Calling Parents The Customers Of Our Schools A Misleading Mistake

In doing some research for my book, I've come across some suggestions that parents should be seen as the "customers" of our schools. Since I work with private sector, government staff, and educational staff to help them deal with difficult "users" of their services, I find this trend misleading. There's is something quite uinique about the relationship between parents and educational staff, that can't be captured by calling them customers. Partners working together for children, yes. Customers, no.

It's understandable that people might think that parents, who are often but not always tax-payers who pay for the educational system should be placed front and center in schools. But they are not customers in the sense that people who buy from Walmart are customers. Here's some differences.

  • Customers in the true sense, have no obligation, moral or otherwise to the companies and businesses they patronize other than those specified in law. Customers may work with a company, but usually only for their own benefit, not the company's benefit, whereas parents must be active participants and contributors to the welfare of their children. They have both moral and practical obligations, and without those obligations carried out, the whole enterprise of educating a child fails.
  • The sole value of a Walmart customer comes down to his or her ability to contribute to Walmart's bottom line, at least from the company's perspective. That's quite different from situations in education, where the value is not a result of a "money transaction", but the result of parents working WITH the schools for the benefit of the kids.
  • Companies have some limited need to please their customers, so they will return, and spend more money, and while schools have an obligation to make parents feel invited and valued, it's not for the purpose of making money. That changes the relationship. Neither organization or "customer" holds the reins in the relationships necessary for successful schooling.

It's Not Just Semantics

Well, who cares? Isn't it just words? No, not really. The words we use affect our thinking, and how we form relationships. There are all to many parents who believe that because they pay teachers' salaries, they have the right, as do many customers, to make demands on teachers that can be both unreasonable, and tend to slough off responsibility for education on those teachers. Far too many parents think of themselves like customers, when, in fact, they are not.

Thinking About Partnerships Instead

Obviously, I'm convinced that one of the key elements in successful education of children is establishing partnerships between home and school. That means the relationship needs to start, from square one, as a more equal one than occurs in customer oriented businesses. It means that the partners need to focus on the common goal, which is the welfare of children, and choosing the best courses of action.

I know that, in these days, where parents have more choice about where to send their children, there's a more competitive environment, and hence the desire to consider parents as customers, but even in charter schools, we need to recognize that what works for the kids is a partnership where the strengths, knowledge and abilities of both parents and teachers are woven into a partnership arrangement.