In It For The Money: Classroom Sales

Pitching Gov. Snyder for school reform based on business practice

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Sometimes it’s earlier, like this month. Columns for the two previous months were “In it for the Money: E Pluribus Progress” and “In it for the Money: Getting Schooled.”

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

I spent the last two columns talking about what we should be teaching in our schools [1]. As we teeter on the brink of another school year, I want to take a second to talk about how to best teach these things. And, fair warning, my suggestion – as a former teacher and school administrator, not just a current chattering gadfly – is one you’ve already heard a thousand times: small class sizes.

But in the next twelve minutes I’m going to give you a way to argue for small class sizes in a patois that business folks can get behind.

As I’ve mentioned before, the vogue among conservative politicians – both at the state and national level – is to argue that their business acumen makes them uniquely well-suited to govern in our economically troubled times. I don’t reject this claim out of hand, because I agree that there are many business practices that adapt well to the public sector.

The problem, to my eye, is that the practices these erstwhile businessmen want to import to the public sector are largely from the management offices, rather than the sales floor.

Why Management Thinking Doesn’t Work in the Public Sector

As Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman outlined brilliantly in a lil blog post at the beginning of this year, many of the techniques fundamental to making a business profitable make no sense when dealing in the public sector. Krugman’s post is short (certainly by Ann Arbor Chronicle standards; a pitiful 238 words!), but worth your read.

He highlights a tried-and-true technique for pumping up a flagging business: Concentrate profits while offloading costs. For example, fire half the workers at your candy factory, speed up the line, and keep pumping out roughly the same number of boxes (albeit at lower quality). As far as your balance sheet is concerned, profits have remained stable while costs have decreased; that’s good management! Of course, the workers bear the stress of the layoffs and the consumers bear the crappier quality, but those are “externalities”; they accrue off your books, and are “somebody else’s problem.” [2]

But governments – even at the local level – can’t really work this way, because all of a government’s customers are intimately entangled in its business. After all, a government’s customers make up the vast majority of its workers, as well as its bosses. If most of your customers are workers in your factory, then they know how badly quality has sunk, and they’re gonna want to stop buying. Meanwhile, if your bosses are stuck buying your crappy product and know it, they’re gonna fire your ass. Oops.

Boardrooms, Sales Floors, and Classrooms

That said, there are plenty of business lessons that are a perfect fit for our schools. What disappoints me is that when these CEO-politicians bring their “hard-won business smarts” to the schools, they bring everything but the things that actually made them successful businesspeople. They trot out “metrics” and “dashboards” and “maximized throughput” and “economies of scale” and “incentives” and “efficiency” – all the 50-cent biz-school jargon – without bringing the one piece of wisdom that every businessperson I’ve ever met knows in his or her heart:

Business is about relationships

Let’s talk about sales. I used to sell hiking boots. That was the last time anyone called me a “salesman” – but I’ve sold myself at every meeting, during every interview, with every handshake. I’m selling to you right now.

“Sales” is the word we use to dismiss “rhetoric” as beneath us, but rhetoric is the thing we – the magical talking chimps – use to Get Things Done.

Rhetoric – the brilliant, single-word slogan “Change” – got our first African-American president elected. We were sold on this man, and frankly, we’ve done okay [3]. Kennedy’s salesmanship put men on the moon. Jimmy Carter’s salesmanship has nearly eliminated the god-awful guinea worm. Sales built our railroads, sales bring down rates of teen pregnancy, sales of the M.A.D.D. and variety cratered dangerous teen drinking and smoking [4].

Sales hinge on relationships: We trust the salesperson, we believe he or she shares our interests and goals and dreams, and so we buy.

Always Be Closing

The most basic sell is “hand selling.” The salesperson and customer interact one-on-one, and the salesperson makes recommendations that are responsive to the customer’s needs. Any solvent shoe store owner can train just about any human of average social intelligence to hand sell. Think about asking someone on a date; that’s the hand sell at its foundation: “How are you doing today? Can I interest you in a handy me to have around your life?”

A step up is pitching to a group of, let’s say, a dozen or twenty folks. Not everyone is great at this, but almost everyone can learn to do it well enough. This is making a pitch to investors, arguing before a jury, playing an open mic night, giving a class presentation, reporting to a team of colleagues or board of directors.

The trick is that relationships really need to be formed person-by-person; this happens naturally when you’re speaking one-on-one, but is much more challenging when you’re talking one-to-many. That’s why we have all those chestnuts of public speaking: Make eye-contact with individuals, work the room, refer to audience members by name, touch people’s shoulders and elbows, etc. It’s tricky, but given thirty minutes, you can form a personal connection with twenty people as you make your pitch. It’s a learned skill, not a natural-born talent.

But once you cross that magical line from “small group” to “crowd,” there’s a major psychological shift. A “crowd,” after all, is just a single thrown beer bottle away from being a “mob.”

Not a lot of folks can wow a crowd. Realistically speaking, once you’ve got more than a small group – once you’re in the size of those big real estate and investment seminars – you can’t really sell anything, because you can’t form those personal relationships. The folks in those audiences aren’t being convinced to buy, they’re just being tipped over the edge, because they’d already sold themselves on the idea before they showed up.

You might notice these numbers I’ve picked out, and the sharp tacks already see where I’m going: Tutors and music teachers and coaches “hand sell.”

Teachers in normal schools basically need to be able to pitch a boardroom – traditionally, that is, when classes sizes were capped under two dozen.

Anything above that – like stadium-seating college lectures – requires either a pro-grade snake-oil salesman or substantial buy-in from the crowd before they even come through the door.

Kids in compulsory public schools often aren’t willing buyers; they need to be sold. And even Lee Iacocca couldn’t sell 40 reluctant buyers in a single group. That takes goddamn sales magic, and the only cats with that kind of voodoo are politicians and snake-oil gurus. And there isn’t a single such talent in this great nation who’s ever going to settle for $42,000 per year plus medical and a pension – not when his or her earning potential starts in the low six figures and only goes up, up, up.

The Problem With Our Schools

The problem with education in America – to the degree that there is a problem [5] – is that we’re putting fair-to-middlin’ sales staff into a nearly impossible sales situation. No shoe store owner in the world expects his or her staff to sell shoes forty pairs at a time; if there’s that many folks coming through the door, then they hire more sales staff. They don’t expect shoe buyers to sit in rows six deep and stare at the ceiling while someone yammers to them indiscriminately about chunky heels or high-performance cross-trainers, without regard for what kind of feet they have and what kinda walking they need to do.

My son’s kindergarten class had 23 students this year. That’s kind of a big room to work, but a competent public speaker can do it, and his teacher was just such a salesperson. Good for her. My wife’s high school classes in Redford are hovering in the mid-30s, with pressure to add more [6]. My wife is a brilliant human being with a masters in education and experience in tough schools with tough kids. She loves her subjects, expects a lot from her students, and takes no shit. But she isn’t Barack Obama or Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey, for chrissakes, and none of those folks ever dedicated their lives to a five-figure career with shrinking benefits.

So, that’s my pitch to you, Governor Snyder. Do you want to reform our schools with solid business practices? Then start by putting your frontline sales staff into sales situations where they can actually close deals instead of throwing them in front of a distractible mob and then acting shocked when they don’t make their numbers.

Of course, I’m a little loathe to put this notion in your head, sir, as I’m 90 percent sure that if you do read this, your only takeaway will be “Hey! Teachers are a lot like salesmen; we should make ‘em work on commission!”


[1] TL;DR: Compassion, mutual caretakership, lateral thinking, perseverance, humility.

[2] That might sound hollow, but bear in mind that in a world where you have to please banks – which is the world of all but the smallest businesses – looking good on paper is the entire game. Real world results have little bearing on decision making when those decisions must please the dark gods of corporate personhood served by the damned, scuttling minions inhabiting the cubicles of Comerica and Bank of America.

[3] Not super-awesome, but it’s a solid performance in terms of what we were promised. For what is clearly an apples-to-something-similar-to-but-clearly-not-an-apple comparison, check out the GOP Promise Meter. Incidentally, as a One Love kinda hippie, I consider most “compromises” to be solid wins. It’s a big tent, and I just want it to get bigger and bigger and bigger until we’re all mad-crazy group-hugging in the shade and singing “Give Peace a Chance.” Amen.

[4] On the dark side, a nation of freedom-minded Christians sold themselves the transatlantic slave trade. Nazi Germany sold Europe 11 million corpses, and sold them the ovens to go with them. Our last president sold us two futile wars.

[5] Americans have this “common sense” notion that our schools are terrible. That claim . . . I don’t even know where to start with that claim. Right on the face of it, the sentence “America’s schools are terrible” simply makes no sense.

First, there are no “American schools.” We don’t have a federal school system, we don’t even really have state-by-state schools; we have a school system of individual local districts of varying size, influence, resources, standards, practices, and goals. Aggregating data about those schools, looking at the final number, and saying “Christ, our school system is a wreck!” is tantamount to aggregating climatological data from across the country, looking at the final number, and concluding that it’s impossible to grow berries in the United States because, once you factor in the dearth of precipitation in Arizona and the overabundance of overcast days in Alaska, we’re just too dark and too dry for a strawberry to take hold here.

Beyond that, our school systems seek to do something that’s not quite unique, but nonetheless rare worldwide: We want to offer everyone a diverse, holistic education at the same level in a system that doesn’t break children off into vocational tracks and doesn’t throw anyone away.

Anyway, I’m not saying we don’t have problems; I’m saying that the answer to “Why aren’t our schools like Japan’s and Singapore’s?” is “Because we aren’t Japanese and this isn’t Singapore.”

[6] FYI, the maximum class-size advised by the United Nations is 35. Class sizes of up to 40 are far from unheard of in Detroit, even at the elementary level, and word on the street is that high schools might be looking at up to 61 students per class this fall. In other words, we’re steadily sliding toward the same place that rural India and Kenya are diligently working to climb out of. Hell, even Afghanistan – which has been besought by war (civil, holy, and otherwise) since 1979 – can keep their average down to 55 students per teacher. In other words, I’m not precisely sure we should call this latest round of “reforms” in Detroit Public Schools “progress.” For a nuanced perspective on class size, especially as it pertains to the developing world, give this 2007 report from USAID a read.

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  1. By Duane Thomas
    August 13, 2012 at 5:17 pm | permalink

    The author argues that small class sizes are critical to public school educational success because kids aren’t already sold on the importance of education before arriving at school.

    “Kids in compulsory public schools often aren’t willing buyers; they need to be sold. And even Lee Iacocca couldn’t sell 40 reluctant buyers in a single group. “

    Thus teachers’ jobs are much more difficult than they would be with “sold” students. Therefore, larger class sizes are impractical for the labor pool willing to work for a modest public school teacher’s salary. Accordingly, smaller class sizes and more teachers seem necessary, though costly.

    However, aren’t there ways to make kids willing buyers of public school education? Can’t and shouldn’t parents, relatives, pastors, community leaders, the President… all make the sale before kids enter public schools?

    Wouldn’t “sold kids” both improve the quality and reduce the costs of public school education?

  2. By Alan Benard
    August 14, 2012 at 1:50 am | permalink

    Duane Thomas asks if parental, political and societal support of public education cause children to be more receptive to compulsory attendance. And he is correct. But I’d like to see evidence that any amount of encouragement could cause the average teacher to overcome the problem Dave actually lays out in the article. That problem is that the ability to form constructive relationships with other people has a demonstrable limit. That limit is, as Dave points out, about 20.

    Can we agree that much smaller class sizes would produce much higher student achievement if professional academic researchers produce emperical evidence?

    “(3) Class size was a significant predictor of achievement for students from low-income families. For every 3 fewer students in a classroom, students scored 11 points higher on the third grade achievement test. Class size explained 28% of the classroom level variance and 3% of the total variance in achievement above and beyond the other variables in the model. Findings suggest the importance of mathematics instructional quality and smaller class size among students from families with low income. Interventions that support teacher improvement in standards-based mathematics may hold promise in efforts to reduce the achievement gap.”

    Merritt, E. G., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Berry, R. Q., Walkowiak, T. A., & Larsen, R. A. A. (2011). The contribution of mathematics instructional quality and class size to student achievement for third grade students from low income families. Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Retrieved from [link]