Even if you ask for the information, it’s hard to get, because the district doesn’t want you to know how badly they are doing. They typically have six, seven, or eight incompatible legacy information systems, which might use the same general ledger account number to refer to completely unrelated activities. Talk to whoever audits your company, and you’ll find they have probably conducted an audit of the local school district. They will tell you the information systems are hopelessly unfixable. The only thing to do is blow them up and start over again. This is very much a size-related phenomenon. The smaller the school system, the less of a problem they tend to have.
S+B: Do you see the same problems outside the United States?
OUCHI: Nobody else seems to have school districts as big. Even metropolitan Tokyo, which has 30 million people, is divided into 28 wards, each with its own school board and school system. The curriculum is mandated at the national level, but the use of the curriculum, the staffing mixture, and the schedule are up to the principal. And no two schools are alike. They’re all different, given that flexibility.
S+B: As China and India enter the developing world, as Europe becomes more urban, will other countries face the same kinds of problems?
OUCHI: Yes. I get questions all the time from people in China, in particular, where the public is growing more demanding of its public schools. Schools in China are typically part of the municipal government and very centralized. But the winds of change in education are blowing in China — and everywhere else.
Reprint No. 06212
Art Kleiner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor-in-chief of strategy+business and author of Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success (Doubleday, 2003).