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Running Schools Like a Business

Because government and private business operate under a different sets of rules, public schools are not, and never will be, like a business. Someone buying a car generally knows what combination of cost, comfort, safety, carrying capacity, reliability, and fun he wants. Many different manufacturers each market a variety of models. A buyer can try before buying and consult one of many rating services. Manufacturers consistently producing a bad product know they can lose money quickly. Shareholders hate revenue declines. They give managers wide latitude in selecting and deploying employees.

Consumers of public school services often have only the vaguest idea of the combination of academic knowledge, physical education, vocational subjects, social engineering, and fun that they want for their children. They choose from a tiny group of manufacturers: the local school district and a few private competitors. Model selection is a bad joke. Before charter schools, public education offered two models. One was a generally oversubscribed fundamental program. The other was the standard model dressed up in different paint jobs (a gifted program, an alternative program, or an advanced placement program).

Other than the Independence Institute#39;s Parent Information Center, school rating systems hardly exist. Parents know little about what their children are actually being taught, and less about other educational models. A relatively small fraction of the population attends private schools (an estimated 12% of students in kindergarten through eighth grade in 1994), goes to schools in other countries, or has any knowledge of educational history in this one. Product evaluation takes decades. Only years after graduation can one evaluate how good a job the school did.

Schools that consistently produce a bad product often get the most money. Worst of all, the people who run the public schools have little real control over policy or personnel. That is in the hands of the teachers unions who run the school for the benefit of their members. As Albert Shanker, long-time president of the American Federation of Teachers said, I#39;ll start representing kids when kids start paying union dues

Just how does one measure the contribution of a teacher to a student#39;s development Teaching is only one of many factors that affects student performance. Outstanding teachers may push mediocre students to undreamed of heights, but they control neither their raw material nor the educational environment of their school. A superb teacher stuck with craven administrators, a lousy curriculum, irresponsible colleagues, and impulsive students may find his best efforts washed away on a tide of disorderly conduct. At the other extreme, excellent students often perform superbly in spite of rotten conditions.

According to Jefferson County#39;s new pay for performance plan, 10% of a teacher#39;s pay would depend on whether his school meets student performance goals. If performance means scores on standardized tests, as is usually the case, rational teachers will do two things. They will teach to the test and they will lobby to ensure that performance goals are low. Standardized tests have their uses, but they remain incomplete measures of performance. Teaching to the test could well produce a new low in student writing.

Back in the dark ages when school actually turned out educated students, teaching was a profession and individual performance mattered. Performance meant demanding that students master a particular area of knowledge for a particular grade. Evaluating performance meant that an experience person or two rendered their informed opinion about how well a teacher met that goal. From there, the head of the school either renewed their contract or not. In a suitably sized school, this is not hard to do. When an Algebra I teacher does a consistently good job of turning out well-prepared students, the Algebra II teachers will know. When a lazy English teacher substitutes movies for writing instruction, the other English teacher will know. So will a conscientious principal.

But the public doesn#39;t require principals to act on their knowledge. In the public sector, everyone is responsible for the schools. When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.

Successful schools invest one principled person with the responsibility and authority for each school. Joe Clark, the principal who cleaned up East Rutherford High School, tells how to do this in his book, Laying Down the Law. Normally sensible people attracted to the Jefferson county plan should read the book first. It, not some pay-for-group performance plan, is the real private sector model.

Linda Gorman is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, a free-market think-tank located in Golden, Colorado.

This article, from the Independence Institute staff, fellows and research network, is offered for your use at no charge. Independence Feature Syndicate articles are published for educational purposes only, and the authors speak for themselves. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.
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