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Failing Schools Need Help from Business

Business leaders are better suited than principals and teachers to turn around the public educational system in the U.S. Pro or con?

Pro: Compelling Strategies Are Best Drawn from Business

Far too many zip codes have schools filled with teachers and principals who lack proper tools, feel they can rest on their tenure, or are simply not getting the leadership they deserve. Find me a principal who agrees with Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be." That’s a person who thinks like a business leader, striving to make more profit so he can keep his job and prosper.

We have a future generation who is just slipping through the cracks. Visit an impoverished neighborhood. Spend a day in a classroom, and you’ll be shocked.

While there are plenty of well-run schools like the ones my kids have been lucky enough to go to, they are the exception. It’s time to change and not just talk about why education is failing. Today, business leaders are better equipped to do this.

Business leaders are "wired" very differently from the teachers and principals. Successful business leaders foster compelling action plans. Really successful business leaders hire people smarter than they are. It shows in their bottom lines.

Skillful business leaders are not afraid to say no to ideas and policies they find ineffective. The notion of tenure would never work in a world where the vast majority of success is tangibly measured at the cash register. In business, there is no such thing as resting on your laurels. Why is it allowed in education?

Con: Schools Need More Than Just "Management"

The idea of "turning around" U.S. schools is the latest educational fad. But failing schools need, first and foremost, improved instruction: teachers with varied approaches, able to motivate and inspire students. There aren’t enough great teachers to hire through incentives, as managers do. Instead they have to be developed, by instructional leaders—principals as teachers of teachers, working collaboratively. These leaders must themselves be experts on instruction, a capacity that business schools and experiences ignore.

Failing schools need to change their cultures, the webs of personal relationships that vary from exhilarating to toxic. Reconstructing culture first requires knowledge of the history and developments that make a school what it is. It requires deep understanding of teachers, students, and educational institutions, not business models, and then strategies for improvement. Business leaders haven’t been particularly good at changing even their own business cultures; many mergers have failed when cultures clashed.

Failed schools must also confront the many sources of inequalities in our schools—resource disparities, lack of motivation and engagement, class and racial differences. Living with these issues, as urban teachers and principals do, can prepare them to tackle these tough problems. Courses in inventory management and marketing can’t.

Ideally, school leaders have these abilities and managerial skills, too. We might work for more collaboration between education and business schools. Until then, our hopes for improving failing schools steadily and systematically—not "turning them around," as if they were boats—lie with stronger leaders and more capable teachers.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek,, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Robbie Lenderson

Everything I ever read that this guy Yaverbaum writes is dead on. Who is he exactly?

I have taught high school in public schools in three different states over the course of a 35 year career. Those Yaverbaum observations are both refreshing and sobering. He is correct. We are failing our students and continue year after year to do more of the same. Sit in my classroom. Mr. Yaverbaum, you're very welcome anytime you please.

Want to be a superintendent in Los Angeles?

Audrey Walker

I love that Mr. Yaverbaum has children in a good "zip code" as he calls it while pontificating from high atop his many businesses. If he feels so strongly to write this for Businessweek, is he volunteering? Bet we can't afford him. Hum.

He felt so strongly about bottled water that he got rich bashing it. What's the motive here? Wouldn't it be just swell if he had a book (he does) or a website (he does) to promote?

Call me cynical, but why is it that everything I read about this man makes him money?

Anthony P.

I'd rather hear more Yaverbaum answers than the Norton ho hum, let's get "stronger leaders and more capable teachers" rocket science answer. No duh.

Send Mr. Yaverbaum to my school.

Wendy Halilo

Is this the same Yaverbaum from Fox Television? What a big mouth know it all. I'm not sure what it says about me that I always agree with him, though.

Cassandra Berk

Yaverbaum obviously has sat in many classrooms. Like Robbie, I have also taught for many years and am disappointed to even see a "con" side to a perfectly articulated perspective on improving a very flawed and overlooked educational system in this country.

I have no idea why Grubb even mentions "courses in inventory management and marketing."

And a little reality check on "Ideally, school leaders have these abilities and managerial skills, too. We might work for more collaboration between education and business schools"...well we don't.

Let's hear more. I would love to have Yaverbaum at our next town hall meeting.

Thomas Delaney

That is the same guy who is on CNN. Not Fox? He makes some good points. We have to do something. That does seem obvious to everyone.


The present educational system needs a reform for sure because of the fact that schools aren't teaching moral values, success principles, etc. They need to help children realize their dreams an set big goals. For that we need to equip todays' teachers with win--strategies in business. Like they should be made aware that kids should be taught these values so that we could turn them into valuable assets. For this we ought to improve teacher-training institutes first and schools should note to select well-qualified teachers (in terms of academics and morales) and professors' salaries need a hike so that more young people are encouraged into this field.

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