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The business of K12

3 min read


Imagine there is a talent war going on. In an exciting growth industry, the market has recognized that variations in an individual’s combination of natural talent, quality of training and effort are leading to substantial differences in final product. The gap is growing between the output of the very best and the rest, and competitive firms have responded with higher salaries, better perks and a more flexible work-life balance. Now imagine that the industry I’m talking about isn’t high tech, nor the Mad Men advertising world, but K12 education.

It sounds farfetched. But why? My message is simple: we need to start thinking of education as a Business. I understand the reluctance of many within the profession to think of education in this way. After all, it is an inescapable truth that children are not widgets. The learning process varies as much as people vary, and education can (and should) never resemble an assembly line. But that 19th-century analogy focuses exclusively on output. On the input side, it has long been clear that while there are lots of wonderful, competent, talented teachers, there are some who are Rock Stars, born to dazzle. The kind of teacher who speaks so passionately she makes a grown man wish he could go back to retake seventh-grade English with this master practitioner at the helm. That’s who I’m talking about.

It’s no secret within technology industries that a star programmer out-produces several merely good ones. Tech firms are consequently in a constant battle to woo the best. The same ought to be true in education. This is not a knock on “good” teachers. There is no shame in being good at something you’ve worked hard at. One of the reasons to recruit star talent is that they teach, train, mentor and lift the ranks around them. Perhaps a sports analogy works better here: we can’t all be ace hitters — a team needs pitchers, catchers, short stops and a bench of talent in each role. Having one or two stars on a team helps everyone, but you still need a team.

Another major and rarely-discussed problem arising from the treatment of teaching as a vocation is the effect it has on leadership. If we accept that the best teachers should be motivated just by their love of teaching, the logical consequence is that those in leadership positions will end up there just because they were the ones who raised a hand and decided to be in charge.

In business, this style of leadership selection would lead to a disastrous loss of market share. Healthy firms pay attention to succession planning, and create systems of professional development and one-on-one mentorship to identify and groom future talent. No system is perfect, but the effort must be deliberate if it is to ensure the passage of institutional knowledge from one generation of leaders to the next.

What do you call a system where modest variation in the talent of producers creates large variation in the competitive success of a finished product? Where leadership selection needs to be purposeful and tailored to specific needs of the institution? That sounds like a business to me.

Joseph Riddle launched SmartBrief’s education business more than 10 years ago, and he now manages the combined education and workforce group. He claims to have the Best Job in Education because he gets to interact daily with the brightest minds in the field: including teachers, trainers, vendors, and policy experts. Follow him on Twitter @joseph_riddle.