Students for Sale

Toward an Educational Model in Which the Student Is the Customer

Imagine you’re with me in a room full of educators, mostly public school teachers and administrators. We are there to learn how to incorporate principles of entrepreneurship and innovation into a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-based learning environment. Ben, the professional development facilitator, is showing us how to use a business model canvas, a simple diagram used by start-ups to map out their business model.

 “Let’s take a simple example of an innovative firm, like Uber, and break this down a little bit…”

“Can we do something a little more relatable,” one of the attendees chimes in, “like a nonprofit organization or a school?”

We shift gears and map out a typical public school program, defining customers and value propositions. We describe delivery channels and key partners.

Things get more complicated when we try to define cost structures and identify revenue streams.

“You know,” Ben interjects, “we may be looking at this all wrong. Based on this current business model, maybe students and parents are not the actual customers of your services.”

Silence.

He continues, but the sudden weight of the air in the room seems to pull his words to the floor before they reach my peers sitting nearby. The uncomfortable truth he spoke is so repulsive to everyone, as educators, that the very laws of nature seem to resist. There are even a couple of audible gasps as some of the teachers realize that “customer” is really some kind of entrepreneur’s code word for “people whose opinions you should value.”

Here we were, professional educators, having relegated ourselves to a career of self-sacrifice and meager pay for the greater good, and this capitalist had the gall to imply that our mantra of “doing it for the children” was hollow!

I had to suppress any hint of a grin triggered by their reaction so as not to out myself as a capitalist, somehow complicit in dishing out all this cognitive dissonance.

Under the current model, our students aren’t our customers. Bizarrely, they are the products being sold.

But it was true. Under the current model, our students aren’t our customers. Bizarrely, they are the products being sold.

Customer Service

If children and parents aren’t my customers, then who are the customers? This is a difficult question to answer in the world of public education.

First, it isn’t even clear what we mean by “customer.” When it comes to public education, are we more concerned with those who consume the educational services, or are we more concerned with those who bear the cost of those services? Perhaps the taxpayers who finance the public education system and the parents who send their children there to be educated are both being deceived; after all, neither holds the power to make substantial decisions about how these institutions operate or what benefits they or their children receive.

When education becomes a public good, the power to make decisions about the educational opportunities for the majority of students falls directly into the hands of politicians and unelected bureaucrats. While these groups can be responsive to parents with children in the public education system — at least occasionally to a bloc of angry voters — their voices are simply few among many. Even if the policymakers offer more than lip service to the voting public, they have myriad other constituents who all want their voices to be represented in this domain, too — from developers who want to build $70 million football stadiums to the teachers’ associations and unions.

Where’s the Customer: Society, Economy, or Self?

Professor David Labaree uses a three-branch framework to identify these different potential customer segments and their often-contradictory goals for education throughout history. He sorts these voices into those who believe public education should pursue goals of

  • democratic equality (for the good of society),
  • social efficiency (for the good of the economy), or
  • social mobility (for the good of the individual).

A system focused on democratic equality would concern itself with civic education and perhaps encourage students to participate in programs such as We the People or Model UN.

Where social efficiency drives education policy, you would likely find an emphasis on STEM and career and technical education programs.

According to Labaree, a public education system that emphasizes social mobility focuses on the signaling value of the education, not the education itself. You should expect to see an increased enrollment in honors-level classes, International Baccalaureate and AP programs, and specialized magnet schools. This approach to understanding public education represents the demands of three distinct customer segments.

With regard to the first two segments, society and industry, education is not the product being sold or delivered. People are. The argument is that an educated populace benefits society at large, or industry at large. Thus, we ought to deliver an education with these ends in mind, delivering a populace that functions according to demands of political society, or a populace that functions according to the demands of industry. Sometimes proponents of this view speak as though society and industry are so homogeneous and intertwined that they may be identified as a single entity.

The third customer segment, individual students, is sold a particularly nefarious product. They are not sold an education but rather a false image of their future selves. In other words, they are offered the promise that education, in and of itself, will grant them success. All that is required to cash in on this promise is to flash the diploma, degree, or other credential that is supposed to signal that learning has taken place.

Students are not sold an education but rather a false image of their future selves. 

But as I often remind my students, if you are a user, but not a paying customer, then you are actually the product being sold.

What Is Good for the Public?

How did we arrive at a point where education policy is set primarily with social efficiency in mind, and where the only purpose of getting an education is to increase someone’s signaling power?

One possible explanation is that we are attempting to deliver a private good as though it were a public one. When we treat education as a public good, we fall into the trap Labaree has identified, and we are then forced to act as though all participants have the same goals and objectives for their participation. Any first-year economics student can explain how self-interested individuals, when faced with the consumption of a public good, will attempt to maximize their personal benefit while minimizing their personal contribution.

There has to be a better way, one in which students are not mere cogs in a machine or widgets to be delivered at the end of production. Perhaps that new way begins by shifting our understanding of education from the realm of public goods to where it rightfully belongs, in the realm of private goods, recognizing that it also delivers significant positive externalities.

If we treat education as a private good, do we fear that society and industry will be shortchanged? Do we fear that individuals will not have the means or desire to achieve their own educational objectives? Or is our real fear of recognizing education as a private good that the educational objectives of others may not align with our own vision for how society ought to look?

Every day, we count on the forces of the marketplace to feed and clothe us, and to do so with great abundance and variety. There are failures, to be sure. We can and should address them. But the market process does a better job of delivering goods and services than do alternative systems — precisely because it empowers customers to vote with their resources based on their own preferences, and suppliers respond to the feedback.

It’s the Incentives, Stupid

It isn’t sufficient for those of us in public education to shift our perspective and tell ourselves that we need to start viewing our students as customers. Indeed, all that does is perpetuate a comfortable lie. Already, consumers are increasingly voting their way out of the current system through school choice and homeschooling.

My colleagues may not like it, but it is past time for us to become entrepreneurs, reach for a business model canvas, recognize education as a private good, and build a new model: one in which the student is, in fact, the customer.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

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