Why a School Doesn't Run — or Change — Like a Business

Fall 2015

By Robert Evans

Editor’s Note: This article is an updated version of one that first appeared in Independent School (Spring, 2000).

Fifteen years ago in these pages, I explored an issue of rising concern to independent school heads: pressure from a growing number of trustees to run their schools much more like companies — to be, as one head put it, “more hard-nosed, less soft-hearted.” Years of consulting in schools and corporations had taught me that nonprofit schools and for-profit businesses differ hugely. I had seen firsthand that most business-based management approaches were unsuited to schools and that applying them was not just ineffective but often counterproductive. Indeed, companies-as-models-for-schools constituted what I had come to think of as the corporate fallacy. So I wrote “Why a School Doesn’t Run — or Change — Like a Business.”1 I hoped to help trustees appreciate the unique cultures of schools, adjust their expectations for performance, and thus govern more effectively. I even hoped I might disempower the then-budding corporatization movement in education. I was naïve.

Fifteen years later, the dilemma I described has only deepened. Business-style assumptions now prevail throughout American education and have acquired growing momentum in independent schools; heads and administrators simply can’t ignore them. Yet schools remain decidedly uncorporate on virtually every dimension of their functioning; trustees’ efforts to strengthen their schools’ still cannot succeed if they ignore this reality. It seems appropriate, therefore, to revisit the dilemma.


The trend toward corporatizing education has been most visible in public schools, which have been subjected to an ever-increasing list of numerical performance targets (standardized testing), the public ranking of schools and teachers, the takeover and closure of “failing” schools, and attacks by wealthy entrepreneurs who advocate market-based reforms, the disempowering of teacher unions, and so on. These measures have, at best, yielded minimal improvement in student outcomes and have sparked a backlash that appears to be gaining strength. Even so, pressure to corporatize has accelerated in independent schools, too. Trustees across the country — and the K–12 spectrum — now want their schools to innovate aggressively, adopt measurable improvement targets (in SAT and ACT scores, admissions yields, and graduates’ acceptances onward), “incentivize” faculty performance through merit pay, and implement rigorous appraisal systems, including prompt dismissal of weaker teachers. At board meetings, corporate terminology — “dashboards,” “metrics,” “benchmarks,” “deliverables,” and so on — abounds.

This emphasis is neither ill-meant nor irrelevant. Why wouldn’t board members bring to their stewardship the data-driven approaches and the assumptions about motivating performance that prevail in their companies? Indeed, many see this as precisely what’s needed, given the new market challenges facing independent schools. The 2008 financial meltdown did broad and deep damage to enrollments and endowments. Many schools have not fully recovered; some fear that they may not. Many others have rebounded but are uneasy about the future. This vulnerability has intensified many board members’ focus on their school’s value proposition. They want hard evidence that the school compares well to its competitors, is on the cutting edge, and is ready to take the necessary steps to strengthen its position — including the prompt shedding of low-performing teachers.

In an uncertain market climate what could be more natural?

Realities of Schooling

Natural it may be, but the evidence remains that corporate assumptions still fit education badly. Independent schools continue to share much more in common with religious institutions, villages, and families than with corporations in four key areas: mission, operations, outcomes, and personnel.


Education has always been a backward-looking enterprise. Given America’s obsession with innovation, already widespread in 2000 and now ubiquitous, this may seem a flaw, but it is intrinsic to schooling. A school’s mission is to prepare children for the future by teaching them skills, knowledge, and values, which it can only do by drawing on the past — that is, by teaching them what we know now. Much of the curriculum is fixed or slow-changing (fractions, the meanings of Hamlet, the causes of the American Revolution), and many schools emphasize their commitment to enduring truths and established traditions. Education is a conservator’s work. Good teaching is always creative, but not perpetually innovative, and while it benefits from regular refreshers and occasional overhauls, it doesn’t demand the kind of continuous updating that, say, law or medicine or high technology does. Continuity is a core value in school life.


Given its mission, a school must be sufficiently businesslike to survive, but it is no more about profit than a village or a family. It serves, but is no more a “service organization” than a church or a synagogue. Because their tasks are to teach skills and build character and citizenship, teachers’ daily work — instructing, advising, counseling, coaching — is most akin to that of pastors and parents. This means that a school’s norms of behavior are closest to those of a religious institution, a family, or a village (nurture, caring, honesty, fairness, respect for others, and the like).


A school’s “product” is never clear-cut. Our national fixation with accountability and high-stakes testing (I called it a “frenzy” 15 years ago, imagining — wrongly — that it was peaking) rests, at heart, on a simplistic, misapplied factory model of education: raw resources enter, workers make inputs, outputs emerge; the inputs are responsible for the outputs. But a school’s “value added” is extremely hard to measure. There is abundant evidence that nonschool factors (socioeconomic status, level of parents’ education, family stability, and the like) exert a much larger impact on most children’s achievement than do school inputs.2 Moreover, teaching is rarely the consistent delivery of a defined “input.” Every lesson depends on a complex set of interactional variables. When I taught three sections of the same English course, the success of the lesson varied from section to section, day to day, depending on who was absent, who had just fallen in love, how many had mastered the homework, and so on.


Of all the special features of schooling, the most important is its people. Education attracts those with both a strong service ethic and a strong security orientation, people who trade salary for mission and stability, not entrepreneurs with a thirst for risk and competition. They want to be well paid, but money doesn’t drive their careers the way it does those of corporate managers. Like the clergy, they don’t expect to grow wealthy. Indeed, I tease them that they almost chose the convent or monastery and a life of complete sacrificial devotion, but couldn’t face taking a vow of chastity, and so opted instead for the second most sacrificial vocation — teaching — and ended up with the rest of the vows: the poverty, the obedience, and the gift for guilt at the mere hint that they have disappointed someone.3

Teachers resemble clergy in another respect: They tend to be less worldly than corporate professionals. Boards often find them naïve about money and overly sensitive to criticism — this has been especially true in schools that have had to make hard budget cuts. But we hire teachers to be experts about classrooms, not finance. And in schools, unlike corporate and other professional settings, conflict avoidance is a way of life. Teachers are, after all, people who thrive in the company of children and adolescents and who try to accentuate the positive. (Would we want our children taught by people who didn’t?)

Though not high-flying risk-takers, teachers do share one thing in common with entrepreneurs: a love of autonomy. For most, their occupation has permitted them maximal freedom and minimal supervision. Independent schools have typically given teachers great latitude in what they teach and how they teach it. Teachers cherish this freedom and tend to see themselves — and to behave — as self-directed artisans in their separate studios. This outlook can seem antiquated and shortsighted to those who seek definitive, structured student outcomes, but there is a real-life logic to it because, as noted above, teachers’ work is so interactive and requires so much improvisation.

Three Disconnects

These realities weren’t new 15 years ago, or 100 years ago. They are fundamental to schooling. They create three sharp disconnects between common corporate assumptions and the culture of schools: Teachers aren’t motivated by money; heads have comparatively little clout; and change is slow.


In much (though certainly not all) of the corporate world, assumptions about fostering performance still emphasize extrinsic rewards, a carrot-and-stick approach with money as the key carrot. Unfortunately, this kind of carrot is alien to the educator diet. Teachers respond badly to competitive monetary incentives, especially merit pay. Most would welcome higher salaries, but they don’t want pay-for-performance schemes. Merit pay, when it means having employees compete to out-earn one another, may be routine in the corporate world, but its track record in education is abysmal. As a substantial literature attests, it almost never improves student outcomes, and it often damages morale and collegiality. Given its persistent futility, its tenacity is puzzling. It is, as Diane Ravitch says, “the idea that never works and never dies.”4

What teachers do respond to enthusiastically are intrinsic motivators, chief among them confirmation that their work is important, the opportunity to exercise their judgment and skills, and an environment high on connection, professional support, and opportunities to learn and grow. In this they are hardly alone. In fact, research in the business sector has long shown that these same rewards are more effective than money and other extrinsic carrots in motivating effort and achievement.5


Many trustees don’t realize that independent school heads have much less power than their corporate counterparts. The strong emphasis on teachers’ individual autonomy, noted above, is one cause. And although most heads don’t have to contend with a unionized faculty, their leverage is nonetheless weaker than most corporate managers’ even when it comes to dealing with marginal performers. Procedurally, it can take a long time and a large legal expense to dismiss a teacher. But even when this is not true, schools are simply not places where an employee is called in, dismissed, relieved of her keys and computer, and escorted from the campus. As a practical matter, terminating a teacher abruptly during the school year is often nearly impossible. Even if a replacement can be found, the dismissal causes consternation among colleagues, students, and parents. Teachers’ security orientation and the very personal nature of their work, along with other factors, mean that a dismissal of a teacher can send shock waves through a faculty, as though a relative were being exiled from the family. At least in the short run, it damages morale and raises anxiety and fear, even among the most talented teachers.


The characteristics outlined above make schools inherently conservative organizations and guarantee that they will be hard to change, that they will adapt at a much slower pace than most companies and for good reasons. Imagine trying to innovate in your family or your place of worship; doing so in a school is only slightly less difficult. Schools do change, of course, but far more slowly and incrementally than most corporations. In reality, it would be awful if this weren’t so, if schools were easily malleable rather than agencies of continuity. The content, processes, and traditions of schooling link the generations of our society. They give shape and meaning not just to our children’s lives but to our own.

Making Change

The inherent conditions of schooling militate against standard corporate approaches to governance and leadership, but they don’t mean that boards and heads must simply accept the status quo, especially if this would deprive the school of key opportunities or expose it to risk. Rather, they mean that a school’s stewards and leaders must seek change in ways that emphasize clarity, focus, and meaning.6


When a board is convinced that change is necessary, the first step is to work with the head to make the case for improvement. Innovation often falters because trustees and administrators fail to grasp how an initiative comes across to teachers — what it means to them. For any major change, teachers must be clear about three essential points — why, what, and how: why they (or the school) can’t continue a current practice; what new practice must be adopted; and how they will be helped to accomplish this. This means candidly acknowledging aspects of the change that cause loss and allowing people time to grieve and time to make the change their own. It also means a sustained effort to ensure that the change is “user-friendly,” that teachers’ questions and concerns are addressed, and their suggestions solicited and considered.

It also means being clear about what’s negotiable and what isn’t. Many heads, having spent their lives in schools, have become fully acculturated to the conflict avoidance endemic among educators and are reluctant to apply pressure to unwilling teachers. But they cannot hope to accomplish significant innovation by waiting until they have convinced the entire faculty of its necessity. Even if they can’t fire and hire like CEOs, they have the power to set limits, to say, in essence, “It’s crucial to our future that we stop X and start Y. We can talk together about how to do this, but not about whether.” This kind of assertiveness can be uncomfortable and cause difficult moments, but almost all of us would rather work for someone we disagree with but who is clear and predictable than for someone we seem to agree with, but who isn’t clear and predictable. This kind of clarity ultimately makes it easier for the leader to be followed.


In schools, “change” too often means “addition,” not “replacement.” Because we have a national consensus that schools must innovate, but not about how, schools are at the mercy of all sorts of proposals, many promising (but by no means all) and none simple. Over the past 25 years almost every major idea for improving teaching and learning has increased the complexity of adult life in schools. Many schools’ improvement plans are overloaded, involving simultaneous projects in curriculum, instruction, technology, assessment, diversity, and so on. And most plans require most teachers to be engaged in most of these initiatives simultaneously (whereas corporations frequently form project teams that each concentrate on one aspect of an innovation). Because change is so inimical to schools, it is vital to concentrate on a very few key priorities. Ideally, each faculty member would be engaged in one major change at a time and a whole school would be pursuing no more than three. The paradox here is that a school can accomplish more change by tackling an achievable agenda than by over-trying.


How any of us react to any change of any kind depends chiefly on what it means to us. Not what it means to its authors and planners but to those who must carry it out. Planned change is always pressed in the name of progress, but its early impact is almost always to cause loss because it upsets the patterns, practices, relationships, and assumptions by which we have lived and which have made our lives meaningful. This is true of big changes and small ones — not just of implementing a new curriculum, but of changing the daily schedule. And while workers in all settings experience change as loss, this is especially true in education, where continuity is so important.

Here we come to another paradox: Helping faculty find meaning in change depends in good part on preserving continuity, which, as we have seen, is so vital in school life. Three steps are helpful here. First, wherever possible, change must be linked to the enduring values that have bound people together and that lie at the heart of the school, not simply sold as the latest new idea. Second, everyone needs to know what won’t change, what they can count on to remain in place. Third, people need to be reminded of their strengths and helped to maximize their “old” competence as they struggle to master new tasks, roles, and behaviors. Making change meaningful in these ways helps to sustain morale and generate commitment.

Working with educators and trustees as they have struggled with issues of change has left me with a tremendous respect for the realities of school life. Schools are simply less suited to innovation than most organizations, and they adapt more slowly. We may wish they were different, but they have good reason to be as they are. The “business” they are in, the raising of the young, is not just traditional in the very best sense of that word. We can best help them fulfill this mission in new ways by meeting them on their own terms, tempering our expectations, concentrating their efforts, and celebrating their strengths.

Robert Evans

Robert Evans is a contributor to Independent School Magazine.