What Does Taco Bell Have to Do With Education?

Last week my Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Learning class entered the Learning module with a case on Taco Bell. Taco Bell might seem like an odd subject for a case study for a class in the ed school, but it wasn't the first out of sector case we've looked at this semester. Dr. Higgins was very clear that we wouldn't be sticking to ed sector cases this semester, calling herself an 'agnostic', and true to form we've looked at cases from school districts, non-profits, small businesses and large corporations. Still, the number of lessons that can be applied from the Taco Bell case to education today was a little surprising.

To begin Taco Bell's growth from a regional restaurant to a fast food giant, the CEO shifted the focus of the company toward the customers. This seems like an obvious idea, but it seems overlooked in education. To be fair, singling out schools' customers may be trickier than a fast food restaurant's. But you'd have to concede that parents and students are chief among them, and you'd be hard pressed to find examples of school systems incorporating their ideas and concerns into their strategy. More often, rather than serving the 'customers', schools serve the adults within the system and the system itself.

One of the biggest lessons I would like to see education take from the Taco Bell case however, was the way former CEO John Martin continually adapted the strategy to place an emphasis on developing human capital in order to meet the needs of the customers. At the beginning of the case, in 1983, Taco Bell's had a rigid management structure of Restaurant Managers and District Managers whose main role was to enforce company-wide standards. This should sound eerily similar to the work of many assistant principals and principals in our schools. 

Martin recognized that this structure wasn't working and redesigned the role of management to focus on leadership skills and coaching. In turn, he set up a system that put information and decision-making in the hands of the employees on the front lines. By empowering the workers who were working firsthand with the customers, Martin improved the work environment which improved outcomes for the customers. 

Thinking broadly about this strategy (obviously, as Dr. Higgins pointed out, 'Children are not tacos') it would be exciting to see this model applied to education. What if principals and assistant principals were asked to focus on development and coaching, rather than compliance? What if teachers, the ones working closest with children and their parents, were given the autonomy to make decisions about their work? Today it seems teachers are shouldered with all of the accountability, but zero decision-making power. If ed reformers are so intent on adapting business strategies to education they could do worse than looking to the lessons of Taco Bell.


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