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Published: April 1, 2000

 
 

Does Six Sigma Belong in Sixth Grade?

Most of this, of course, takes place below the surface, and neither the businesspeople nor the educators are eager to talk about it. Instead, the businesspeople come in with plans to make the schools more "accountable," or with lesson plans written by their engineers, and assume that the desperate, impoverished educators will be eager and grateful for the help. As Jim Evers (a New York-based business and education consultant and retired schoolteacher) put it, the teachers "think there's a hidden agenda. They always suspect the business is trying to hustle a business contract out of the school, to micromanage the school, or to prove that they're incompetent. Or, they think the executive is trying get some community service on his resume, so he can move up the ladder at work."

Ironically, the corporate people tend to suspect the educators of exactly the same kind of careerism and knee-jerk command-and-control motivation. "We had already learned at Motorola that we can't be bureaucratic micromanagers anymore," said Ed Bales when I called him recently for an update. (He's retired from Motorola, but remains as an ongoing consultant with the schools partnership.) "Yet schools are full of bureaucratic micromanagers, who get in the way of change."

If the stakes weren't so high, I'm sure that both sides in most business–education partnerships would long ago have given up. But, fortunately, there are some ways to create effective results. Schools That Learn researcher/writer Janet Coleman, who looked into more than a dozen successful partnerships for us, says that the common thread is humility — starting unilaterally on the business side. It has to make the first gesture of giving in, partly because it is perceived (by both sides) as having more power and partly because, paradoxically, it is better trained, these days, in the practices of operating as a coherent team.

The successful efforts start with talk, not between the CEO and superintendent, but in a group of, say, teachers and engineers. The critical question is: What kind of change will show that we're successful? Because of the recent adoption of rigorous standardized tests in most states, it's easy to say, "We'll know we're successful if we get a 25 percent boost in scores." But that's where I give Motorola, and a few other companies, credit: They're looking for increases not just in recall and recognition of random facts, but in problem-solving and team-building — the kinds of skills that an autonomous team member needs on the factory floor.

From there, the successful partnerships eschew all the traditional trappings — a canned curriculum, a set of presentations, a Web site, a financial gift, or computers. Instead of invading the school with a company's products or people, they open up the company, and its people, to the schools. Teachers and students are invited into the company's way of thinking — not as occasional visitors, but as regular guests. This doesn't mean, necessarily, a set of "school-to-work" field trips. It means teachers and engineers sitting down together to develop relevant lessons that bridge the gap between, say, the math the students are struggling to learn, void of any relevant context, and the math that an operator in an electronics plant must know. Motorola opens its doors this way to hundreds of children in summer-school programs each year. "We designed it together with the teachers we've met," Mr. Bales says. "We taught them about collaboration, and they taught us how to design an open environment that sets kids up to conduct their own experiments and figure out problems using the technology."

Operating with humility and stealth is not an easy transition for many companies, particularly in arenas like education partnerships, which are typically handled by someone from public relations who wants the company's work trumpeted as loudly as possible. But it may be a very valuable skill to learn. The alternative is what Mr. Forstmann is trying: taking over the schools. But business won't succeed at that endeavor — not because its ideas are bad, but because it doesn't care about teaching. Teaching can't be effective when done for results; it has to be done for its own intrinsic joy. In fact, in the end, educators probably have more to offer businesses than businesses have to offer them. The educators (at least the good ones) know how to create an environment in which people learn. That turns out to be a remarkably valuable set of insights for companies in the coming era, where it's not just skilled people who are scarce, but also the ability to get an edge.

 
 
 
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