Professional Development

At ‘Motorola U,’ School Leaders Learn Corporate Lessons

By Mark Stricherz — May 16, 2001 8 min read
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In a windowless conference room at a Holiday Inn here, Nick Osborne asks whether public education has lost “market share.” It’s the first session of a four-day leadership-training program run by Motorola Inc., and his audience of 15 school leaders from East Texas nods.

The group of principals and top local and district staff members recognizes right away what he means: Private schools, home schooling, and charter schools are attracting students at regular public schools’ expense. “Yup,” he says, with an air of finality, “big time. Big time.”

Mr. Osborne is normally the superintendent of the 1,900-student Mount Vernon, Ill., city district. At last month’s training session, though, his job was to show school leaders how to regain market share.

His solution: a popular corporate-management philosophy. Another “facilitator” here, a former principal who is now a full-time Motorola employee, shows how the company has been a leader in its market—the ultra- competitive world of cellphones, pagers, and semiconductor chips—for years.

The schools-as-corporation model is at the heart of a one-of-a-kind training program run by the Shaumberg, Ill.-based technology giant.

While many prominent companies have played an influential role in the standards-and- accountability movement—illustrated two years ago when the IBM Corp.'s chairman, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., co-chaired a national education summit— Motorola appears to be unusual in the way it’s trying to shape how school leaders actually do their jobs, experts say.

Peggy M. Siegel, the director of business/education leadership initiatives at the Washington-based National Alliance of Business, completed a glowing review this year of Motorola’s training.

“I really think Motorola is a benchmark for partnerships,” she said, “both for the length of time and resources and respecting educators for collaboration.”

“I just think they do a great job—very professional,” agreed Dan Katzir, the director of program development at the Broad Foundation in Los Angeles, which gives grants to urban districts. Last fall, the foundation used the company briefly to train the Los Angeles school system’s 11 local district superintendents.

Wary Audience

If the April 17-20 session here in Fort Worth was any sign, principals are optimistic, but wary, that schools can learn from corporations. Participants generally said they see a tight school- business connection as inevitable and helpful, but also as a flawed model for public schools.

About 10 miles from the Holiday Inn, up a flat stretch of Highway 820, sits an enormous Motorola semiconductor plant. As is the case here, Motorola usually trains school leaders where the company has a major factory. Last year, Motorola University, the formal name for the company’s workforce-training division, held nine such training sessions, all of them in the company’s three biggest bases of operation: Illinois, Massachusetts, and Texas.

Motorola is a global corporation, one of the major players in the technology sector. Last year, the company had $37.6 billion worth of sales— more than three times than it had in 1990, according to company figures. But while school districts face new competition from vouchers, charter schools, and the rise of home schooling, Motorola itself has seen its profits fall sharply in recent months. Since December, the company has announced layoffs of 22,000 of its 147,000 workers.

Still, company representatives make no bones about why they work in the schools: to help ensure a supply of future workers. As Dinah S. Bryant, the manager for Motorola University’s national leadership initiatives, told the school leaders in Fort Worth, “You get them 12 years before we do in the workforce.”

New Lengths

Self-interest marks any corporation’s involvement with schools. But Motorola has taken it to lengths few businesses have, experts suggest.

In the early 1980s, such partnerships were “fairly simple,” said Daniel W. Merenda, the president of the National Association of Partnerships in Education, a Washington-based nonprofit group. Companies might donate T-shirts to the school band or take part in an adopt-a-school program, he said.

By contrast, Motorola founded its “university” in 1981 based on the assumption that public school graduates couldn’t read, write, or enumerate well. “There was an inability ... to get the workforce we needed,” Edward W. Bales, Motorola University’s co-founder, said in an interview. To address the problem, the company essentially provided remedial education for new employees, Mr. Bales said. By 1993, the company was spending 4 percent of its annual payroll to train workers, compared with U.S. industry’s average of 1.2 percent.

During the early 1990s, businesses were just beginning to press state lawmakers for higher academic standards, Mr. Merenda said. Motorola University began training school leaders on its own definition of high standards in 1990. Since then, 3,500 principals, 2,100 superintendents, and 600 school board members have “graduated” from the school, according to the company.

Many businesses or corporate philanthropies, such as the AT&T Corp. and the BellSouth Foundation, have given grants for school- leadership-training programs. Some efforts, including the J.C. Penney Institute and Saturn Corp.'s Saturn Consulting Services, showed school leaders how they might run their schools more like businesses. Both programs, popular field trips with educators, have since disbanded.

Motorola University’s program offers training on a continuing basis with its own regular “facilitators,” such as Mr. Osborne. At the Fort Worth sessions, Motorola paid $600 of the $1,200 per-person cost, while the district and a local grantee paid for the remainder.

The company’s training sessions include an unusual synthesis of trade show, job fair, and company pep rally.

Motorola employees showed off some of the company’s products. For half an hour, they demonstrated gadgets students might buy—a $300 to $400 StarTAC phone, mystic-blue pagers, sleek black hand-held computers. Jeff Leaf, a mustachioed Motorola employee, held up the phone and declared: “I think this has revolutionized schools. Third graders have these, and they’re accessing the Net.”

A few days later, Ms. Bryant, a former school principal, spelled out the company’s key educational requirement for new hires: 9th or 10th grade proficiency in math. In addition, Ms. Bryant cited characteristics not confined to schooling: listening and speaking well, being a creative thinker and problem solver, possessing interpersonal relations and team skills.

But the thrust of the seminar was the notion that schools should operate more like businesses. The unstated implication: Corporations are lean, agile, and focused in a way schools are not.

On the first day, the coordinators and facilitators all gave variations on the theme that public schools must change, given new market pressures.

“For the first time, I think, public school people are facing change, we’re facing competition,” said Ann Hoover, the director of professional development with Texas’ Region 11 service center, which includes Fort Worth.

To regain market share, Motorola’s facilitators touted using the Baldrige in Education Initiative, whose roots lie in the Total Quality Management philosophy of the late business guru W. Edwards Deming.

The idea is that organizations must always strive to improve, whether they’re in trouble or not. For a school leader, that means engaging the rest of the organization in seeking continuous improvement.

Some of the principals voiced satisfaction with Motorola’s embrace of the TQM concept.

Stephen Paulsen, 42, the principal of N.A. Howry Middle School in the Fort Worth suburb of Lake Worth, said: “I especially like their quote, ‘Anything that isn’t performing, why do it at all?’”

“I have teachers who have been around 25 or 30 years ... and they complain that students don’t care, that parents don’t care. ... But what we really need to be asking is, how do we get better together?” he added.

At the training session, one of the main ideas derived from TQM was the importance of developing “mindware"—a set of analytical skills that Motorola requires of employees.

“While we make products, we don’t do it without developing mindware,” Ms. Bryant told the school leaders. “That’s where you come in. This is the future your youngsters are going to be a part of.”

Facilitator Marleis Trover guided the school leaders as they contemplated the meaning of mindware. She asked them to describe characteristics of the “learning community of the future.” After they were done, the list looked very similar to what Ms. Bryant would outline a few days later in explaining what Motorola expects of new employees: “technologically literate,” “problem solver,” “working together,” “career-driven curriculum.”

Higher Scores?

For many of the 15 participants, Motorola’s program was viewed as the ticket to improving their own or their schools’ fortunes. At least three principals said they came because they wanted to raise their schools’ scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.

Even if they fall short of their goals for higher student scores, Texas participants enrolling in Motorola University’s program receive credit for professional development.

A handful of the principals at the session here expressed criticisms. While they applauded the program for making them think conceptually about improving their schools, they also faulted the schools-as- corporation model as a somewhat flabby analogy.

Jim D. Calvin, 33, the principal of Prairie View Intermediate School in nearby Rhome, said he and a few other participants had mulled over whether schools are like businesses. They decided that in most ways they aren’t.

“If you look at the number of individuals under the direction of a corporate executive, it’s something like 15. I have 145,” he said.

“It’s difficult to equate children with products, with electronics, for example,” Mr. Calvin said. “Children are much different. They have a mind of their own, and they don’t usually turn out the way you want, or how they’re supposed to under the utilitarian model of education.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as At ‘Motorola U,’ School Leaders Learn Corporate Lessons


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