Over the past decade or so, corporations or corporate cultures have become increasingly involved in nonprofit entities, such as public education.
There is a belief corporations must know something—they make money, while nonprofits, by definition, do not. They’re efficient in the sense of maximizing profits and minimizing expenses. However, as we’ve seen over the past couple of decades, corporations also waste money, steal money, and base their efficiency, often, on not serving well those they were established to serve. A number of elements are embedded in the “culture” of a corporate bureaucracy that educational institutions, in a rush to prove themselves cost-effective and “worthy,” are adopting that are in general detrimental to, not supportive of, the educational process.
6 Signs to Distinguish between Education and Bureaucracy
Student as “Client” or “Customer”
I have at least on one occasion seen a corporate type slip at a seminar/workshop and refer to students as “customers.” He immediately caught himself with “Of course I mean students, and as I was saying…” but the slip is revealing of an attitude that the student is a customer who has paid for a service that educators are to provide. In one sense this is true, in that students pay for tuition or tax money and should expect a return, but this is also a gross mischaracterization of the relationship. Traditionally, “the customer is also right,” which simply can’t be the case in a student-educator relationship. Most often, by the nature of being a student within a discipline, the student will actually be wrong in matters of curriculum and grading. There is also the interference in the relationship of teacher-student which is near sacrosanct, historically, should not be muddied with money/business issues, and can’t be replicated in a “service-provider/client” relationship.
Renaming Something Essentially Changes It
Another tell-tale sign of corporate culture is the tendency to believe that renaming something changes it on some basic level. We see this in everyday life with “new and improved products,” generally just a repackaging of the old product. In education we see one set of national standards replaced with another which seems a mere renaming of a set of learning objectives tied to testing, with some minor tweaking. At the college level, ever five to ten years we make clean sweeps of our departments, renumbering, renaming courses, revamping and moving curriculum objectives around, and so forth. At the end, the change looks very similar to what we had before with some new names and numbers. To affect real change, you need to do something more than rename old concepts and move paperwork and numbers around.
Development of Specific Culture and Jargon
After some time away, I recently returned to the community college classroom and found that teachers were now responsible for SLOs and CLOs. And what, pray tell, are those? Student Learning Objectives and Course Learning Objectives. Oh, okay. Course objectives and goals, yes. Socrates must have had some learning objective in mind before launching into a Socratic Discussion (another new and improved strategy!)
Generation of Unnecessary Paperwork
Every year throughout levels of education, we get very concerned about students not learning, or not learning enough, not succeeding and passing classes, and not graduating. These are indeed grave concerns. How do we address those concerns? Do we buy new books, give scholarships to underprivileged students, devote more instructional time to classes? No, we generate more paperwork, cataloguing numbers of failing and passing students, for example—redundant paperwork, as the registrar already has this information.
Another major feature of a corporate culture is the proliferation of meetings that are costly in time as well as money—people must leave their duties, sometimes have to be paid to attend, refreshments must be served, and so forth. Often these meetings are called simply to pass on some information to the ranks—who are often not able to ask questions or make comments. A better forum would seem to be email, which costs little in time, money, or effort with perhaps a better result in passing on information.
Perhaps the most tell-tale sign of a corporate culture is its top-heavy nature: the proliferation of those in management/administrative positions. Top-heaviness in corporations results from and causes a number concerns. The first is that those who advance in a bureaucracy do so by serving the bureaucracy, not those the it was originally set up to serve. Bureaucracies form a culture in and of themselves and are insular, rewarding anyone who is loyal for a long enough time with career advancement, despite the lack of necessary skill or position to fill. This top-heaviness has a number of effects. A major one is the distance from “client” by those in authority, more responsibility and work thrown on those lowest in rank, with finally those with the least power having the most responsibility. Drawing from an example from outside of education, I recently had to, in the course of settling a late relative’s estate, visit the IRS, the Internal Revenue Service or Tax Bureau in the United States. Most Americans have a healthy respect or fear of this organization which wields power to seize assets and send you to jail if taxes are not filed properly. The person I met with over the estate taxes was a young administrative assistant, not out of her twenties, with limited understanding of taxes beyond the routine—she was not a trained accountant. She had no skill in tax accounting, just the worst job in the world—to stand at a counter and be screamed at by panicked Americans, the human shield of those in real power in the offices behind her. We are seeing the same thing in education—teachers and administrative assistants are the front lines addressing problems they have little power to control.
3 Ways to Address Corporate Culture in Education
A major time-tested way to address a problem is to ignore it. And while this doesn’t make the problem go away, necessarily, it can make those who are causing the problem go away or leave you alone as they are not getting reinforcement. Many successful teachers do adopt this policy of “closing the classroom door” and doing what they, as professionals, know is best for their students.
To succeed within the new environment, at least some of the culture must be learned to assimilate and survive/stay employed. Use the new jargon. Fill out the forms. Show up at the meetings when necessary. Try to smile when people are looking.
Perhaps the best way to deal with corporate culture is to do what teachers do—educate. Talk to students and community members, those being served, who will listen about what best advances education and serves students. None, I will bet, will say “More paperwork, meetings, and jargon.” They are likely to mention books that they can understand, classrooms they can feel safe in and that are not overcrowded, teachers who have time and ability to communicate with them. Although corporate culture invading education creates a number of problems, reminders, frequently, from enough sources, to our leaders of what really advances education may someday then get through.