomness from the system and acting early if there is a problem — QA is despotic, relying on increasing quality checks and treating workers as a problem to be solved.

The main reason business management methods will never properly work in education is that in marketplaces, quality is always decided by the consumer, the receiver. That, indeed, has proved to be the limitation of TQM in business. The producer may be able to create a low-cost quality product, but in the end it is the customer who decides whether it is worth buying or not.

In education, it is the reverse. The determination of quality necessarily resides with the producer, the teacher. The student, by definition, does not know. Thus education is in no meaningful sense like business, and the more a business-based logic is imposed — such as treating the student as a 'consumer' — the less it will be true education.

Using student (customer) surveys to determine a teacher's performance, for example, is, in educational terms, plainly ridiculous — a student may like a teacher for giving them a good mark that they did not deserve, for example. Yet that increasingly is what decides the fate of teachers at tertiary institutions.

The growing use of business logic and jargon in education is not just vaguely comic — many teachers I met were only too keen to ridicule it, and nearly all regarded the new management methods as being an impediment to their practice of teaching — it is deeply insidious.

The proliferation of MBA-trained managers in education is probably one reason for this state of affairs. Another is an academic commonality between management and education departments.

One of the curiosities about teacher training is that it is classified as a social science; that is where it sits in the Dewey Decimal System. Why, one asks, is an activity that precedes social science by thousands of years classified in this way? Why is it not considered part of philosophy, for example? 

The reason is probably that John Dewey was himself a social scientist, at a time when the discipline seemed to hold out more hope than it does now. In any case, it has led to an unhappy co-existence between teacher training and management theory.

Management thinking has come up with very little that is distinct, but management schools have absorbed some of the methods and research of social science. Indeed, otherwise unemployable social scientists have often been able to get work in business schools. 

For the most part, business people are unconvinced by these social science methods, because they do not consistently work in the market place. But the social science aspect of management thinking does segue neatly with the social science bias of education.

This does not bode well for teaching practice. The methods of TQM and elimination of randomness might usefully be applied to back office work and administration. But when used in the actual practice of teaching, the effects will be disastrous.

David JamesDavid James is a business journalist with a PhD in English literature. He edits Personal Super Investor.

Topic tags: David James, economics



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An excellent article - both in terms of teacher training & indeed developments I've seen in my 25yr in tertiary education & the university. There is a place for student feedback - many lecturers regarded as great communicators etc by students are frequently regarded so by colleagues. But student surveys can easily trivialise the 'business' of good teaching-learning.
Ruth DH | 05 June 2015

As a teacher I can only join you in lamenting the of the reduction of education from a vocation to a "simple career". We need to remember that a good teacher is more than a paper pusher. We need to be given time to engage with quality research, engage with each other and even develop and experiment our own innovative ways of develop children. If a process does not help kids we should ask ourselves why we are doing it!
John | 05 June 2015

Teachers should be accountable for Output (student Knowledge) and autonomy in Input Design (Input Quality) - Article is thought provoking Regards, Dr. A.P. Unde (Ph.D.)
Dr. A.P. Unde from India | 06 June 2015

John Dewey or Melville Dewey?
Russell | 06 June 2015

The dramatic increase in numbers at universities as well as the rapid proliferation of these institutions since the 1960s are probably the main reasons for the corporatisation and commercialisation of the tertiary education industry today. With this industry as it now exists there are no surprises that we institute management tools to "evaluate" learning. In simple situations, such as literacy and numeracy, they may be useful. Attempting to apply them to certain other fields e.g. cutting edge scientific/medical research may be more difficult. I think we need to have a good hard think about what universities are for. It is impossible and probably inequitable to dream of 1930s Oxbridge or even my alma mater Melbourne. However, the idea of a university as a community of scholars, where you learn how to live, as well as think, is an attractive one and I think it is achievable in the contemporary world. It would certainly change the face of Australian tertiary education in a radical way. I think the time for this may have arrived.
Edward Fido | 08 June 2015

Flimsy, saddening and depleteing. The education system has been outsourced to the private sector and is rife with profiteering, opportunism and every self serving aspect of industry. The language of compliance and transparency, accountability to the business model, a la team Australia. For our youth, it is an indoctrination of cowardice and rationalised stupidity, rewarding the most compliant, the dimmest spark. Education it is not. It is middle management controlling the next generation, funneling them into the narrow contracts of digitalisation, grooming silent voices snipped of dissent, argument and imagination, mild mannered ingratiates of models, modules and efficient systems, worshippers of linear process and data charts, hollow blooms drained of nuance and colour, strangled by the language of sloganism and psychometric testing. All the while rationalising a society utterly infiltrated by endless surveillance and marketing. All, of course, very neat and tidy. And oppressive. Disenchanting. Destabilising. Agree or disagree?
A J Stewart | 09 June 2015

It depends on the aims of the exercise. Is it to produce critically thinking, broadly educated and creative citizens? Who are able to think and communicate competently and knowledgeably in their own native language (and hopefully at least one other) across a range of fields? Or is it to produce spare parts for any office or shop floor who will just slot in where they're needed? And who will do this submissively and obediently, never questioning why or whether it's the best way to do whatever their task is? Increasingly, government policy from on high seems to be concerned to produce the latter. As a former English teacher, I along with 95% of my peers, found the increasingly obscurant management and bureaucratic jargon taking over teaching in the last 20 years both distracting from real educational issues and a tool for empire builders, a disproportionate number of whom were poster children for the old adage, "If you can't do, teach". Despite this interference, some of the innovations of recent years have made education better than ever. If you just let the experts at the coal face - the teachers - do what they do best.
Paul | 09 June 2015

Perhaps a symptom as well as a cause of the management theory takeover of education can be seen in the replacement of relationship terms like 'communication' and 'mutual respect' by management terms like 'product' and 'output' (add your own, more up-to-date ones) and the triumph of weasel words in teacher training and educational conferences. This is not a superficial matter – the language of any activity is clearly part of the driving force of that activity.
Barry Breen | 09 June 2015

Great article. Would that the cancer of managerialism were restricted to education, but that is bad enough. When expressions like 'intersections of pools of knowledge and expertise' are expected to convey meaning you know that voodoo has replaced reason in explaining the complexities of organizations. No wonder when accountancy firms, basically quantitative measuring services, replace social sciences as advisers to organizations you know three things. Managers no longer understand what they are managing, that you only need to consider the fuel gauge when driving a vehicle and that sense of community is perilously degraded. TQM and QA may have been well marketed, with the assistance of Bob Hawke, but their main value was in documenting what goes on and staff having a parallel say in what happened. Their greatest success was the massive profits they made for their accreditors and trainers. Saturday June 6th Sydney Morning Herald has an account of medical students falsifying their assignment reports. So some educational institutions look as if they are also failing in their social responsibility of accrediting competent professionals. Or has the Hippocratic oath been replaced by the hypocritic oath?
Michael D. Breen | 09 June 2015

Should never have elevated shop keepers and salesmen and the ways they managed and marketed their money earning to university status. Have to agree with Edward Fido's view regarding the essence of a university.
john frawley | 09 June 2015

I also agree with Edward Fido. Don Watson's book 'Weasel Words' should be mandatory reading at university (for management, teachers and students). When 'consumer' is a word used to describe dying people ... when 'negative patient outcome' is used to explain that a person has died ... I think humans are in a spot of trouble don't you think? Such waffle aims to confuse and mythologise a deeply human experience. In this context, are we 'consumed by death' or a 'consumer of death'? Are carers then 'death servicers' or 'servers of death'? It all serves to undermine any notion of relationship, of community or any sense of shared-responsibility - whether in universities or elsewhere. Surely we can leave a better legacy than this for future generations to flourish.
mary tehan | 09 June 2015

Frankly I endorse any TQM that equips students to leave school with a unshakeable grasp of Catholic doctrine re Faith and Morals as was the case of yore! My old school was an administrative nightmare. The headmaster had no office but conferred with people along the corridor. Our 6th class classroom then was a fibro lean-to against a monastery condemned decades before, but the TQM deficit produced students who knew and practiced their faith and went to confession when they didn't. That strong Catholic QM 'lean to' produced a Federal Parliamentarian; several businessmen of note;fine dads and vocations to religious life and priesthood, etc. The TQM school Junior Legion of Mary's praesidium of 12 y o boys gave us, in situ experience of coal face evangelisation, and charitable outreach.
Father John George | 09 June 2015

As a retired secondary school teacher, with my wife still in the job, none of this surprises me. It was "bums on seats" at one school I taught at .On one occasion we were warned that positions would go if the numbers continued to fall. I am glad I have retired from teaching as there is no way I would go back now. I admire anyone going into the job these days. Gee it's so sad that education of our future has come to this! Education is about learning not management skills.
Gavin O'Brien | 10 June 2015

The toxic effects of neoliberal doctrines have now spread to such sectors as education and health where they don’t belong. The neoliberal’s “education branch” is the Global Education Reform Movement or GERM as prominent Finnish educationist Pasi Sahlberg has dubbed it. Privatisation of schools and promotion of test-based education (of which NAPLAN is an Australian manifestation) are two of its key aims. Another is the imposition of TQM or enhanced performance systems on teachers to supposedly boost productivity. This results in them competing against each other for promotions and bonuses just like in the corporate world. But research shows that it fails to achieve this in both the corporate as well as education sectors. In the latter such systems reduce staff morale, encourages “gaming the system” and discourages the collegial behaviour between teachers that is critical to boosting student performance. Larger classes sizes are also on the GERM agenda. Grooming “top teachers” is apparently preferable to smaller classes. This is despite education research showing that students, especially up to Year Four, do better in smaller than bigger classes. And how would be the best teachers be chosen in a GERM-run school? Often those most adept at spruiking their achievements real and imaginary to their superiors and whose students score the best marks in tests and exams which may have been largely due to drilling and rote-style learning.
Dennis | 11 June 2015

A timely article, David - it should be compulsory reading.
John Kellly | 11 June 2015

I taught social science research method at postgrad level for many years. Time enough to realize that it is an oxymoron, and in any case honored in the breach rather than the observance. In the field of management, the mismatch between the powers of method and the complexity of the research problems was as great or greater than in any other field. Can any fan of management research tell me why the proportion of management staff in our Universities has moved from approx 50% of teaching and research staff to 200% of that in the last 30 years, whereas in high schools, equally affected by new rules and regulation, quality assurance etc the proportion is still well below 50%, even if district and headquarters staff are included.
Inigo | 12 June 2015

The management culture in universities is exemplified by the mutation of Vice-Chancellors from 'chief scholar' to 'CEO'. Now, in addition, some call themselves 'President' whatever that means.
Docrev | 13 June 2015

So true: "Allowing such a flimsy discipline as management to co-opt an area as important as education is as absurd as it is saddening. Education has been with us for thousands of years and encompasses some of the most profound thinking the civilisation has produced. Management thinking has been with us for a few decades and has accomplished next to nothing." But as Russell points out below, John Dewey, who was indeed a philosopher of education rather than a social scientist int he modern sense, is not Melvil Dewey, who invented the Dewey Decimal System.
Michael | 15 June 2015

People are random by nature. Teaching is about people. TQM can't work to eliminate randomness in people, nor should it. David, you're absolutely right. People aren't products, and teaching isn't marketing.
Joan Seymour | 14 August 2015

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