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If schools worked just like businesses…

Teacher and blogger Doug Noon imagines what would happen if the government’s attitudes towards schools and investment banks were switched:

If education reform worked anything like the $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan now on the table, we’d have seen government officials immediately call for implementing a plan that, as George Bush would argue, “matches the scope of the problem.” We’d see the debt ceiling raised, with hundreds of billions of dollars committed to resolving the crisis, and no demand for accountability. …

On the other hand, if a Wall Street bailout worked like education reform, we’d have a long drawn-out debate about the financial sector, accountability, and what we’ll count as real indicators of economic well-being.

Noon’s heard more than enough from the business world about school reform, he concludes. Many educators will sympathize; initiatives like the city’s Leadership Academy for principals have turned to business for leadership models, and books like the management bible Good to Great have been promoted as guides for creating better schools (every teacher at the school where I taught was assigned Good To Great a few years ago).

In July, Freakonomics looked at the eleven Good To Great companies touted as consistently outperforming the market and found that only one continued to outperform the stock market since the book was published; on average, they underperformed during that time period. While no one can predict the future, the problem is “the implicit message of these business books is that the principles that these companies use not only have made them good in the past, but position them for continued success,” Freakonomics author Steven Levitt pointed out.

While it’s hard to argue with Good to Great tenets like setting big goals and encouraging risk-taking and personal responsibility among employees, it’s also hard to stomach the dramatic failures of so-called exemplars (see graphic above).

Meanwhile, on a more nuts-and-bolts level, Kenneth Hartman, a school board member and award-winning educator, thinks there are plenty of ways for school districts to save money and get through the lean times. Some of his proposals, such as reining in pension plans and requiring teachers to contribue to their health coverage, are bound to be controversial among teachers and their unions; others, like making better use of existing technology and resisting the temptation to introduce a new curriculum every few years, will resonate with educators who’ve seen thousands of dollars of materials stashed away in closets. He also proposes charging a small student activity fee for sports and clubs — with the fee waived for students who qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch — and sending students who are ready to college a year early.

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