Leadership - Schools are our business, we'll decide

Some best practices from the 'real world' should be applied to education - and some shouldn't

Most educators can recall times when someone has prefaced a statement with the phrase, "In the real world...", as if our work exists somewhere less real.

School leaders in particular have fallen victim to this attitude, as they are constantly advised by emissaries from the "real world" that, in business, you have to perform, measure up, meet quotas and hit targets - or lose your job. The insinuation is that the opposite is true in education.

Rather than going on the defensive and ignoring these "lessons", they can be put to good use. Many, such as performance-related pay, are already finding their way into education. But although there are many more ways in which schools and school leaders should copy business best practice, there are some to avoid, too.

An example of the latter is those business theories that imagine students as empty vessels, passive recipients of content. They suggest that school leadership should run according to the "scientific management" principles of industrialists such as Frederick W. Taylor: quantify, measure, compare, optimise. Essentially, use data to make everything and everyone as efficient as possible. Although measurement and efficiency are important parts of school leadership, such an impersonal and complete allegiance to data does not fit with the context-driven world of education, so adopting the principles would be misguided.

That is not to say industrialist thought is completely incompatible with education. The US consultant W. Edwards Deming was hailed for making dramatic improvements to the automotive industry in the 1980s. He also valued data but counselled against strict quotas and intolerance for variations in performance. He stressed continual education for all employees, and empowered workers at every level to inform - and when necessary, interrupt - the work of their company. If people want to talk to you about business thinking in education, steer them towards Deming: schools should be places where adults continue to learn, and where human variations are expected and accepted.

There are also more recent examples. Non-educators wonder why teachers are not subject to annual performance reviews but it is not universally seen as productive in the business world. Samuel Culbert, professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management in the US, argues in his book Get Rid of the Performance Review! that the typical annual review is artificial and dysfunctional. He believes that mutual accountability and teamwork arise from communicative and collaborative review processes. That is a perfect approach for schools, where work benefits from frequent and shared analysis, reflection and adjustment.

Another great piece of advice appeared in the "Corner Office", a regular feature in The New York Times' business pages. In an interview with Tracey Matura, general manager of the Smart car unit at Mercedes-Benz USA, she describes how she encourages her team to take chances and let her know if something goes wrong. The only way to make it safe to take creative risks, she adds, is to not criticise or punish the individual, or else everyone decides to play it safe. The risk-taking in schools might involve new lessons, projects, curriculum or methodology. If administrators and policymakers punish every failure, they risk turning schools into uninspiring and stagnant places - quite the opposite of what we want for students.

As these examples show, "real world" businesses can be flexible, dynamic and creative places, so if you are a school leader and someone tells you that schools need to be run more like a business, don't bristle and shut the conversation down; instead, evaluate the lessons offered: ignore the incompatible but seize the opportunity to take on board the kinds of changes that would truly make schools better.

David B. Cohen is a high-school English teacher in California, US, and associate director of teacher leadership network Accomplished California Teachers

In short

It is easy to greet lessons from the "real world" of business with contempt, yet they are beginning to seep into education.

Some methods focusing on data are not compatible with education, but others are.

There are also lessons on performance management and risk-taking to learn.

It is crucial for school leaders to be open-minded and evaluate lessons from the "real world" to see if and how they could be applied to education.

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