Thursday, February 10, 2005


Can you imagine a bank board being run by nothing but tellers? Do you think a telecommunications firm would stay in business for long if its board of directors were all linesmen? How about Wal-Mart’s top executives: what if they were all stock clerks? What if nobody from outside any organization, profit or nonprofit, were allowed on the board or in the executive suite?

But that’s what we have in our public schools: they’re totally an inside job. And it shows.

Go Big Ed has been suggesting ways that schools could save money and do a better job this week. One of those is to improve the quality and diversity of the leadership within our schools and educational regulatory boards and agencies. Break the cartel! Let in some fresh, outside air! It would start with allowing people who are – horrors! – NOT certified teachers to hold management and executive positions within schools.

Quick: can you name a superintendent of a Nebraska school district who is NOT a middle-aged, white man who used to be a teacher?

Can you name a school principal who has ever worked for a sustained amount of time in private industry, managing people and resources?

Can you name any decision-maker in any public school or education agency who has ever excelled in a business or professional capacity in a competitive environment, outside the school setting?

In contrast, in private industry, can you name a chief financial officer responsible for tens of millions of dollars of spending . . . who for most of his career has been a gym teacher?

That’s not being cruel. It’s being realistic. Many top school officials managing millions of dollars would most likely not survive in an equal capacity in a private-sector company. Do they realize that? Don’t appear to. But why should they care? There’s no pressure on them to do any better, after all.

They’ve been too insulated by the peculiar protected culture of the enormous school monopoly in this country, and the unchecked supply of money. Because there are no checks and balances, and no real oversight on their spending, the insiders have no restraint in anything from selecting new curriculum, to hiring more people, to starting new programs.

A friend of mine sardonically calls this the “What’s nuts? Let’s try it!” syndrome.

School managers are alternately ‘way too susceptible to cleverly-marketed fads and promotions because they lack sophistication, or stubbornly shut tight to worthwhile proposals because they are made by people they don’t control.

That’s how so many wacky, boneheaded programs and philosophies have wormed their way into our schools. That’s why schools aren’t teaching reading with systematic, intensive, explicit phonics any more, even though every bit of research under the sun shows it’s best for kids. Because it’s not education insiders pointing it out, the education insiders refuse to listen.

Union campaign contributions and unfair politicking put union pets on school boards regardless of weak qualifications. Because the press and the public know almost nothing about how money changes hands within a school system, and accountability is loose at best, there are all kinds of inefficiencies and egregious ethical violations taking place. Meanwhile, management looks the other way, when not directly involved: steering business contracts to brothers-in-law; taking consulting fees from companies that sell their products to the district; cheating on expense accounts; creative accounting to conceal unpopular programs, and so forth.

Bad management has created a fog of groupthink, nepotism and corruption which is impossible for outsiders to pierce, even when they have excellent input to contribute.

What’s to be done? It might be too tangled. The answer might indeed be to let our public schools “crash” under unsurmountable overregulation, unsustainable funding demands and irredeemable poor management. That’s unfortunately where they seem to be headed, and determinedly so.

But there are places where school management is good, such as the private schools locally and nationally where children are excelling far beyond public-school levels. Maybe we should be finding out more about good school management, and spread the word.

Here are some suggestions from my upcoming CD-ROM, “Show ‘n’ Tell for Parents.” It’s called “How the Good Guys Run Schools.”

Q. What are some signs of effective school management?

-- Good statistical accountability to the public. We should know as much about a district’s academic and business activities as we do about its sports teams. It builds trust when officials report to taxpayers such key data as spending per pupil, total staffing per pupil, percentage of staff that are nonteachers working outside the classroom, dropout rate, percentage who graduate on time, test scores plus percentage of enrollment taking the tests, disciplinary action, property damage, crime, value of fringe benefits packages, perquisites for top staff, etc.

-- Cross-training staff, especially in the business office, helps prevent inefficiency, embezzlement, fraud and lots of mistakes.

-- Cross-training of nonteaching staff allows a district to be better able to handle the growing problem of absenteeism among school staffs. It also makes the operation flexible enough to distribute workloads over the course of the week or the day, reducing idle time and cutting overtime pay.

-- Written job manuals with policies and procedures spelled out are common in the private sector but uncommon in public schools. These should be available to parents, too.

-- Since staff training is so expensive and so many districts fly by the seats of their pants for most staff except certified teachers, formal job descriptions and manuals are signs of exemplary school management.

-- Segregate certain duties to prevent corruption. If the same person is opening the mail, making out deposit slips and receiving and reconciling bank statements, your district has a problem. Most of the growing numbers of school corruption cases stemmed from staffers who were isolated, handling money and able to cover up their tracks.

-- Direct-deposit of payroll to reduce labor costs and automated payroll methods for hourly employees.

-- Significant management power for principals.

Homework: Learn what management techniques are producing stellar results for schools for disadvantaged kids at

I could not agree with you more on the first part of your blog for the 10th of February. I would love the see schools have a CFO and a CIO - in each building with these individuals being able to manage the full school budget, hire and fire staff, etc.

I would also like for people outside of education to be able to come into the field without having to spend time in the classroom or ed schools. The flip side is also possible -- I would like to see teachers, administrators, principals, etc. rotate through the business world every so often. I think it makes everyone better at their job/career to be exposed to ideas different than what they normally hear -- ideas that work and can be adapted to education.

I wonder if 6Sigma, Hoshin planning, management by fact would work in education? Does anyone know if these tools are being used in any school districts?

Thank you --
Hi! Well, we're already up to our eyeballs in that kind of stuff. We need to get out of it; it's what is ruining schools. Hoshin Kanri and 6 Sigma are part of Total Quality Management, the standards-based movement that brought Japan out of the post-war doldrums thanks to W. Edwards Deming. Great idea if you're making widgets. Terrible idea if you're educating young people. Everywhere, we see identical mission statements and strategic plans in schools -- most of them anti-American, anti-individuality, anti-creativity -- and they drive everything from curriculum "deforms" that are dumbing our kids down, to a stubborn refusal by educators who have power to try anything new that they didn't devise. I am an idealist, not a cynic, but school management is getting so entangled and encumbered with TQM and treating children as widgets to be tweaked, that I'm beginning to think the only answer is to de-fund public schools, privatize their assets, and incentivize private scholarships to help needy kids afford private tuition.

Too radical for you? Well, we have a 4-year-old, and even though our oldest three did great in public schools, there is no way, Jose, I could feel good about putting her in the "system" as long as it's so "systematized," and getting worse.

What are your thoughts?
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