Education Trends

Remaking America’s Schools for the 21st Century

Four questions and a business model

February 10, 2012

Downtown Brownsville, Texas, has an otherworldly feel. Nestled in a crook in the Rio Grande near where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, the narrow streets are filled with stores selling cheap merchandise to Mexicans or to the poor from the local Hispanic community, which is often just a few years removed from the other side of the border. It is not a place that gives you the feeling that something special is happening in the local schools. You would be wrong. In 2008, Brownsville won the Broad Prize for having the most improved urban school district in America.

The great gulf between good districts and bad ones is not about race or income. If anyone harbors the notion that a majority white district is necessarily "good," and that a majority minority one is self-evidently "bad," that person simply does not know the state of education in this country ten years into the twenty-first century.

The differences in American school districts are less about the wealth of the community or the color of the students they serve than about how they organize and manage the instruction they provide. Brownsville may not look like Beverly Hills, but in a head-to-head comparison of how well they are both run, I'd be willing to put my money on the South Texas entry.

The Four Questions

What, then, is the key to that organization and management? All enterprises in the twenty-first century, including manufacturers and service industries, strive for innovation and flexibility that will best meet consumer needs. As economist Gary Hamel described it in his book The Future of Management1, that pushes them toward a flattened hierarchy, with few layers of bosses and more empowered workers, where decisions are made close to the shop or the customer.

It is a prescription that fits perfectly for the crisis we face in education. For over one hundred years, we have treated elementary and secondary education as assembly line, mass production -- one curriculum, taught one way, by one teacher, with little variation. Almost twenty years ago, when we decreed that every child can learn, that kind of one-size-fits-all mass production was out -- although we may not have realized it at the time.

The goal of educating every child committed schools to not losing sight of any "customer." The techniques of mass production could not do that. On the contrary, decentralizing power to the schools and empowering teachers to tailor education to the distinct needs of students is precisely the best way to guarantee we can educate every child.

It is the key strategy in high-performing school systems internationally,2 and it is fundamental to the high-performing districts I visited on my road trip around America.

How do we get there? We start by recognizing that education is a service. It faces the same challenges as any service enterprise whose goal is to build in innovation and excellence that will serve every customer. They are captured in four questions:

  • How do you recruit, train, and motivate good leaders (such as superintendents and principals)?
  • How do you recruit, train, and motivate good service providers (such as teachers)?
  • How do you "not lose sight of the customer" (in this case, students and parents)?
  • How do you continuously improve, testing whether what you are doing is working and whether you are adapting successfully to the world around you?

The first two questions are fundamental to any service business. All it has to sell are the skills of its workers. That means it needs the right people, trained well, and properly motivated to do their jobs. Experts have long said "teacher quality" is key, but so is the quality of the administrators who lead them.

The third question may be even more important because it goes to the heart of whether any business survives. If that business loses sight of its customers' needs, those customers are not going to be happy. In mass-production education, losing sight of customers was not a sometime thing. It was the inevitable result of a rigid, top-down system where, one could justifiably say, "Only the strong survive." The only reason that the schools persisted was that they were geographic monopolies. Ignoring kids or parents did not matter because most people had nowhere else to go.

However, the monopoly also created the opposite problem. Most service businesses try to find a niche, a particular group of customers that they can serve better than anyone else. It gives them a competitive edge and does not stretch them beyond their expertise.

Not public schools. They had to serve everyone. Even the best staff would have found that challenging, and nothing about most schools or their staffs was that flexible and innovative. The only option was to dumb down instruction in order to meet an obligation no reasonable business would assume.

The largest parts of this book flesh out these issues in answer to the first three of the questions; there are sections on leaders, teachers, and students and their parents.

There is, however, no separate section for our fourth question -- how to keep getting better. Rather, almost every discussion in the book revisits this idea because continuous improvement is fundamental to virtually any aspect of the professional and artisanal vision of schooling.

Continuous Improvement -- Total Quality Management

Starting in the early 1980's, American business leaders discovered W. Edwards Deming and his game-changing idea -- total quality management (TQM). TQM emphasizes that enterprises need to focus on cooperation, teamwork, customer satisfaction and continuous improvement.3 All of these ideas are alien to much of twentieth-century mass production, certainly education mass production. The adoption of any one of them would have a substantial effect on traditional public schools. The adoption of all of them, especially the dual commitments to data-driven decision-making and continuous improvement, has had an extraordinary impact in the relatively few districts where it has happened.

TQM requires there be agreement on a vision and a determination of a set of benchmarks to assess the realization of the vision. It demands a willingness to admit failure if the benchmarks come up short, and it encourages innovation to identify what else might work better.

If students are not learning, continuous improvement pushes administrators and teachers to figure out how to improve the results.4 Not just once, but over and over. It has to be, after all, continuous. Any idea of a silver bullet is out, and the old "one lesson plan forever" way of teaching finished.5


1 Gary Hamel, The Future of Management (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2007).

2Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States (Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2010), 243.

3 Colleen A. Capper and Michael T. Jamison, "Let the Buyer Beware: Total Quality Management and Educational Research and Practice," Educational Researcher 22, no. 8 (Nov. 1993): 25-30, 25.

4National Working Group on Funding Student Learning, Funding Student Learning (School Finance Redesign Project, Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington, Bothell, WA, October 2008), 13.

5 In 2010, the National Conference of State Legislatures was still complaining that federal policy was too compliance oriented, rather than being focused on achievement and results. National Conference of State Legislatures, Education at a Crossroads: A New Path for Federal and State Education Policy (Denver, CO: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2010), 19.

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