Guest Column

Inferior Blackberries and Other Excuses I've Heard

by David Van Winkle

Arecurring story in education journals tells of the businessman who speaks at a business and education roundtable and criticizes the lack of quality in the public schools. As he extols his company’s premier product, “ America’s best blueberry ice cream,” he is quietly challenged by a teacher who asks him about the quality of the ingredients.

“Premium ingredients?” the teacher asks.

“Super premium! Nothing but AAA,” the business executive responds.

The teacher continues, “When you are standing on your receiving dock and an inferior shipment of blueberries arrives, what do you do?”

“I send them back,” the businessman replies.

“That’s right!” the teacher snaps. “But we can never send back our inferior blueberries … and that’s why education is not a business.”

The Royal Excuse
One educator, Thomas Hanson, writing in the June 2004 issue of another education periodical, concludes that we cannot run schools more like businesses because educators don’t have any control over the quality of raw materials. “One of the more misguided suggestions is that schools should run more like businesses. Educators must take all the raw materials they receive and be committed to doing the very best they can with those materials in accordance with the funding provided and under government mandates,” Hanson contends.

I heartily agree with part of his last statement. It is unfortunate, however, that some educators have adopted the blueberry story as one of many excuses for barely advancing the status quo. It is time to realize that we are in the child business and if we fail to make significant improvements, we will never achieve the vision that propelled many of us into these unique and challenging careers in the first place.

In taking on the business executive, the teacher incorrectly assumes that students are somehow raw materials and this has become the premise for those who build excuses for public education. A more appropriate view is the student in the role of customer with needs and expectations that must be met. The caveat here--and the major difference between business and education--is that our customers do not fit a true consumer model. Students in grades K-12 are not yet equipped to make informed choices about the type of educational programs and services they need.

We must respond to our young customers with the design, development and delivery of services to meet their needs based on our wealth of accumulated knowledge and expertise. The curriculum is the real product of the school. The most effective way to improve the delivery of that product is when our most accomplished teachers model best practices and train other teachers in those approaches. This will yield a much different view of the capacity of schools to add value for our students.

Even if we reject that perspective, we cannot ignore the use of sound, research-supported, business approaches to improving performance. School leaders are often viewed by the business community as a group of warm, fuzzy types who couldn't find the bottom line if they tripped over it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Education and business leaders have much in common and much to learn from each other if we are to meet the expectations of our respective customers.

A Matter of Choice
Jim Collins, in From Good to Great found organizations that significantly improved the value of their products or services did so through a conscientious effort to change their culture, their operating practices and their specific goals and strategies while tenaciously adhering to core purposes and values.

If public schools are to be judged as successful, leaders must begin a determined shift by adopting a systems view and a results focus. Most significantly, they must be willing to adopt frameworks and criteria that have the highest potential to improve organizational effectiveness and create added value for students.

Unfortunately, many business and education leaders seem intent on fixing specific issues and fail to acquire a systemic perspective. These isolated initiatives yield results that usually are less than satisfactory and rarely lead to lasting improvements. When such fixes are attempted in an organization whose culture is designed to maintain the status quo, the results should not be surprising.

A Workable Framework
Changing the culture of an organization from keeper of the status quo to one oriented to continuous improvement can be achieved using a framework that is common to both education and business. The “Education Criteria for Performance Excellence,” also known as the Baldrige education criteria, represent the gold standard for school accountability.

The Baldrige criteria consist of the key characteristics found in all high-performing organizations. The criteria for leadership, strategic planning, student and stakeholder focus, data (knowledge) management, faculty and staff focus, process (educational design) management and performance results are arranged in a framework designed to ensure schools are addressing the needs of all students.

The education criteria are not prescriptive and do not mandate any particular instructional or operational methodology. Instead they pose important questions about how schools function. Honest answers will identify gaps in processes and in results, which must be closed for schools to significantly improve. In addition to a solid framework for improvement, the education criteria’s clear terminology helps bridge the gap between business and education where the lack of a common vocabulary often becomes a focal point of resistance to change.

The criteria require leadership at all levels committed to the core purpose and values of the school along with a determination to change the existing culture. The use of the “Education Criteria for Performance Excellence” creates a significant opportunity to remove the excuse of inferior blueberries and eliminate the fear of adapting best practices from business to drive improvement for all students.

David Van Winkle is superintendent of the School District of Haverford Township, 1801 Darby Road, Havertown, PA 19083. E-mail: vanwinkle@havsd.net