Executive Perspective

Running Schools Like Business

by PAUL D. HOUSTON

Because I give speeches often, I am always looking for a good laugh line to loosen up the audience. Lately I have found one: “Why don’t we make schools more like business?”

For years as a superintendent, I had to eat and sleep negative comparisons between schools and businesses. All I heard was that we should run schools like a business. If schools were ever to improve, we needed to watch and learn from business how they did things. We had the problems; they had the answers.

What a difference a few months can make. After months of hearing the “scandal de jour” from insider trading to shredded documents to doctored accounting and audits to phantom partnerships to lavish stock options and the like, I haven’t heard anyone suggesting lately that schools need to pattern themselves after business. Gee, even Martha Stewart, that paragon of propriety, allegedly has been putting more than green lettuce in her salads. Now that Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia have become fodder for late-night comics, few are suggesting we operate like these folks.

Complex Connections

Of course, schools and business have always had a complex relationship. We supply the future workforce and customer base. They help supply the money for us to run (although it could be argued not always their fair share what with the tax breaks and loopholes available to many).

Schools often have been used as the designated whipping boy for some business folk to cover their failures. You remember the “Nation at Risk” report and the “rising tide of mediocrity” that was threatening to swamp the good ship of American capitalism in the 1980s. The failure of schools to adequately train our workforce to world-class standards put America at an international economic disadvantage. Of course, during the booming ’90s no one came forth to credit the schools with the turnaround, so you will excuse a bit of righteous indignation on my part as I witness the fall from grace of those who had all the answers for us.

It is hard to listen to business leaders decry the quality of their workforce with one breath and then complain about higher taxes with the next breath as if there is no connection between the two things. And of course after hearing for years that “money doesn’t matter” and that schools should do more with less and then seeing the obscene amounts of money that many of these same people have made boggles the mind and upsets the stomach. Further, as we struggle to teach children values, we must offset the example of incredible greed and dishonesty demonstrated by some of these same leaders.

Dangerous Comparisons

Now, lest I get too carried away, we must not do to business what many of them have done to us--to paint all with an ugly color for the failing of some. I am confident and hopeful that most businesses are not guilty of the financial shenanigans and blatant greed and corruption that we have witnessed lately.

We know that many school systems (and even associations like AASA) have developed rich and deep partnerships of mutual support with businesses. In the future, schools will likely be even more affiliated with private-sector partners. That can be a good thing. It is possible to do well and do good at the same time. We also must admit readily that we school leaders could improve many of our business practices and that learning from responsible business leaders could be helpful.

But we also have to remember that drawing comparisons is dangerous and that apples and oranges, while being fruit, are still not the same fruit and require different climates and care. Schools are fundamentally different creatures than business. We don’t control our raw materials and we have to keep working with sometimes “defective” material. In fact, the glory of public education is that it is so often successful with material that would be quickly rejected in the private sector.

We also can learn some common lessons from the current struggles of business. It isn’t all about money; it is also about values and human dignity. It shouldn’t be about greed; it should be about goodness. And while many businesses got into trouble because they had a much too narrow view of accountability--looking good on the quarterly report--schools must guard against the impulse to score well on the accountability measures while we ignore the basic work of education--to help children grow into their full potential to become contributing and honest members of the good society.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.