Maximizing School Value

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Steve Denning wrote an interesting piece in Forbes magazine a few weeks ago about why big companies ‘die” and whether the American economic machine is in such decline that our economy might be in for a long-term hurt. I don’t know enough about business or economics to debate his thesis.  However, the quote from Steve Jobs about business decline (which prompted the Forbes article) really caught my eye.

Denning quotes Peggy Noonan (famous White House speechwriter) who in turn quotes Jobs:

“The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” So salesmen are put in charge, and product engineers and designers feel demoted: Their efforts are no longer at the white-hot center of the company’s daily life. They “turn off.”

Denning suggests that firms are too scared to go out and risk what it takes to create new “value” — exactly the opposite of Apple’s game plan, which found the company pursuing new and innovative products like the iPad even as the iPod destroyed every other mp3 player that tried to enter the market. Steve Jobs is quoted as saying that Apple tried to purse a novel vision, one in which a company dedicated itself to creating new value again and again, trusting that customers would flock to new products rather than just buying old ones.


The “business” of education in America is truly an enormous segment of the economy. Whether public or private (or home school), Americans invest a ton of money into educating kids.

Could it be that the wrong people are at the center of the corporate structure?

Teachers — the good ones — form the core of innovation at a school. The smaller and more nimble the organizational structure (if it’s responsive to faculty suggestions), the more powerful the innovation that can come from educators working in a profession they love, surrounded and supported by a staff of like-minded teachers.

Great teachers innovate, they create, they adapt and add new value to old methods. Educators are often the first to implement new technologies into the classroom or experiment with how to do something better. Because good teachers know their “product” is a human being rather than a widget, they passionately drive forward into new territory on behalf of their students.

But when organizational fossilization begins to value student (or funding) retention above innovation, creativity, and independent experimentation, they remove teachers from the “white-hot center of the [school’s] daily life.”  Formerly creative faculty find themselves trudging uphill against a mountain of negativity.  “We can’t do that — it’s too [expensive / risky / controversial].”

The statistic floating around right now is that 30% of new teachers quit within 3 years, and perhaps 50% leave the profession after five. The causes are legion — there’s even a new book out on the subject (Why Great Teachers Quit) which I haven’t read but this reviewer gives a good overview. 

I’m not suggesting that schools should run like businesses. In fact, I think education is such a subset of “ministry” that a business model may be nearly impossible. (What business would invest huge resources into “that kid” who seems like he’d be a failure anyway? But a good teacher goes out and finds the one lost sheep while also making sure the other 99 do their homework, improve study skills, and get ready for the next year of school.)

I do think that schools who fail to set up an organizational structure that values teachers as central to the success and mission of the school — more than anything else — will fail as schools.

Because you can’t codify good teaching.

You can try to codify curriculum (as if an inanimate object could replace a human being — ha!).  You can write books and set up mentoring programs and elicit feedback from the school on teacher performance.

But in the end, good teaching is a scientific art that thrives in hard places– IF the teacher has the support and respect necessary to do the job without being smashed under the weight of it all.

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