A Business Perspective on American Schooling

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The business community should help set the agenda for reforming public education, contend David T. Kearns and Denis P. Doyle in their forthcoming book, Winning the Brain Race: A Bold Plan To Make Our Schools Competitive.

Mr. Kearns, chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corporation, and Mr. Doyle, a senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute, propose a six-point program for change: allowing parents more choice in the schools their children attend, restructuring school organization, fostering professionalism among teachers, raising academic standards for students, teaching the values of American democratic society, and clarifying the role of the federal government in education.

In the selections that follow, Mr. Kearns explains the interest of business in school reform, and outlines lessons of the marketplace he deems crucial for education.

By David T. Kearns

The task before us is the restructuring of our entire public education system. I don't mean tinkering. I don't mean piecemeal changes or even well-intentioned reforms. I mean the total restructuring of our schools.

Why do I, a businessman, the head of one of the world's great corporations, care about education?

I care about education for the same reason that every parent in America does--education is the future. It's the future of our way of life. Thomas Jefferson believed that education was the sine qua non of democracy. Without education, democracy would falter and eventually fail. He was right.

But I also care about education for economic reasons. ...

I speak here not of a mindless pursuit of the dollar. The issue Adam Smith raised and the issue we still deal with today is not avarice, but a society wealthy enough to care for its people, to support the arts and culture, to permit reflection and contemplation. ...

That's why I care about schools and education. My interests are both selfish and selfless. No firm, no organization, can be better than its employees. Xerox spends about $260 million a year on employee training--but we can do no better than the graduates of the nation's schools. We can train employees who are educated--those who have learned how to keep on learning. But we cannot train the uneducated.

Lest you think that I'm interested in vocational education, let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the last thing Xerox and other high-tech firms need is vocational education. We need employees who are broadly and deeply educated, men and women who are "liberally'' educated.

A liberal education not only imparts the great lessons of history, citizenship, and science but also teaches people to think, to solve problems, to take risks. A liberal education prepares the individual to think independently, to step back from problems and the crowd, to be an entrepreneur and innovator. The virtues of a liberal education are the virtues of free enterprise in general and the high-tech, knowledge-based society in particular--flexibility, adaptability, inventiveness, even playfulness.

The fact is that capitalism is unruly and freewheeling. Under that exterior, it is also disciplined, determined, and hardworking. The real virtue of capitalism is that it is both individualistic and cooperative. In fact, the great contribution of the modern company in the modern economy is as much collaboration as competition. ...

To date, however, the business community has treated the schools with kid gloves. On the positive side of the ledger, that stance reflects a deep and abiding commitment to public education that the business community shares. On the negative side, however, it spares the schools. It permits them to think that incremental change will be enough. It will not. ...

From a business perspective, the education system presents an alarming picture. It is one in which too little is expected of too many, results are sacrificed to bureaucratic convenience, and professionalism--particularly teacher professionalism--is discouraged. The system is not just failing a large number of students--those who drop out or fail to make satisfactory academic progress; it is failing dedicated teachers as well.

It is failing them because schools are organized to meet the challenges of the 19th--not the 21st--century. And until those challenges are updated in line with reality, the system will continue to fail. Let me give you an illustration.

It is a baleful commentary on the nature of our schools, but the best and the brightest teachers are, to use Denis Doyle's apt phrase, "canny outlaws.''

They have to be "canny outlaws'' to do their jobs well, for they are by nature intellectual entrepreneurs, innovators, system beaters, and rule benders. Good teachers are not bureaucratic paper shufflers. Good teachers do not fit into tidy bureaucracies, because the job of the good teacher is not to "process'' students like so many file cards, but to educate them. It's hard work, but done well, it's gratifying work. ...

Teachers like those are not encouraged to join the ranks of the profession, nor are they encouraged to stay if they do join. Lockstep, myopic management is still the norm in American education today, just as it was in American business while the Japanese were relentlessly taking over market share in industry after industry.

American business fell behind, not just because the Japanese were better, but because we were committed to ossified management structures. It wasn't just that our plant and equipment needed replacing. Our entire way of thinking needed to be replaced. Not just updated or revamped--replaced.

That's why today's successful companies bear little resemblance to the companies of 10 or 20 years ago. Today's high-tech firm is lean: It has stripped away middle management. It is decentralized, relying on the know-how and professionalism of workers close to the problem. It is innovative in the deployment of personnel, no longer relying on limiting job classifications. It spends heavily on employee education and training. It invests heavily in research.

Successful firms have discarded the archaic, outmoded, and thoroughly discredited practices that are still in place in most of our large school districts. Those districts are organized like a factory of the late 19th century: top-down, command-control management, a system designed to stifle creativity and independent judgment. ...

We've found that productivity relates directly to the degree of freedom and independence we afford our employees. And that's precisely how schools must begin to think if they expect to attract and hold the best and the brightest.

In many of the nation's largest school districts, custodians run the buildings. Teachers cannot get into their classrooms except during school hours. They cannot even get keys to their rooms. Even if they could get into their schools, they wouldn't have any heat or lights. That's a typically depressing example of organizing for the convenience of administrators--and custodians--rather than the other way around.

Imagine a company where the most important employees could only come to work between 8A.M. and 5P.M., where the scientists, researchers, and salespeople worked precisely to the bureaucrat's clock. Professionals just don't work that way.

There are even more important barriers to excellence, and they are both institutional and organizational. The central school-district office should be a service center, not a command post. A large organization cannot be "run'' by a chief executive, unless its product is so uniform and the process of production and delivery so routine that the job is absolutely mindless.

Large, complex, and creative organizations can be "orchestrated'' or "choreographed'' by a chief executive but not "run.'' The C.E.O.'s most important job is not to crack the whip. It's to find good people, set goals, hold people accountable, reward performance, correct problems, and then step back. If the initial judgments are correct, the business will prosper. If they're wrong, all the micro-management in the world won't be enough.

Why bother to seek out and hire bright principals and teachers, and then keep them on a short leash? They never reach their potential, which is bad for them, bad for students, and ultimately, bad for the school district.

One way to think about this is to borrow a nautical metaphor popular in high-tech companies--employees are encouraged to experiment "above the waterline.'' That is, they should be innovative, experimental, entrepreneurial in ways that will not "sink'' the firm if they go wrong. Only when "below the waterline'' issues arise should employees go to their superiors. That maximizes both employee initiative and accountability, the best of both worlds.

Ideas like those are just so much talk until they are implemented and until resources are committed to their implementation. But money talks, and I have a very simple suggestion for the school district: Pay no one in the district--except the chief executive--more than you pay your highest-paid building principal. Don't pay associate superintendents, regional superintendents, directors of this and directors of that more than building principals.

To educators, I say this: If you believe the building principal is the most important person in the education chain of cause and effect, as I do, then do what other professions do: Lawyers hire administrators to run their law firms for them, and pay them less than the partners earn. Doctors do the same thing. Educators should do no less.

Make central administration a service center. Go ahead and allocate funds, but the principal and staff will be responsible for spending them. Central administration should sell its services to the buildings--let teachers and principals decide how much overhead they want. That will streamline middle management, I assure you, and it will put resources where they belong, in the school building.

Hiring and firing should be done at the building level, as well. When principals and teachers participate in the selection process in their own schools, you can be certain of one thing: Quality and performance will improve. Experiments with teacher participation in hiring and promotion are already underway in places like Toledo, Ohio, and my hometown, Rochester, N.Y.

I have laid out some lessons that I think the business world has to offer the schools, and I will hazard the guess that it is the rare school district that will have the nerve to examine this approach seriously and candidly.

Vol. 07, Issue 30, Page 32

Published in Print: April 20, 1988, as A Business Perspective on American Schooling
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