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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.


Overcostly union teachers. Waste of money. What are they teaching?

Racism or join teaparty?

Mark DiMassimo

Mr. Grubb does nothing but enhance the academy's reputation for ivory tower insularity when he suggests that the only skill of private sector managers is in the application of incentives! In fact, the strength of private sector managers, who must compete in an often chaotic and rapidly evolving marketplace is their propensity to vary their Mr. Yaverbaum suggests. The educational tribe believes that more degrees, more certifications, more training--in short, more education--makes better teachers. But it's been proven that this isn't true. Better teachers make better teachers; some people seem to be born or otherwise arrive at adulthood with the equipment to succeed as teachers and many others don't (Google "Malcolm Gladwell on better teachers" for a succinct and well-written summary of this research). It's not surprising that professional educators would elevate education to a religious preference. That's precisely why only members of another tribe, a pragmatic one without preconceptions, are needed to deliver better educational results to more students sooner. Any delay, after all, means students getting less.

Craig M

The business approach should take what is best from the successful business model: A focus on results. Rather than ambiguous suggestions about "a need to change cultures," schools need to measure their ability to educate students. Schools that are unable to do this should be shut down. Too many American students are slipping behind because we have put a priority on the happiness of teachers' unions and not the education of their students. The unions' insistence on tenure--providing a lifetime guarantee of employment after only a few years, regardless of the teacher's aptitude, effort, or attitude--shows the unions' lack of seriousness about priorities. A successful business requires its employees to prove their worth year after year.


I've been teaching middle school in an urban district for 11 years. My students achieve at least one year's growth every year, and I can tell you without a doubt that 85% of the teachers in my school are high quality and more than capable. However, I have recently changed my whole life around so my own kids can go to school in a good “zip code,” and I feel conflicted about this. I want to be part of the change in this downward spiral that seems to be happening in the large urban school districts around the country, yet I have no confidence that this will happen soon enough for my own children who are 3 and 6.

The problem is the way the schools are set up. In business, what do you do with a product that doesn't work right? Get rid of them, or send them somewhere to get individual attention to be fixed so you can focus on the products that will be the winners. I can't do that! In my 6th period, I have a 7th grader with an ankle bracelet because he burned his house down with his grandpa in it. In that same class of 34 students, I have 16 students who are either inclusion (special ed. with no aide) or ELL (English Language Learners). I have students who read at a 1400 Lexile (senior in high school) and BR's (before first grade readers) in the same class. I also have a state-mandated curriculum and a district-mandated pacing calendar, both with objectives I am required by contract to follow even though they do not work for all of my students.

Suggestion #1 for anyone who wants to take over the school system would be for smaller class sizes. I’m really attentive to individual needs, but 30-35 students per class for 6 classes per day is more than exhausting, even when you work out every day.

Suggestion #2 would be to make the classes (or divide it by school) more homogenous. I don’t mean by race; but by interests, motivation, ability, and (lastly) test scores.

To Jim: I guarantee I wasn’t the only “over costly union teacher” with her master’s degree in line for food stamps last month. I’m not on here to start anything, but please consider truth before publishing your comments to a blog. It’s beautiful here out west, but I haven’t gotten a raise in 3 years and am taking a 5% cut next school year.

Dan Mildon

I concur that bringing a pragmatic, business attitude to education will only help. I was a school board member for 16 years and brought that mentality to my district. Not always popular, we significantly improved the academic performance of the district and reduced all kinds of problems. Along the way in that 16 years, we were recogized nationally as the school board of the year, runner-up another year, and won the Washington State school board of the year yet another year. As a result we became a district of choice for leadership and teaching positions so we could be much more selective in the staff we brought in. The compassionate, business approach had its merits.

Arthur Greene

I've seen Mr. Yaverbaum wandering the halls on the hill. I know of some of his work there. And I know he has a great reputation. What makes him an education expert though? While he makes good points, can a publication like Businessweek get a real expert on the topic.


Grubb is an expert. After reading both, I'd rather hear from the nonexpert myself (assuming that's even the case).

Susie K.

Yaverbaum works for Fox TV. Need I say more?

He is no education expert, and from my actual real experience in public schools hasn't a clue to the reality of what is lacking in education in our country.

Wendy Hayton

Sounds to me like the guy has spent the entire year in my classroom. What a silly debate about the writer. Who cares what TV show the guy is on? Shallow, narrow-minded responses to a perfectly accurate observation and suggestions. People just love to complain. The writer actually made a suggestion. Whiners are a part of the problem. That's why nothing ever changes. The ever-so-scandalous TV man sounds like he wants to be a part of the solution. Oh, the shame of trying to help.

Becky Oh!

What I've seen come out of current educational system are people who make school their profession or people who drop out completely as soon as they legally can--both types eschewing their productive futures and childhood aspirations and dreams. In my immediate family are 2 high school teachers--forced to continually train and re-educate, at their own expense. But what made them become teachers and what they excel at is teaching subjects they enjoy--subjects in which they have actual side businesses and pursue outside of school hours. In this sense, successful business-people would naturally be the best teachers. This idea agrees with both sides--all that business experience IS training and education. I don't think that education before a HS degree should lose the "hallowed halls" mentality entirely, because a love of learning is essential throughout our lives, but some combination of practicality and thinking for thinking's sake needs to be considered. Otherwise the school systems are merely prisons, with teachers for wardens and students serving sentences of 12 years. Nothing good can come from that. What it would take would be for the current educational leaders to open their doors a bit, accept help and appreciate the value of real life experience, instead of continuing to wallow in job security and the way it has been.


"Wandering the halls of the hill." Not exactly. More like rewriting history, which is what he's likely doing with his piece of prose here. And history will be quite generous to him. He writes it in advance. Bill Gates will probably get that superintendent job offered to Yaverbaum in LA now.

Maryann P.

I agree 100% with Grubb. Reality check, folks.


You want a reality check, Maryann. I beg you to come to my classroom. I agree 100% with Yaverbaum.

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