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How to Succeed in Business

Occasionally, I hear teachers repeat what is now an accepted aphorism in the education crowd: schools are not businesses, and children are not widgets coming down the assembly line, subject to quality control. We can't eliminate inferior raw material--rejecting the unripe blueberries--and we have little influence over the conditions under which we create our "product." Therefore-- it's wrong to apply the principles of business management to schools.

Over at Public School Insights, in a discussion about merit pay and other incentives, Roxanna Elden makes an excellent point: People who advocate running schools according to a business model assume that educated children are the product. In reality, test scores are the product.

Test scores have become the product precisely because of their short-term ease of use and transparency. It's simple to track growth--even the euphemistic "value added"-- and compare our students and schools with their "competitors." No more waiting around, encouraging kids to develop into contributors over time--those regular infusions of data let us know how we're doing in this race!

Of course, we are right now watching what happens when a phenomenally successful automobile business, Toyota, loses the big picture and pushes their corporate culture to focus on the short-term numbers. Call it We're-Number-One Syndrome.

Still, schools can learn a great deal from well-run business models. Successful businesses focus on the needs of customers and clients, building long-term brand loyalty, keeping an eye on changing conditions, the road ahead. Slow and steady, with a large dose of creative.

There are still lots of teachers who work that way, too--keeping onerous testing in perspective, and thinking every day about their students' long-term potential, continually analyzing the effectiveness of new strategies and techniques. Will paying them more improve schools?

I'm all for paying the teachers who are doing a great job-- using multiple indicators--much more, simply because they deserve it. Teaching is complex, skilled, intensive work, and teachers are generally underpaid. We don't value their critical contributions to the social order--or to the economic health of the republic--and nothing says that more than our compensation system.

The current single salary schedule doesn't incent the right things. It ties up scarce resources in entitlements based on longevity and credentialing. The trick is connecting extra pay to demonstrable teacher excellence in engendering student learning (measured by a variety of means) and teachers taking--or, better yet, creating--leadership roles and filling hard-to-staff positions. Nobody deserves more money for simply hanging around.

That's what good businesses do. They pay and assign employees based on their own skill needs, plus employee merit and contribution. They reward employees for expanding their capacity and innovating while on the job--because it's good for the franchise. Maybe schools can learn from business models--the right ones.

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