Today I wanted to circle back to my reflections of the work that I have been sharing as part of Jamie Vollmer's 'Schools Cannot Do it Alone' network. Originally tapped to lead a business roundtable tasked to come up with ideas and strategies to improve the status of public schools, Jamie was a harsh critic of the system. After becoming immersed in the work, Jamie was transformed into one of the most vocal of public school advocates. In the beginning, his philosophy was one that focused on this idea that if schools were simply run like a business, it would 'fix' the problem. His famous 'Blueberry Story' experience was a turning point in his view of public schooling. In this video, Jamie debunks several myths and misconceptions about public schools, among them the idea that schools should be run as a business.
At the same time, he acknowledges there are some areas where a business approach in education makes sense. Where applicable, I believe many schools apply those business lessons where appropriate to do so. We do here at Hudson.
Yet, I have spoke of the distinctions that make businesses and the enterprise of public schools distinctly different. The point I have most commonly made is the fact we have no control of our 'raw material'. In October of 2015, I wrote this about the raw material that is our students:
....To accept this premise would, I believe remove the individuality and humanness of the students we work with daily in our schools. Consider this: in a factory or manufacturing industry we can set quotas for production. Certainly General Motors has a certain number of cars that are expected to come off the assembly line in a given day. John Deere most likely utilizes a quota system to produce a certain amount of tractors. This system works well for manufacturing industries because cars and tractors are not people. Those industries are dealing with a raw material that is fixed, stable, uniform, rigid, and orderly. This enables those assembly lines to operate in a systematic and efficient manner. What happens when that raw material isn't uniform? It's imperfection makes it unusable and therefore it is discarded (hence the quality control department). From: Cars and Tractors are not People, October 6, 2015
I expanded on this theme in April of this year when reflecting on Vollmer's Blueberry Story in the column, 'We Take then All. No Matter What'. Indeed, I think the raw material argument is relatively easy to make and provides a relatively simple illustrations to emphasize the point. But Vollmer doesn't stop there in his contrast between the world of business and education. He offers several other reasons why the traditional business model isn't easily transferrable to school systems: publicly elected governance, politically charged funding, and competing stakeholders.
Let's think about the stakeholders for a moment. In business, stakeholders are pretty much united in their focus: how the company performs and creates profit. What is the interest of stakeholders in the school district? Well, quite frankly it depends on the stakeholder. The retiree on a fixed income with children long since graduated and moved away is interested in low property taxes. The parents of kindergarten children are interested in small class sizes. Those whose children are in high school want to ensure the district has a robust catalog of curricular and extra-curricular activities. Those are but a few examples! What is maddening about all of this is that stakeholder groups are rarely static. They tend to change and morph depending on the issue of debate.
Then there is the funding issue. Of course we have spent (and will do so again when the legislature reconvenes) ample time lamenting the nature of supplemental state aid and how schools are funded. But as one of the largest line items in the school budget, it is a very politically charged discussion that is not easily resolved, and is only done so annually when a political solution is reached. If a business were to run into a problem with capital, they can raise their prices or cut overhead. While a school district can't raise their prices, we can cut our overhead. Except wait: remember those stakeholders who wanted smaller class sizes?
That's really the beauty of the system and why, quite frankly it would be a mistake to apply a business model wholesale to the operation of a school district. And indeed, why publicly elected governance is so important to our mission. They are elected to represent the vast scope of stakeholders and all their interests, providing a conduit from their neighborhoods to the board table, while at the same time working for the good of the entire community. Sometimes a difficult task indeed!
There will be no column next week but we'll return soon and I'll begin to outline for you the board's priorities for the next legislative session.