This is the Business Community’s Greatest Educational Mistake

Crain’s Chicago Business just put out a list of 5 Big Ideas for Chicago’s Troubled Schools.

While surely well intentioned, I thought the ideas were terrible.

Here are the five ideas they proposed in their five day series:

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 12.20.45 PM

To sum up: Crain’s thinks that Chicago Public School can be fixed through better management.

Their strategies focus on reorganizing the bureaucracy, developing leaders, and using data in more sophisticated ways.

I do not think that better management will lead to sustainable gains in student learning.

At best, better management will lead to modest improvements that are constantly at risk of being undermined via political instability.

I believe that structural change is a much better strategy for reform.

By structural change, I mean letting educators operate schools via non-profits, allowing families to choose amongst these schools, and ensuring that government regulates for equity and performance.

Evidence from New Orleans and urban charter schools across the country provide some evidence that this strategy can work. Though, admittedly, it’s not a slam dunk case by any stretch of the imagination.

Much remains to be proven.

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I do find it odd that the business community thinks that government monopolies will run better if these bureaucracies simply adopt business best practices.

Given that these practices are not a secret, the business community needs to ask the question: why isn’t the government already implementing these practices?

The most likely answer is: structure.

The source of the business community’s error, I think, is that at heart they are organizational leaders and not policy makers. Their instincts are operational and not structural.

For the same reason corporate CEOs probably wouldn’t make good Fed Chairs, the business community seems to have a lot of weak ideas about educational policy.

All this being said, business communities are vitally important stakeholders for education reform, and the goal should be outreach, not rejection.

Perhaps, over time, business leaders will further realize that the success of business is not solely due to their own management genius; rather, it is the structure in which businesses operate that explains some of their impact.

Education policy leaders can surely learn much from the business community, but these lessons are probably best captured by sound analysis of industries and regulation and, on average, not by listening to business leaders themselves.

One thought on “This is the Business Community’s Greatest Educational Mistake

  1. John C

    I think you are correct except business leaders are used to changing the structure of organizations, so they presume (incorrectly) that good management would change it here. A corollary to your structure argument is the incentive system in place (all incentives, not just economic), which has a number of real life laboratories. If you look at Korea, a country with a long common history and resources, the results for the North and South have been remarkably different over the past 60 years. The only real difference is incentive system guiding and rewarding (or punishing) it’s citizens.

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