Teaching is not a Business: But School System Administration is

In an opinion published in the The Sunday New York Times (2014, August 17), Professor David Kirp maintains (Teaching is not a business) that neither increased market competition nor technology are the key components to improving America’s schools.  He goes on to state that reforms such as high stakes testing, charter schools, vouchers, school reconstitution and online K-12 schools have all done very little to improve things.  In fact, he argues that most of them have harmed the progress of education reform.

Dr. Kirp’s prescription for education reform depends on “strengthening personal bonds by building strong systems of support in the schools.” He goes on to cite the Chicago Organizing Schools for Improvement as well as big Brothers and Big Sisters as good examples of this strategy. He even cites Johns Hopkins’s own Success for All and our Diplomas Now as successful examples of programs that build relationships inside schools. Kirp also correctly puts the emphasis on supporting teachers and teacher teams as the means for building relationships for students in order to help them to thrive. And I do not take issue with these thoughts.

Where I do take issue with Kirp is his basic assumption that teaching is not a business. That is an incorrect response to the transformational ideas now coming from outside of the traditional academy. Kirp is correct that teaching is not a business; teaching is a profession. Furthermore, all education reformers agree that teachers should have more control of their profession.  They need to borrow more of the responsibilities governed by practitioners in other professions. For example, like attorneys and physicians, teachers should have much greater participation in teacher preparation, professional recognition (licensure) and the discipline of their colleagues.

However where Kirp errs is his use of teachers to attack choice and free markets in education. Teaching is not a business, but managing schools, school systems and education policy dictates from three levels of government is a business. Or, at the very least, education leaders need to borrow more successful models from the private sector in developing strategies for running the education enterprise. Here are a few suggestions on how to run the education enterprise, meaning the nonacademic components, more like a business.

First, it makes sense to leave the academic component of the education enterprise in the hands of teachers. They should be given wide degrees of freedom, like physicians and attorneys, in order to provide the best teaching and learning possible, and to build those relationships about which Kirp writes. A first step in providing teachers with more academic control and more freedom of action would be for schools to utilize the higher education model. Teachers should be given academic freedom and a faculty senate, in order for them to participate in the governance/management of the school’s academic product.  Teachers should also be allowed to have tenure, and, like other professions, they should set the standards for their profession and enforce them.  This more professional model will go far in giving teachers more freedom, more respect and toward building a stronger profession.

Second, there are some schools, and even some school systems, that are already being run by for-profit and nonprofit education management organizations (EMOs). We need more of these organizations; or more education leaders who think this way. The education enterprise needs to take lessons from the business sector in such topics as risk taking, incentives, economic efficiencies and entrepreneurialism.  The culture and rules of education systems need to adopt some new traditions and operating models from the private sector. This summer, I have watched my leadership students, many of them mid-career education leaders, wrestling with the implementation of entrepreneurial ideas into schools and school systems. Their work has shown me that changing school system cultures and operations remains a very difficult undertaking. However, these changes are necessary if we are to truly transform the education enterprise. Maybe the best way to break down the education bureaucracy is to bring new ideas from other sectors, including business.

Third, let’s do away with school boards. School systems will never be run efficiently if all major and minor decisions must be vetted through a political organization. The states and the federal government must also make policy decisions in conjunction with legislative bodies.  But each of those two levels of government also has strong independent executives to manage their organizations.  School system model runs upside down: The administrators (superintendents) work for their legislative bodies (school boards).

The politics of school boards has been one of the incentives fueling the effort to put mayors in charge of schools in many cities. And many mayors now have school boards who work for them, as having been appointed by the mayors.  Let’s go to the next step and just eliminate the school board altogether.  If a community does not have a mayor to run the schools, we should set up a system wherein their superintendents report to the chief state school officer.  Either of these systems is better than having a third legislative body, the school board, involved in the management of the school systems.

As Dr. Kirp points out, let’s continue to build those personal relationships between teachers and students. In fact, let’s give teachers more freedom to control those activities. Teaching, after all, is not a business, it is a profession. However, running school systems should be a business. Let’s shed the bureaucracies and develop efficient operating systems to manage the education enterprise. The sooner we recognize and adopt this approach to systems, the easier it will be for teachers to build those relationships.

Henry M. Smith, Assistant Professor

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