Education Should Emulate McDonald’s

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 2.02.57 PMIt’s been the best of years, it’s been the worst of years.

I had great students, but this was the year I wanted to quit teaching and go work at McDonald’s again. I felt standardized, burdened with paperwork, and completely beat up by the media and society. It was tough feeling like one of the people who singlehandedly–intentionally–sabotaged American education. Like I personally slowed down the Race to the Top so Finland could  pass me like Usain Bolt.

I love teaching, but the pull to go back to the Golden Arches was great.  I worked at McDonald’s in high school. I was a good employee. I was respectful, I smiled at customers. I told them to have a nice day. Though I don’t eat meat and I didn’t like smelling like grease even after I showered, I learned a lot of things–learning is important to me. Here’s what working in one of the world’s largest franchises taught me:

People like their burger the same way. There’s a reason that the burger is the burger, and a great amount of effort goes into standardizing that so that we can predict the burger’s quality, temp, size, and features. America likes predictability. They don’t like when you throw surprises at them.

Standardizing things isn’t easy for me, but I could see the McPoint. A smile and a burger. Easy enough. I think differently on occasion. McD’s let me be different–sort of. I was the only vegetarian working there. They didn’t discriminate. If you’re going to be an outlier, that’s a rough place to try it. But if you’re creative, even in the midst of standardization, you can survive. During my lunch break, I’d go to the Big Mac toaster in the back, take a bun, flip it inside-out, commandeer a slice or two of cheese, and put the sandwich with the flipped bun into the toaster, and press it down. It’s a piece of equipment that, until now, you never knew existed. I made myself many marvelous manifestations of grilled cheese–with onions, pickles, tomatoes–whatever non-meat items I could find. That was two decades before “Chopped” and “Iron Chef.” I could’ve been a contender.

I learned, though, that while we sometimes crave standardization–it’s easy, and we can guess the results–one size does not fit all, even at the world’s most regulated chain in the world. Although I don’t eat fast food, I marvel at the operation–it’s marketing heaven. You think McDonald’s is standardized, and in many respects, you’re right, but if you look deeper, one of the largest and most successful franchises on the planet adapts constantly. It doesn’t simply stamp out burgers and call it a day. It has regional nuances for customer preferences–a McD’s in the Southwest isn’t the same from one in historical New England, India, or Russia, international menu offerings that reflect cultural food tastes, and when society changes, the largest recognizable food franchise in the world changes, too. They even respond to trends in food followed by sustainability food freaks like me.

They change as a result of customer demand. They now have organic and fair trade offerings. Newman’s Own! That’s a big deal. They listened to food freaks like me. Education can listen to all the parties, too.  Even though we have to measure, assess, and figure out the best way to improve education nationally, we might emulate the World’s Most Successful Franchise in a couple of ways:

1. Pivot. It’s an overused word in the tech sector, but underused in education. I think it’s time we adopt some business vocabulary and behavior. We don’t have to be cold, hard, uberefficiencymongers, but we can consider honest feedback from all stakeholders–parents, students, businesses, higher education, educators, and educational leaders.  That’s the hybrid group that should revolutionize education. Together we can identify areas of opportunity, and create the freedom to change direction when necessary. Communication and innovation are foundations for success. 

2. Customize. Really take a look at the clientele. For me, it’s my students and their families. I often ask “What do you think?” My end of the year survey gave me areas where I exceeded student expectations and suggestions for next year that I will incorporate and write about so they can see their feedback in action.  A good professional should be able to anticipate needs or simply ask “How can I help you today?”

3. Listen and Be Flexible. Sometimes I have to say the following, “What would you like me to do for you given that we have these goals?” It’s a powerful statement. It gives over the control of the class to the student. Not a lot of people are comfortable giving over control. When I do that, more often than not, the students grade themselves more critically, pick and design activities that were more challenging than any I’d have designed, and go way above and beyond my expectations. All I had to do is listen and be flexible. Flexibility is the key. The greatest innovations happen in flexible environments where creative people are not afraid to fail. We’re not there yet. But we could be if we study the greatest corporate and educational successes out there and steal the ideas that make them great. I’ll steal like an art thief to create an ed utopia. 

I bet I’ll field a couple critical questions in comparing public education to McDonald’s–especially given my status as a vegetarian food freak, but I can’t help the analogy. America loves burgers.

I want America to love public education, too.