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Fast Foodifying Education

By the end of the 1940s the McDonald brothers had grown dissatisfied with the drive-in business. They were tired of constantly looking for carhops and short-order cooks-- who were in great demand-- as the old ones left for higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

                                                                   --Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation)


One of the biggest problems with running a restaurant is the cook. The cook (or if we're getting fancy, the chef) is a trained professional with a unique skill set. The cook can be expensive to pay and hard to manage because the cook can always get a new job, but it's a challenge for the restaurant to find a new cook.

What's an investor in the food industry to do?

We know the answer. We know what they did. The growth of fast food allowed investors to control costs and make big money. If we were going to apply those ideas to the education biz, what would we need to do?

If we want to control costs, we start with the teacher, who is the cook of the education world. Folks from the business world are sometimes stunned, even appalled by how much of a school budget is devoted to personnel. How do we get payroll costs down?

If we want to get those costs down, we can do it much the same way the McDonald brothers did-- turn the cook's job into simple menial work that anybody can do with minimal training. The lower the job requirements, the larger the labor pool; and the larger the labor pool, the lower the pay. Sell the idea of lightly trained (five weeks ought to do it) job-fillers who will only stay a few years. Restructure pay scales to encourage regular turnover and few lifers (no pension costs).

Replace a trained and experienced labor force with one that requires little training or experience. Reap the savings from payroll cuts.

If we are hiring that kind of workforce, then we need standardized employee support. Untrained, inexperienced workers can't be expected to deliver the product themselves, so they must have instructions that are simple, complete and direct. If institutional contiunity can't come from the staff, then it must come from the programs that the staff (whoever they are this year) implement. Everyone must do her job pretty much the same way.

If we are delivering a standardized program through our content delivery specialists, then we can only deliver the kind of service that such programming will support. McDonald's does not cook steaks to order or seafood alfredo because that is not what their kitchens are set up to do. The search for new fast food products must center around the question, "What can we make with the equipment we already have?" So a standardized education program will focus on what it can most easily deliver, not what would be the best program to deliver. It is far easier, and more economical, to deliver mediocrity consistently.

If we are going to produce programs with those sorts of limits, we need to make sure that our measures of quality are based on what we actually do and not what we might aspire to do or what other edugourmands might think we should do.

Quality control in a fast food place centers on consistency and how well the workers have followed the rules, as well as their speed. Efficiency is really a measure of how well a worker achieves total compliance with the system. So our measures in such a school system are looking not for student excellence, but how well students comply with the program, which in turn can be used to measure how well teachers helped the student comply with the program.

If we have a system that works smoothly and efficiently, there's no reason that it can't be used to process greater units. When we're not carefully crafting individualized meals one by one, we can crank out many, many more. Why put just twenty-five students in a classroom when we can pack in fifty or 100 or 200?

We can, to mollify folks, pretend to offer individualization, in the same way certain burger outlets let you "have it your way"-- as long as "your way" is chosen from our limited pre-determined choice offerings.

If we are going to create these kinds of scaleable programs, then we should be able to franchise them. In fact, franchising is far easier than conversion. After all-- is it easier to convince a functioning three star restaurant to turn to fast food production, or to simply open up a new fast food palace to compete with them instead? So leave the old schools where they are, and set up new competitors for them.

If we are going to compete against the old businesses with their highly trained and expert personnel, it will help if we can redefine success for everyone. If we can get government officials to adopt our measures and use them to publicly declare our old-school competitors failures, so much the better for our business model. Even the McDonald brothers never thought to have the government force their competitors out of business, so we could say that ambitious charter operators have improved on the original model.

If we are going to establish a large chain of standardized outlets, we can become a major market for suppliers. They make huge profits from us, and we get great deals from them. We are going to be the best of friends.

If we get manage to get a stranglehold on the market, we'll be able to change the rules of the game. Those of us who are old enough remember when, for instance, the beef patties in a fast food burger were as big as the buns, instead of hiding quietly inside. When you're dealing with economies of scale, a little cut here and a little snip there add up to big savings. Cutting art or music or phys ed by a few percent every year will add up to big bucks for corporate operators.

Well, that's a big list of if's. That's what I imagine we would do if we wanted to take education down the same path that the fast food industry walked. Nobody has noticed anything like that actually happening, have they?


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