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.