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December 15, 2016

4 min

Mark Holley

Adopting A Customer Centric Focus In K-12 Education

One of the most entrenched beliefs in K-12 education is that students are assigned where to go to school based on where they live. The zip code lottery as it’s sometimes put. Perhaps it’s so entrenched because it’s been that way for over a hundred years. Or, it could be because when it comes to school districts, students are still assigned their school by where they live.

But today, in 43 states and the District of Columbia students can choose a charter school or their assigned traditional public school. Both choices offer a tuition-free public education. And neither choice is right or wrong for all students. It depends completely on the student. I have two children, and one attends a charter school I co-founded (yes, it’s her choice!), and my other child goes to a traditional public school. Both of my kids are in schools that fit their needs best. The way it should be.

In this new K-12 landscape, school districts and charter schools need to put their focus on the customer. Being customer-centric organizations isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the only way to grow, and maybe even stay in business in what’s becoming a wide open K-12 education marketplace. Here are some ideas to make sure to happens:

School Districts…

Schools, and particularly school districts, should adopt a customer-centric attitude to ensure their schools are competitive in this open market landscape. School districts should no longer assume they have a right to student enrollment because they’ve been around longer, or because it’s the way things were traditionally done.

Districts should focus on the needs of individual students by conducting research and listening to their students and families. They should forget about the notion that students need to be in traditional classrooms with 30 other students, day in and day out. They should:

  • Listen to students and their families. Listening to customers doesn’t mean giving up pedagogical or curricular control or turning things over to amateurs. But parents know what works for their children. Listen to them.
  • This goes with listening, but conduct constant and ongoing research (conjoint analysis surveys are great tools for building programs that families want). School districts have more access to data than the average charter school. Use it.
  • Build online academies to capture enrollment going to home school and charter schools. Embrace online learning because it’s not going away.
  • Develop blended and hybrid attendance options. Your families want it, and if they aren’t asking for it now, they will. Or they’ll eventually end up at a charter school down the street.
  • Consider asynchronous scheduling; the research on this is extensive. Mix things up and match the way teaching is delivered with the way learning actually happens.
  • Look for innovative ways to use space. In the future, there will likely be a much smaller public appetite for expensive bond-financed projects due to online learning, asynchronous schedules, and other modern innovations that deliver personal learning to students wherever they are.
  • Avoid “frankensystems;” that is, focus on software platforms that connect seamlessly with others so that data are integrated and informative.
  • Make sure you’re cross-training support staff, and ensure no single employee is completely responsible for certain aspects of your business operations and service delivery. In addition to being an invitation for fraud, it damages customer service when “Rose” wants a day off and the district’s staff and customers can’t get what they need while she’s away.

…And Charter Schools

Charter schools should do most of the same things, while keeping in mind that there’s a specific reason people chose to send their children there. With the growth of charter schools, some charter management organizations (CMOs) have grown larger than medium sized school districts. While this is surely good for economies of scale and for generating additional market security that comes with size, I’m not sure it’s the intent of charter law in most states. When charter schools get too big, aren’t they just school districts by another name?

This doesn’t necessarily mean charter schools shouldn’t grow – after all, if they’re successful at what they do, the market will reward them. But, remaining customer-centric, and true to their mission of providing school choice for families, should always be top of mind.

  • Listen to families and students, as stated above, and don’t lose sight of the fact your customers chose your school; they weren’t assigned there.
  • Conduct research, as stated above. Then conduct more, and use it to inform your decisions. Being small or medium in size doesn’t mean you have to wing it.
  • Focus on quality growth, rather than scale alone. Don’t be so quick to consolidate with other charter schools (which happens extensively) because it can destroy your school, brand, mission, and autonomy, which hurts families.
  • Use nimbleness to your advantage. School districts have many advantages over charter schools (especially financial resources), but they aren’t generally very nimble. Test new programs and initiatives and promote a culture of innovation. Change up the routine and try new things. Fail fast, fix faster, and move on. Just make sure you measure everything, so you can have a baseline to compare against.
  • Embrace uncertainty, but communicate with parents and students consistently.
  • Charters should also avoid “frankensystems;” resist the urge to add more layers of complexity and ensure staff is trained extensively on systems. It’s hard to do that when systems don’t interface with each other.

School districts and charter schools are operating during exciting but dynamic, almost volatile times. School choice is a rallying cry for charter schools and a swear word to school districts. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Both charters and districts are in great positions to meet the needs of current and future generations of students by building cultures of customer centricity in our schools.


Originally published at www.k12cbo.com on December 14, 2016.


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