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Jul 14 / Amy Bloom

Why Schools Should Take A Page From Business – It’s Not What You Think

by Amy B Bloom, JD

I have had the opportunity to work in the public school system in Michigan, as well as in state and federal governments. Over the years, there has been much talk about running schools and governments like businesses. While advocates point to the bottom line, detractors argue that these institutions deal with people and their goals differ (profit motive vs. service). However, there is one way in which schools should run like businesses that would benefit us all.

In order to stay at the top of their game, the most successful businesses support their workers and reward creativity, innovation, and problem-solving. They invest in their workers. They work hard to recruit, support, and grow their talent. Educators and administrators alike value developing students’ creativity and problem-solving skills, yet many schools are not designed to foster these attributes in their teachers. The result is that we all lose.

Great leaders recognize that great ideas can come from anywhere. They inspire and support their workers. Although most of my career has been in the public sector, I have been fortunate to work for great leaders – Rikki Klieman, Judge J. Harold Flannery, Jr., Judge Mel Greenberg, and the Honorable Patti B. Saris. They all shared the following characteristic – they believed in and trusted their employees. They demonstrated this by investing in and encouraging my professional growth. They provided wonderful intellectual challenges and trusted that I would rise to those challenges. They asked great questions, growing my knowledge and perspective. And, they listened to my questions and perspective on issues.

Innovation and creativity needs a certain environment to grow and flourish. Businesses recognize this. A look at Quicken’s “Isms” or a read of Nolan Bushnell’s book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs drives home this point. In this respect, schools and school leaders have much to learn from business.

Yet, our accountability system makes it difficult for school leadership to fully embrace and value the investment in teacher development and creativity out of fear that it might negatively affect the bottom line (as measured by standardized test scores and budgets). If we are going to improve our educational system, school leaders need to move away from a compliance-oriented and budget-centric approach and begin to value and trust employees, support innovation and creativity, and invest in deliberative democratic practices with their staff to develop a collaborative working environment. Google and Facebook clearly did not get to where they are by following outdated methods of leadership and human resource development. As described in the motion picture The Internship, with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, we are not allowing teachers to show their “Googliness”.

Deliberative democratic practices provide a means to develop a common vision and goals from an understanding of all perspectives involved. Everyone has a voice, and the process moves from discourse to action in support of those vision and goals. If we really want our schools to educate for democracy, these practices are essential. Deliberative democratic practices also support what great business leaders like Nolan Bushnell and Dan Gilbert already know: Great ideas can come from anywhere and by supporting workers and rewarding creativity, innovation, and problem-solving their businesses thrive. It is time for schools to take this page from the business world.