The Business of Education
By Bob Goodman
I entered the teaching profession after a 20-year career in the business world. I served as president and chief executive officer of several electronics companies; the largest of those companies employed more than 1,000 people, located in a half dozen countries, and generated about $500 million in annual sales. In each case, I was employed to repair a failing business; in each case the company was returned to a profitable state within a year or two.
After becoming a teacher, I often met people who shared with me that they were excited about the idea that I would bring a “business approach” to education. It would soon become clear, however, that they were picturing a methodology that has not been used in business for decades, at least not in the businesses with which I was familiar. They imagined a cut-throat environment where employees are summarily dismissed for their results; where employees are in constant competition for bonuses and higher positions; where short-term results are constantly measured and mechanically used to punish or reward.
I don’t know if those approaches were ever common in American business, but I can assure you that they were not used in my businesses, or those of my vendors, customers, or competitors. Modern business recognizes that people are a company’s most important asset and stronger companies act on that belief. They train, nurture, and support their employees who represent the lasting strength of a company.
You can only build a strong organization by creating trust and support among employees and between employees and management. In my organizations, I would work with management and employees to develop goals and incentives based on reasonable objectives for their division or company. That would be a time-consuming process; I perhaps spent more time on those discussions than any other. I did that because once there was a clear understanding of what needed to be accomplished, how that would be measured and what the rewards would be for accomplishing those goals, much of my work was done.
This approach allowed all of us to have constant, ongoing discussions about how we could perform better as a company. Since everyone shared evenly in the results, we all had the same stake in the game. Continuous improvement was driven by creating a community of employees with a common interest.
It was sometimes the case that an employee in a company was viewed as not doing his or her share. Most often that was a concern of an employee’s peers, even more than by his or her manager. That’s reasonable since the people most affected by someone not doing their share of work are the people who have to pick up that extra work. We would then meet with that person and first try to determine if the concerns of his or her manager and/or peers were valid. If the complaints were not valid, we’d make sure that everyone understood why that was the case, so those who identified the problem would be satisfied. If the concerns were valid, we’d work out a plan to help the employee improve his or her work, and monitor progress toward that goal.
As for new employees, I always felt that during their first six months, their net contribution was about zero. The effort we all had to put in to bringing them up to speed canceled out much of the benefit of having hired them. As a result, we viewed replacing a current employee with someone new as an expensive last step, to be taken after all else had failed. If an employee who was not performing well had a sincere interest in improving, we would work with him for months to try to realize that improvement. Only then would he or she be asked to leave. That was a rare case in my companies and considered a defeat for everyone involved.
If this is the sort of “business approach” that people are looking for in education, I think it would be a very positive step forward. Teachers should be very involved in setting up any metrics by which their work would be measured. The current high-stakes tests are, in most cases, inadequate to the task of measuring student achievement; improving those assessments would have to be the first step in any data-based system of measuring teaching and learning. Teachers need to be in agreement that assessments are valid and accurately measure student learning of important material as a first step.
Once valid assessments are established, data from those assessments can’t be just blindly used to measure performance; they must be used as the basis for genuine discussion about what the data means. The reason behind the results must be probed to determine if it was related to teacher effectiveness or the luck of the draw in terms of the students in that class. Variance in results is as likely to result from the composition of a class as the teacher of the class.
If all discussions lead to the conclusion that a teacher is not performing well, a process of working with that teacher should be set in motion. As long as teachers are interested in improving, the effort should be made to improve their work. The last resort, a very expensive choice, should be to have the teacher leave the school.
In my businesses, I always gave equal bonus shares to all because I wanted each employee’s efforts to be directed to reaching the goals of the company, not on getting a bigger share than a colleague. It did not serve my interests to have salespeople competing for accounts, or to have the accounting department not shipping orders to improve their Accounts Receivable, or to have salespeople writing business with accounts with poor credit just to hit their sales figures. Giving everyone a share of the company bonus based on how we all did as a company put everyone on the same page. The same should apply to schools. We should all be working together to help our students realize their human potential, not competing to get the “best” kids into our classes to improve our numbers.
It is possible to imagine an approach where everyone in a school (students, teachers, administrators, support professionals, etc.) works together to create a place where everyone can reach their potential. That’s a business approach to education that I strongly endorse.
NJEA Review, September 2010, republished by permission of the author.
Robert Goodman, the 2006 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, is the Director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning, and teaches at Bergen County Technical Schools in Teterboro. Bob has worked as the Chief Executive Officer for a number of corporations including Harman Kardon, JBL Consumer Products, and Onkyo International Operations. He received his B.S. in physics from MIT, his M.A.T. in physics from SUNY Stony Brook and his Ed.D. in science education from Rutgers University.