Corporate ways invade schools

The growing pressure to raise student achievement leads educators to run classes like businesses.

Beset by lagging student performance, American schools are starting to run their classrooms like corporations - setting "performance" targets for teachers and students, measuring results, and putting CEOs in superintendent's chairs.

It's the edge of a new trend in business involvement in education. Business groups led the charge to declare a "crisis" in American schools in the mid-1980s. But until recently, most were willing to leave it to educators to determine how to fix it.

Now, business groups are moving to redefine the heart of the enterprise in line with market principles - and schools are beginning to follow the lead.

Perhaps the surest sign of this trend is the $100,000 elementary school teacher - coming this fall in five Arizona public schools.

This "teacher advancement" program, developed by the Milken Family Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., rewards teachers for performance - especially what they achieve in the classroom - and not for seniority or education degrees.

The guiding principle: No more tenure; many more options for professional growth and advancement. Top "master" teachers can end up at $80,000 for three-quarter time. With consulting on the side, that bumps up to $100,000.

"No matter how much stuff you put in the schools, we've come to the realization that if the teachers are not very able people, it doesn't matter," says Lewis Solmon, the foundation's senior vice president. "You're not going to improve the quality of schools by giving every teacher a $10,000 increase in salary. That would break the bank in American education, keep bad teachers in the system, and still not be enough to persuade many people to give up careers in law or dotcoms."

The solution is to introduce market-based incentives and rewards - and to treat teachers more like professionals in other fields, he says: "We need to start paying for performance. Education is the only business in which performance is not rewarded."

Among the signs of change:

*The Milken program debuts in five pilot schools in Arizona next week, and is expected to expand to 50 schools in eight states within two years.

*School districts in North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania are already experimenting with competitive salary structures, based on evidence that it improves teacher effectiveness.

*Last week, the National Alliance of Business and the Business Roundtable urged business leaders to "assist" local schools by encouraging them to establish "a clear system of rewards" for teachers. These rewards should represent at least 5 to 10 percent of base salary and be "determined by clear, measurable objectives," they said in a July 27 report.

"The face of public education is changing dramatically, and we're going to wake up here in two or three years and realize that the exceptions have become the rules," says Roberts Jones, president of the Washington-based National Alliance of Business. "You can't just scream at schools or hope they will get better. You have to put the things in place that will make it improve."

Already, states are mandating business practices in schools, and big cities are looking to people with management experience outside the classroom to run their school systems.

"School boards are much more willing to look at people whose background is not traditional," says Judy Seltz, director of planning for the American Association of School Administrators. "They're looking at people who have demonstrated that they can efficiently manage some complex organization with some kind of uniform results."

In New York City, corporate lawyer Harold Levy recently replaced educator Rudy Crew as superintendent. Seattle recruited Joseph Olchefske, a former investment banker. Chicago designated former city budget director Paul Vallas as “CEO” of the system. Los Angeles, San Diego, and New Orleans also turned to nontraditional candidates to fill school vacancies.

Moreover, direct business support of schools is moving well beyond the traditional donations of used equipment or employee-tutoring time. At the Third National Education Summit last year, leading business leaders committed to helping at least 10 states incorporate pay-for-performance incentive plans into their salary structures.

It’s a move that has left teacher unions deeply divided. Delegates at the National Education Association’s annual meeting rejected any salary plan based on factors beyond teachers’ level of education and length of service.

In comments after the vote, NEA president Bob Chase said that teachers are “burned out” by all of the new accountability measures being imposed on them. “They’re saying enough is enough,” he said.

But polls signal that support for performance-based pay is on the rise among teachers. Approval for the notion has increased from 32 percent in 1984 to 40 percent in 1998, according a Gallup poll.

For West Virginia high school English teacher Dan Daniel, the shift to business practices in running the Parkersburg High School has been a welcome change. “Teachers used to not be able to pick up a phone to make an outside call without permission,” he says. “Teachers weren’t treated like professionals, and the kids could see that.”

But in response to a new state mandate, every school is adopting business practices in school management. “We even hired our principal, interviewed candidates, and we’re making improvements in the school,” he says. “It’s a business idea – to have more people making the decisions. We feel good about it.”

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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