Students as Customers
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
In the last few weeks, I have read a few articles and had some conversations where students were referred to as products. These were talented and dedicated educators making these statements, and I understand their intent. The idea is that our work as educators is to produce strong learners- that we should hold ourselves responsible for creating an end-product of student success.
The problem with this idea is that it devalues the power of the learner in education. We want to design systems, experiences, and environments that empower and support the learner in their journey- but they have the power. This is why shifts that focus on facilitation and engagement over content coverage are so important- we can’t pour learning into our students’ heads- they need to experience it.
These recent conversations have reminded me of a blog post I wrote over three years ago. I have decided to re-post it. I argue that we should treat students like customers instead of products- that we seek to serve them in their learning journey.
Something I think that is missing in the original post is that when we treat students as customers- we can reach out to them and meet their individual needs. We don't try to create everyone in the same mold, but we seek to understand what each customer needs and how we can serve them. I would love to hear thoughts and feedback on these ideas.
Business and education organizations share a lot in common. Consequently, over the years, research and literature on business organizations and leadership often spill over into the education sector and there have been many efforts to bring business principles into education. These have often met resistance with many educators (including myself ) claiming that the educational system cannot be compared to business because it is an apples to oranges comparison. A closer examination of these comparisons reveals that there is a correct business context for the educational system, but for too many years the system has put students in the wrong contexts.
The wrong contexts
Students as products
This is probably the oldest business perspective of a student. The educational organization’s job in this context is not to produce widgets, but to produce workers or citizens. Certainly, this was the thought of the industrial age which is when our current system of education was developed. Schools were creating workers to fill the need for the large assembly lines of the manufacturing plants. Schools were designed to introduce workers to time tables, obedience, and productivity. As the nature of the American workforce has changed, the educational system has been slow to catch up. The industrial system still dominates the K-12 landscape.
The focus of educational reform has generally been to change the product: instead of industrial workers the reform movement has sought to create college-ready students. Others have looked at creating responsible citizens. Either way, while the idea of what kind of product school systems are creating has changed, the focus on the student as a product is still largely intact. This idea is problematic because the student is not seen as an actor in the scenario, but a product of the system. It does not value the student in the process to create the outcome.
Students as capital
When NCLB was passed in 2002, one idea was to bring business accountability to public education. Businesses are responsible for bottom lines, so why can’t educators function under that same accountability? When we talk about bottom lines in business, we are talking about capital. So, the transfer to education created a testing system that spit out reports similar to a financial statement. Students met or did not meet standards on standardized tests. Teachers were seen as sort of a sales team- “If we don’t hit our numbers, then we got to go out there and teach harder.” In this context, student performance was capital. We looked at numbers and we acted accordingly. We thought about how we could get our numbers up, or how we could get more students to perform at an acceptable level.
In theory, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Who doesn’t want educators to raise student performance? But there are a few issues with this focus. One is that the outcome, the test score, begins to take the focus over the process of learning. Teaching to the test and even test fraud were byproducts of this shift. The accountability system also led to actual academic growth in plenty of schools. However, the idea of viewing students as capital was damaging to student motivation and to the student- teacher relationships. Teachers saw the students as numbers or outcomes, not as agents. Just as the idea of the student as a product, this context does not honor the student as an active participant in the outcome. The student as capital sees student performance only as a result of the educators’ efforts.
The right context
Students as customers
When we treat students as customers, we create a process that values them and their desired outcomes. They become the actors in their education and our job as educators is to deliver the best possible educational experience. In this context, we treat the student with great respect, seeking their feedback on the experience they are receiving. We not only gauge performance, but also engagement and excitement. This context empowers the student and puts their motivation at the forefront. Too often in education motivation and engagement are overlooked event though they are the first steps in learning.
Higher education has started to slowly embrace this context, partially because they have to treat students as customers in order to maintain enrollment. In K-12 public education, the school choice movement and other ideas have also attempted to move to this context. It is time that all educational systems recognize that the student is the customer. Just because we work in a compulsory system that generally requires students to attend school based on geographical location doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see education as a service industry. When we treat students as customers, we put them and their interests first. We also put ourselves in learning mode. As Bill Gates said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” It is an attitude that values all of those we serve.