Over the course of my 18-year career in education, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard someone make the statement that schools should be run like a business. And, of course, well managed businesses have a lot to teach any organization, be they governmental, not-for-profit or for profit.
The statement usually comes in the context of discussions around concepts like efficiency, strategic planning, human capital, performance management, innovation and return on investment — and these are certainly important ideas for any organization to monitor closely.
By some accounts, notably the business publications Forbes and Bloomberg, 80 percent of businesses fail within the first 18 months. There is almost a limitless list of possible reasons for these failures, but usual suspects include inadequate funding, poor quality products or services and downright mismanagement. So, clearly we don’t want to run schools like all businesses, but it makes sense to learn best practices from very successful ones — the companies that deliver high quality year after year.
Where schools and industry depart is in the selection of their raw materials. Companies are very selective about the quality and consistency of their inputs. This allows them to create repeatable processes around uniform materials to efficiently achieve the desired outcome, often within very tight tolerances. Public schools, on the other hand, accept all children and celebrate their uniqueness. No two are the same, nor are their qualities malleable like inanimate objects. We happily work with their distinctiveness. Can you imagine assembling cars where every part was different every time?
Generally, the business metaphor used for comparison involves the production of inanimate objects — cars, computers, fast food, big box retailers — where skilled professionals control “things.” Schools, on the other hand, are in the business of shaping the most alive, frenetic and dynamic life forms on the planet. They laugh, cry, struggle, achieve, talk back, pester one another, develop friendships, beam with pride, sulk with disappointment and absorb content that changes them every waking minute. Most importantly, these are the community’s children. Your children. We know them as the single most precious part of a parent’s life. And we handle with care.
Schools don’t measure efforts by profit and loss like businesses, but we do measure the quality of outcomes for students. And just like in a long-standing successful business, our schools are designed to realize consistent quality while eliminating the probability of failure. Our approach to achieving that goal, with input from the community and staff, is international benchmarking. A method actually taken directly from business, benchmarking has us identify the best performing systems and then consider how we might adapt their approaches to our context. We want to graduate globally competitive students, so we benchmark against the best education systems.
Eagle County Schools uses all sorts of business-informed practices. Our strategic planning process is steeped in business best practices (Demming). We read business journals (like the Harvard Business Review) along with the education trade press. We visit with business management consultants (Eric Wiseman, here in Vail), conduct a crash analysis (from the transportation industry) when something goes wrong, practice team-based idea critiques to ensure decisions are well made and have a set of durable operating practices to ensure specific, methodical and consistent approaches to problem solving. This is right out of Collins’ best-selling business book “Great by Choice.”
We also see components of schools influencing businesses. In the business book “Firms of Endearment,” brands with unprecedented staff and customer loyalty are studied to see what contributes to their success. These firms routinely outperform S&P 500 and Collins’ “good to great” companies.
Though there are a variety of reasons behind their success, the thread of continuity is clear: Each values the many ways of being human. Said differently, they seek ways to lift up the people in their organization and extend that practice to their customers. They support staff, compensate competitively, have fair and flexible policies centered on helping employees achieve balance between work and personal lives. They’re not blindly focused on profit at any cost; they are sensitive to the impact of their success. These organizations have a corporate spirit that respects and supports human dignity, are concerned about the ripple effects of their actions, that gives back to communities and rewards staff for also doing so on a personal basis.
The result? They don’t have employees; they have disciples. They don’t have customers; they have fans.
Much the same here in Eagle County Schools — we don’t want just high test scores. We are working to create globally prepared graduates who are creative, collaborative and who can think critically. We are working to build engaged and mission-focused employees who are respected and valued. And we are working to create relationships with parents who are proud of having their kids in our schools and are fiercely loyal to our brand.
Our aspirations are beyond profit and loss — we want great schools that are also great for our community.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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