What Can Schools Learn from Business?

By Del Stover

If school boards want to improve their schools, then all they need to do is to model the business practices of Corporate America. Highlight customer service with the intensity of Disney. Recruit and train staff with the efficiency of Microsoft. Set strategic goals -- and follow up on them -- with the data-driven fanaticism of Wal-Mart.

There’s no escaping this simplistic formula for school reform. It’s been bandied about since the turn of the century, often by business leaders and conservative-minded politicians who are quick to extol the managerial prowess of Big Business in comparison to the alleged inadequacies of school administration. Every few years, it seems, some school reform report implies that schools simply need a jolt of good old business sense.

As with most panaceas, there’s a fair bit of truth -- and no little rubbish -- in such thinking. The fact is, school leaders are well acquainted with the business principles that corporations use to further the “bottom line.” Indeed, plenty of districts could teach Wall Street a thing or two about good accounting practices, sound investment strategies, and the responsible oversight that governance boards should provide.

And why not? School leaders always have been quick to borrow a page out of the corporate playbook. In the 1990s, Toyota turned to outside consultants to upgrade and revitalize an auto parts supply chain centered on an out-of-date network of warehouses. The consultants’ recommendations for a remodeled distribution system promised savings in the millions of dollars.

So it’s no surprise that school officials in Yonkers, N.Y., also turned to an outside audit of the district’s practices in response to spiraling special education costs. As it happens, the audit team brought a fresh perspective, and its 116-page report led to changes that saved the district $1 million annually in out-of-district placement and transportation costs -- and, in the minds of school officials, led to improved services to students, as well.

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