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Published: August 28, 2012
 / Autumn 2012 / Issue 68

 
 

School Reform for Realists

Partnerships between business and education have a place in solving the talent gap, but not in the way most executives expect.

In the midst of a great unemployment crisis, there is also a yawning talent gap. For the marketing function or the factory floor, recruiters seek applicants with the scientific knowledge, communication skills, and technological acumen that many high school graduates (and even some college graduates) lack. That’s why business leaders are pushing for school reform with such urgency; they see public schools as both suppliers of talent and incubators of the future, and they want to help education leaders become more effective.

Unfortunately, most business–education partnerships have been formed around a core set of school reform ideas that can be appealing in theory but don’t seem to work in practice. These include competition-based reforms, including most voucher and charter school systems, incentive pay for teachers, some management training programs for education leaders, and the intensive use of digital educational technology.

One basic attitude underlying these reforms is that schools need to be run more like businesses. In practice, that means adopting a competitive management style that imposes numerical goals, rewards high performers disproportionately, blames labor unions for poor performance, and forces each individual to prove his or her value every day. In other words, school reformers are promoting top-down, carrot-and-stick, compliance-driven management ideas that (as quality-movement leader W. Edwards Deming and others have pointed out) are unreliable and, in many cases, counterproductive — even in business.

Moreover, virtually all the studies on key reform initiatives, including the charter movement and merit pay for teachers, suggest that these measures have failed to improve education outcomes. Two of many examples: A 2009 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent of charter schools earned better test scores than traditional schools, and 37 percent did significantly worse. A major 2010 study by Vanderbilt University found that teachers who were offered a US$15,000 bonus for improving student test scores over a three-year period performed no differently than teachers who weren’t included in the offer.

“[The effort] to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy: Measure, then punish or reward,” writes Diane Ravitch in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2011). “The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education.”

As for digital technology, there is still virtually no conclusive research on what works and what doesn’t in K–12 education. Many companies interested in studying the impact of technology on schools — including Apple, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, News Corp., and a lot of smaller media and software companies — have a stake in this potential $500 billion business, which makes it difficult to tell which assessments are disinterested and reliable.

How, then, should businesspeople who are genuinely interested in school reform take on the challenge? Start by recognizing that you have a great deal to offer education — if you can draw on the most collaborative, generative aspects of business thinking and action, following the examples of companies that promote transparency, engagement, shared accountability, continuous improvement, and organizational learning. For example, a recent study by Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, “Collaborating on School Reform,” shows that contrary to popular practice and the dictates of many corporate education reformers, the secret to long-term improvement for teachers, schools, and students is “substantive collaboration” at all levels — the classroom, the school, the district, the community; in short, collaboration among all key stakeholders.

Many educators appreciate the value of participative management and leadership training. “If you are trying to run a system as large as a small city, you need a diverse set of skills,” says Shael Polakow-Suransky, senior deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education, noting that when the city’s education system was controlled almost entirely by educators, it was “incredibly poorly run.” When the district began to draw talent from the private sector in the 1990s, he adds, there were some false starts in which businesspeople clashed with educators. “We learned that we need both [forms of expertise],” he says. (See “Leadership Principles for Public School Principals,” by Andrea Gabor, s+b, Summer 2005.)

 
 
 
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