4 Business Lessons for School Reformers
There are four lessons that corporate education reformers should have learned, but seemingly haven’t.
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1. LISTEN TO THE EVIDENCE
Business is all about listening to feedback and evaluating evidence. For instance, if I am an oil and gas drilling company exploring a new area for oil, I drill a well after evaluating evidence, and then I see how it works. Maybe I need to drill to a different depth, maybe I need to frac the well differently, maybe I need to use a different proppant etc.
All of these are evidence based empirical decisions; they aren’t decisions based on uninformed opinions.
Do charter schools make a difference? Does tying teacher evaluation to test scores result in test score gains? Does spending more money make a difference? All of these are empirical questions with evidence based answers. Yet the education reformers, who in their own businesses are empirically oriented, seem to blithely ignore the evidence.
For instance, there’s no evidence that charter schools as a whole make a difference in test results. So why do they keep screaming that charter schools are the answers? Test results are too variable to use in teacher evaluations—yet they use them. This kind of leadership would get them fired from their day jobs. So why do they do it when it comes to education?
Microsoft, Bill Gates’ old company, is transitioning to building devices as well as providing software. It’s a transition they started to undertake in the late 1990’s while all the while maintaining Office and Windows, their two biggest profit engines, and growing their software for servers business. It’s a long game.
So how about testing out the common core before going full bore on implementation? How about testing out high stakes testing before we close schools based on the results? Again, the rashness with which educational reformers are proceeding would get them fired from their day jobs.
I don’t want to say that our schools of 15 years ago were great and didn’t need fixing, but there is a throw the baby out with the bathwater mentality in education reform that just isn’t characteristic of business. (Cynics here would point out the irony of Gates’ own involvement with school reform.)
Jim Collins in his wonderful bestselling business book Good to Great describes this at length and I’m actually working on this at CITE as I write this.
Defining success in business is not a simple process. It entails deep thought and then consensus building amongst the senior level staff. It doesn’t work by a new CEO giving a decree from on high and expecting everyone to get on board just because he (*usually a he not a she) says so.
So why should anyone expect that a process of decreeing from on high that test scores, AYP, ability to link teacher pay to test results, allowing an easier process for charter school approval—why would anyone expect that all of these things which are bitterly opposed by many people who actually do the educating of our children—why would we expect them to work?
Education reformers have certainly gone about it in a way guaranteed to breed resistance. Plus, they haven’t managed to convince a really large swath of people that they are measuring the right things.
This is a basic rule in business. If you change too much, everybody goes into a shell. Doesn’t that describe too many of our teachers and principals today?
I was always mystified watching Bloomberg and Klein changing systems of supervision every year. Bloomberg made his fortune with one basic device, the Bloomberg terminal, first introduced in 1984 and still the basis of his fortune today. He, as they say in the business world, “stuck to his knitting”
But he managed the school system as if it had no knitting at all, as if it were a total unmitigated disaster and he just threw things at the wall to see what stuck. That doesn’t work in business in general, certainly not in complex organizations, and I never understood why he didn’t understand that.
I believe that business actually has much useful knowledge from which educational systems can benefit. Educational systems are large, complicated organizations and CEOs with experience in managing such organizations can make a difference. But that process has to start with the business people remembering some of the lessons they learned in their first careers.
Jared Gellert is the executive director for CITE.