The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Ford approach to public education

I was rereading a classic marketing article – Marketing Myopia, by Theodore Levitt (found in this excellent book) – and came across the following:

In a sense [Henry] Ford was both the most brilliant and the most senseless marketer in American history. He was senseless because he refused to give the customer anything but a black car. He was brilliant because he fashioned a production system designed to fit market needs.

We habitually celebrate him for the wrong reason, his production genius. His real genius was marketing. We think he was able to cut his selling price and therefore sell millions of $500 cars because his invention of the assembly line had reduced the costs. Actually he invented the assembly line because he had concluded that at $500 he could sell millions of cars. Mass production was the result, not the cause, of his low prices.

This is a fantastic new take on a classic story (and apparently a true one, based on Ford’s writings). And it illustrates a critical difference between how most people fulfill a market need, and how a visionary like Henry Ford does.

Most people look at what they have, or what they do, and try to figure out where to sell it. Ford figured out what people wanted – in this case, an affordable car – and figured out how to give it to them. Hence, the invention of the assembly line, a means to an end which enabled him to provide that car affordably.

What if we applied this to public education? It seems as if the tremendous legacy system we have limits our vision, forcing us to think in terms of what the current system can do, and preventing us from thinking about what it is our customers need. What if we wiped the slate clean – forgot about all the buildings, the standard course of study, the bus schedules, the textbooks, the lunchroom, and everything else – and started from square one? What if we looked at what the customers of public education (students, parents, other stakeholders) really need, and how we can fill that need?

If we identified any of the following as a true want/need of education consumers, how would we retool the system to make them possible a la Henry Ford?

  • Make education more affordable by spending $2,000 per student rather than the current $9,000
  • Have all students master a high level of STEM knowledge and skills before graduating to address global competitiveness concerns
  • Reduce energy usage by 75% to accommodate global warming concerns
  • Require that students leave high school prepared for the workforce, with college considered as an “extra” rather than a prerequisite

Any of these would involve a fundamental restructuring of the system – but conceptually at least, it would be no greater a challenge than the one Henry Ford faced and met.

Henry Ford created something revolutionary in order to meet the needs of a market; is it unrealistic to believe that we can do the same thing today? I believe it’s possible, as long as we can determine what it is the customers really want, and make the needs of the market the prism through which we look at everything else – and not make the current system the prism, as we’ve done for far too long.


  • Brett, this is an interesting read - looking at the way we do stuff in education through an economic/ market viewpoint may well help us escape the entrenched interest groups who have nothing to gain and everything to loose by doing school differently.

    The difficulty is going to be in your "as long as we can determine what it is the customers really want, and make the needs of the market the prism through which we look at everything else " and also determining just who are the customers.

    Thanks for the new thinking

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:23 AM  

  • Brent -- thanks for the article. The parents are the client of the school systems. They are the ones who make the decision of whether or not education is important to them and their family. They are the ones who decide if education is important and they have the ability to choose, then they choose where to send their kids to school.

    What hurts today is many parents would like to choose but do not have the means to do so and are stuck in a system who considers the payer the client. Look at healthcare -- who is the client? Medicare, medicaid, insurance companies? Nope. Healthcare learned while they have to play by the rules (most of the time) of the payers their client is the physician.

    Geez...educators wake up and do the right thing for our children. Listen to the parents.

    I am concerned about your last comment -- having the kids ready for work with college as a secondary option? Why is not the other way around. The kids need (all kids need) a strong core curriculum in the event they decide to go to college they will be ready. Should they not choose college then they will have the skills needed to enter the work world?

    One more thought -- I thought Henry Ford and his assembly line was part of what was wrong with education. Think about it -- one year to the next to the next. Very structured but miss something and it fall apart. Kids are not raw materials or is this how they are viewed by educators?

    Some kids can leap classes but not years. They should be able to do this. Some kids need to start later to be emotionally ready for school. This should be encouraged (just look at the private schools.) Some kids need more time on task - maybe a longer school day, a different structure, etc. Some kids need to start school at 4 p.m. or so because they are already parents or have to work. Others need apprenticeships to keep them motivated to learn. The list goes on and on. Educators need to get creative to meet the needs of the students (and their parents) while delivering a first rate education.

    Thanks again


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