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Make Schools More Like Business? (Part One)

May 21, 2010

EDIT:  This post was the first in a three-part series.  Here are the links to Part Two and Part Three.

Usually, I try to avoid or deflate comparisons between businesses and public schools.  There are some fundamental differences that invalidate many comparisons.  These differences have to do with the mission, mandates, governance, and moral imperatives that are part of the DNA of public education in ways that are entirely different from private enterprise.

However, in recent months, I’ve grown increasingly interested in some of the writing I see about business, management, and human resources.  While the institutions are not entirely comparable, I think that there are similarties between schools and businesses when we look at something more basic: how do people work together?

Interestingly enough, I’m finding that some business gurus offer advice about effective management and labor practices that, to my ear, sound quite a bit like the advice of our best educational leaders.  I hear plenty of talk about autonomy, choice, trust, and empowerment.  Yet, when education reformers and critics claim that schools should be more like businesses, it seems like I keep hearing talk about tightening up accountability, imposing the will of management down through the education hierarchy, strict alignment with and adherence to a master plan, and similar ideas.

So, in this blog post, (and Part Two, coming later), let’s look at some samples of what business experts are saying about the workplace when they don’t know teachers are listening!

How about beginning at the Wall Street Journal?  Earlier this year, they editorialized about the need for toughening up evaluations for teachers – and I happen to agree that most teachers are inadequately evaluated.  I have no quarrel with their observation of the problem, but want to suggest an approach that would probably shock the Journal’s editorial board and many of their readers: maybe teachers should not actually undergo a corporate style annual performance review with their principal.  Crazy, no?  Well, I read about it in… the Wall Street Journal.  “Get Rid of the Performance Review!” is a fascinating article by Dr. Samuel Culbert of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.  He argues,

To my way of thinking, a one-side-accountable, boss-administered review is little more than a dysfunctional pretense. It’s a negative to corporate performance, an obstacle to straight-talk relationships, and a prime cause of low morale at work. Even the mere knowledge that such an event will take place damages daily communications and teamwork. (emphasis in original)

Communications and teamwork are the sine que non of school improvement, but there’s a chorus of we-know-better-than-you business-driven education reformers who seem not to understand that.  And for those who suggest performance pay and student test-scores are the key to improved evaluations, I offer this perspective from Culbert:

I believe it’s immoral to maintain the facade that annual pay and performance reviews lead to corporate improvement, when it’s clear they lead to more bogus activities than valid ones. Instead of energizing individuals, they are dispiriting and create cynicism. Instead of stimulating corporate effectiveness, they lead to just-in-case and cover-your-behind activities that reduce the amount of time that could be put to productive use. Instead of promoting directness, honesty and candor, they stimulate inauthentic conversations in which people cast self-interested pursuits as essential company activities. (emphasis added)

When teachers make this argument, it’s seen as self-serving.  If Culbert’s analysis would hold true in educational settings, and I believe it would, then business-minded education stakeholders should rethink some of their assumptions.  If they don’t want to listen to us, perhaps a management expert on the pages of the Wall Street Journal can get through.

Culbert does offer an alternative to the annual performance review, one that sounds highly appealing for use in education:

The alternative to one-side-accountable, boss-administered/subordinate-received performance reviews is two-side, reciprocally accountable, performance previews. (emphasis in original)

Let me explain.

The boss’s assignment is to guide, coach, tutor, provide oversight and generally do whatever is required to assist a subordinate to perform successfully. That’s why I claim that the boss-direct report team should be held jointly accountable for the quality of work the subordinate performs. I’m sick and tired of hearing about subordinates who fail and get fired, while bosses, whose job it was to ensure subordinate effectiveness, get promoted and receive raises in pay.

Holding performance previews eliminates the need for the boss to spout self-serving interpretations about what already has taken place and can’t be fixed. Previews are problem-solving, not problem-creating, discussions about how we, as teammates, are going to work together even more effectively and efficiently than we’ve done in the past. They feature descriptive conversations about how each person is inclined to operate, using past events for illustrative purposes, and how we worked well or did not work well individually and together.

The preview structure keeps the focus on the future and what “I” need from you as “teammate and partner” in getting accomplished what we both want to see happen. It doesn’t happen only annually; it takes place each time either the boss or the subordinate has the feeling that they aren’t working well together.

Realistic assessment of someone’s positive qualities requires replacing scores on standardized checklists with inquiry. As a result, step No. 1 in giving effective feedback almost always involves “active questioning” inquiry. Inquiry contrasts with most performance reviews, which begin with how the evaluator sees the individual and what that boss has already decided most needs enhancing.

Imagine if we applied that model of accountability in education!  If there are school turnaround models and reform efforts that hinge on firing the teachers, what about the uppermost administrators and school boards that have had stewardship of the schools and responsibility for the staffing of the schools?

Some of the principles that Culbert offers are quite similar to those in a forthcoming report that I helped to write.  The report,  “A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom: Creating a Teacher Evaluation System that Works for California” (edit: link) is the debut publication from Accomplished California Teachers (the organization that sponsors this blog).  Using the insightful contributions of teachers from many types of schools and different parts of the state, our report argues for evaluations that are ongoing, collaborative, and growth-oriented to support all teachers.

I found the Culbert article through a business blog that I read often – Work Matters, by Bob Sutton, a Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University.  His blog offers plenty of great insights into workplace dynamics, and no shortage of suggestions about how to avoid common pitfalls and improve the “quality of life” at work.  I will take up some of Sutton’s advice in Part Two of this post.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Davis permalink
    May 21, 2010 8:00 am

    Several years ago I read LOVE AND PROFIT: THE ART OF CARING LEADERSHIP by James Autry, then an executive with Meredith Publishing and also a fine poet. Many of his short, pointed observations on business practices would resonate with your points in this blog. He’s worth a read – including other books of his on management, and his poetry. JSD

  2. May 21, 2010 8:36 am

    I know some businesses use a “peer evaluation” method that plays some factor into yearly reviews. This seems, especially in our profession, like it could be an exremely useful tool. And I’m not talking about a system just utilized for removing indadequate teachers, but a system in which teacher-colleagues are asked to take an active part in the evalation of each other.

  3. May 21, 2010 9:11 am

    Thanks for bringing in this perspective, David. It strikes me that the lessons of business are often selectively applied to education. Performance “previews” that focus on collaborative strategies for achieving goals sound promising. The idea seams to dovetail with Jack Grayson’s efforts to get schools and businesses to pay much more attention to the efficiency and quality of the processes they use to achieve certain outcomes. “Process” isn’t on the lips of every reformer, not by a long shot, but it’s critical to the capacity of systems to produce much better results. Many of the most successful businesses understand that.

  4. David B. Cohen permalink*
    May 21, 2010 3:15 pm

    Jim – thanks for the recommendation! Always on the lookout for useful perspectives, and those offered from someone who is both a businessman and a poet should be rather unique.

    Mike – that’s a key point. So much of the debate lately has been centered around removing bad teachers, when in fact, the larger problem is how to better support and develop all teachers. If we could get that moving in the right direction in more places, using improved evaluations as one tool, then many of the problems and concerns about bad teachers would be mitigated. First of all, those teachers would be getting more support, so hopefully there would be fewer “bad” teachers. Secondly, for those cases where a teacher really ought to be removed, this type of process would provide a much clearer case for removal. And if evaluations are done right, are ongoing, detailed and robust, then I’d expect the resulting documentation might be enough to motivate the soon-to-be-removed teacher to offer less resistance, meaning less need for a protracted dispute.

    Claus – putting it in terms of “process” makes sense to me, with the implication that a quality process might also increase buy-in, which is essential to building relationships and working towards common goals effectively. Memo to Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee…

  5. May 22, 2010 10:18 am

    Great article – thanks for sharing. And I agree with Mike in that I’d love to see more peer reviews in schools, especially when so many principals lack the necessary teaching experience to provide valuable insights for educators.

  6. May 22, 2010 12:49 pm

    Thank you for this different perspective, David. It is especially useful right now as we look at some of the ideas being promoted in the Administration’s ESEA Blueprint.

  7. David B. Cohen permalink*
    May 22, 2010 11:30 pm

    Educator – Even those principals who are skilled at evaluation are limited by the nature of their jobs, being stretched as thin as they often are. And at the secondary level, their effectiveness may be limited if they’re called upon to evaluate teaching outside of their own content area expertise. I agree that a peer review, with clear parameters, good planning, and some management and quality assurance from the administrative level could go a long way in improving the practice of many teachers. I’ve been teaching about 15 years, and there’s much more for me to learn, but most of it is not going to be addressed in a one-time visit by an administrator.

    Renee – let’s make sure that we’re doing more than looking! I mean “we” teachers – because I know that you will be speaking out.

  8. May 23, 2010 5:41 am

    This is brilliant David, and underscores what many successful businesses deem worthwhile: using your human resources and resources, rather than widgets to be moved around. Our local hospital spends a great deal of time teaching their staff to work as teams, all with the best interest of their patient at the center of the work. Teachers should be working in effective teams in the same manner. A paradigm shift in the education world, like the ones described in these business articles, would go a long way to creating successful schools.

  9. June 30, 2010 6:47 pm


    I’ve used a system in schools for years that sounds as though it meets the description of the “two-side, reciprocally accountable, performance previews” that you highlight here in your article.

    As I designed the system, I took my cues from three domains of research:

    1. 360-Degree Multi-Rater Feedback

    2. Deci & Ryan’s “Self-Determination Theory”

    3. The value of teaching students how to assess themselves and their work.

    The system has worked extremely well precisely for the reasons you note: it’s shared and there’s a formal “performance preview” component. Actually, most of the system is a constant preview/review of what kids are learning and what they need to learn next. In a sense, teacher and student share the same information regarding curricular and instructional priorities. Differentiation is also a built-in component, so teachers don’t have to modify their practice very much to account for individual learning differences within the same classroom.

    When we replace the traditional point-percentage grading system with what I call the “3P System” (so named because it is based on participation, progress, and performance), I notice three important developments:

    1. Teachers save time and improve their effectiveness because instead of grading assignments outside of school, they give specific, actionable feedback to kids inside of school while students are working. Rather than reviewing comments, point totals, letter grades after the fact, kids get direct constructive feedback when they have the best opportunity to apply it.

    2. Kids improve faster because the “performance preview” aspect gives them a clearer picture of what they’re doing well and what they need to do to improve. A built-in goal setting component keeps everyone moving forward in an efficient and highly-focused way.

    3. The 360-degree—or as you put it, “two-side”—nature of the process, where kids own 50% of their final assessment and teachers own the other 50%, builds intrinsic motivation in students and improves daily engagement.

    My point in all this is not merely to agree with you but to point out that you may be even righter than you think. Not only can we apply some business concepts to education, we can literally move some of the best business practices right into the classroom.

    I casually refer to this as the “K to Pay” curriculum. The idea is simple: if we know some of the skills and knowledge kids need for the world of work, why not teach those things explicitly in school? I guess I’d have to give the credit for this notion to Ted Sizer (or perhaps even Dewey) and the core concepts for his “essential” schools.

    Over the years, I’ve developed and implemented many approaches to learning that I have used both in the classroom and in the board room. Some weeks, I have literally taught the same skills to seventh graders and to C-level leaders. Both groups seem to benefit equally, though I am always surprised how much harder it is for the adults to adopt something new. Kids, in a way, are faster learners in certain circumstances perhaps because they have more flexible belief systems. Or maybe it’s just because they know their teacher’s in charge. Either way, it’s fun to see how fast kids learn, and also fun to let adults know that we’re doing a better job these days of bringing career competencies into the classroom.

    What excites me about this direct application of business concepts to classroom practice is that it leapfrogs the “readiness” issue we often worry about. For example, will our new standards actually represent “college- and career-readiness” as we hope? Well, why hope when we can do?

    School is commonly viewed as preparatory, a set of experiences over time that gets kids “ready” for college and career. There are times when I think we’d have better luck just having kids do the things now that we want them to be ready for later. As Dewey said, “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”

    I think this is where business and education can meet very effectively. In other ways, just as you pointed out, the all-too-common “education is a business” analogy seems carelessly applied. Education is a cultural institution, not an economic entity. But, as you note, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look into promising business practices and seek to implement them in our schools when and if we find them to be appropriate and effective.

    Thanks for your article. Great work.

    Steve Peha
    President, Teaching That Makes Sense


  1. Make Schools More Like Business? (Part 3) « InterACT
  2. Make Schools More Like Business? (Part 2) « InterACT
  3. California, Will We Keep Up? « InterACT
  4. Down the Education Rabbit Hole « InterACT
  5. 2010: InterACT in Review « InterACT
  6. Unrealistic Education Reform Goals: A Business Perspective « InterACT
  7. Real World Business Advice Applied to Education « InterACT
  8. Can Educators Learn from “The Corner Office”? « InterACT
  9. “The Corner Office” for Schools: Teamwork, Fun, and Getting Stuff Done | InterACT
  10. Corner Office Lessons in Leadership | InterACT
  11. Business and Education Management Principles Intersect | DAVID B. COHEN

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