“Welcome to McDonalds. Can I have your order please,” my cooperating teacher used to ask facetiously, back when I student taught in 1998, as we discussed parents who seemed to make endless demands. But the analogy isn’t fully apt. Public schools aren’t really like McDonalds. They’re more like Costco.
Like Costco (and unlike McDonalds), public schools excel at providing decent or even high-quality items at the most affordable prices. As with public schools, some products are better quality than others, and some prices are more competitive than others. But overall, Costco provides one of the best ratios of quality to cost. Like Costco, public schools might have some “products” (i.e. classes) that have higher cost-benefit, and some that have lower. But like Costco, public schools offer some amazing deals for people who know where to look. For example, through our local public high school in our small-ish town, students can learn to play keyboard or guitar, be in a band, choir or orchestra, put on plays and go to a state theater conference, learn improv, learn drawing, ceramics, or jewelry-making, learn carpentry and welding skills (and even build a children’s playhouse that gets auctioned off each year), learn about agriculture with FFA, about business with DECA, be on an aerospace design team, and of course compete in a variety of sports. Academically, they can take classes to help them improve their study skills and college readiness, can take courses that help them earn college credit, or can access services to help them if they have special learning needs. Almost all of the teachers are in the good-to-excellent range. Some are among the best in their fields. As with Costco, these are tremendous deals, costing students and their families nothing except taxes and perhaps a nominal activity fee.
Both Costco and public schools provide good products at competitive prices by dealing in bulk. Costco offers the best cost at the best value, but often by providing fewer choices. This saves costs in terms of stocking and inventory, and it helps Costco make deals with suppliers. It can go to Sony and tell them that they think they can sell 20,000 laptops if Sony would allow them to sell them at a slightly lower price. As a result, people shopping for laptops at Costco might get a more limited selection of laptops, but the products will be at some of the most competitive prices. To sell such large numbers, Costco has to stock the kind of laptop that would be a good option for the largest number of consumers. Most people, who want a good laptop they can use for basic functions, will be satisfied with the laptops they can find at Costco. But people who have more specific needs might find Costco’s options too limited. Hard-core gamers who want exceptionally fast processing and exceptionally high resolution may need to go to a more specialized store that provides those kinds of computers — and they will almost certainly need to pay more. The same goes for people who do more specialized and demanding work such as professional film or photo editing. Also, people who need more than the forms of accessibility thanare standard on most laptops, such as voice recognition, specialized screenreaders, or a specialized mouse or keyboard, might not find what they need at Costco. Costco cannot offer these specialized products to niche markets and keep their offerings affordable.
Costco also keeps its costs competitive by maintaining a “no frills” shopping experience. The stores are in warehouses that aren’t meant to be aesthetic. They provide wonderful and responsive customer service at the help desk — for those who wait in line. But they have fewer people on the floor asking “can I help you?” or “did you find what you’re looking for?” Shoppers generally need to either be self-directed or proactively seek out help. A person shopping for laptops will be happy if they want an affordable but high-quality laptop that they select from one of the five choices and set up themselves. But those who expect to have a sales associate spend a lot of time explaining the specs and helping them find the best option for their personal needs, or who wants white glove service where someone installs specialized software and sets up the computer in their home, will feel like Costco isn’t providing what they need. Again, those services are available at more specialized stores, and they will cost more.
As with Costco, public schools provide a potentially high-quality educational experience at an optimized price by working in bulk. Schools batch-process by providing content to groups of 22–35 students (depending on the students’ age and the school). The content is also fairly standard and uniform, although in many public schools, teachers have some leeway to adapt the content and form of instruction to match the needs of their students. Public schools provide personalized services, particularly for students with specific learning needs, but individualization of curriculum and instruction is still somewhat limited. Just like a person shopping at Costco for a highly specialized product or expecting highly personalized service might leave Costco disappointed, a student (or parents) approaching a classroom experience with an expectation of a curriculum individually-tailored to their needs or desiring constant personal attention might feel disappointed with their experience. “I pay taxes” these parents often say, perhaps not realizing that, in order to keep taxes low and expenses to families free, they are paying for their child to have one seat in a classroom that seats 30 students — nothing more, nothing less.
This is the conundrum people who work in public schools currently face: they work in an environment that is designed to provide a Costco experience, but with consumers who increasingly expect specialized products and personalized services — without an increase in cost. This is not economical — increased specialization and personalization costs more, and cannot be provided to people who are not willing to pay more for it. Asking for that of a public school is the equivalent of shopping at Costco, but expecting a boutique experience with full concierge service.