Friday, March 9, 2012

Business School for School Principals: Does It Help?

Everyone seems to have an opinion about how to improve education in the US. Many with business experience claim that schools would perform better if they were managed better and took advantage of experience gained in running businesses. Others would counter that schools are nothing like businesses, and that experience gained in actually educating children provides the necessary guidance. An article in Bloomberg Businessweek by Alison Damast alerts us to an ongoing program developed jointly by the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education. It is referred to as the Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE). It apparently runs programs aimed at assisting individual schools, school districts, and even statewide organizations.

The program’s website lists the following as components of the curriculum:

  • Understanding the school turnaround context and the fundamentals of successful turnarounds
  • Developing and communicating a vision that includes the need for urgent change
  • Establishing a culture of high expectations
  • Building effective coalitions and implementing shared decision-making
  • Using data to drive decisions and to monitor/measure the need for mid-course corrections
  • Identifying innovation opportunities and developing strategic plans
  • Teaching state/district/school administrators to think like leaders, not simply managers

This seems like typical business-school boilerplate, leaving one to wonder what this means in practice. Alison Damast provides some insight.

She provides the experience of one school principal.

"Kim Lowry, principal of South Elementary, a 500-student school in rural Kennett, Mo., was wary when her superintendent enrolled her in a part-time, two-year business school program. Her school had failed to meet benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind law and faced a state takeover. Business classes were the last thing she wanted to do with the money earmarked for improving her school. Says Lowry: ‘I was very resistant’."

Her attitude changed when she, with the help of program staff, returned to her school in the fall of 2009 with a plan.

"That fall she formed teams of teachers that scrutinized student performance, hired consultants to help improve scores on standardized tests, and posted the results of every student in the staff lounge, making teachers publicly accountable for their classes. ‘I took the best business practices and translated those into education,’ says Lowry, who completed the program in January."

And what about results?

"Her school now meets federal standards, and its test scores jumped by 26 percent in English and 29 percent in math while she was in the program."

It costs $75,000 for a program in which principals attend classes at Darden for a total of 20 days. In Lowry’s case that would seem to be a rather outstanding return on investment. The Education department is distributing funds that can be used to help schools like Lowry’s improve their performance. Damast tells us that many are turning to Darden for help.

"This year, 48 schools from Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico are among those enrolled in the program, and state education officials are participating alongside the principals."

The experiences of those who have participated have been generally, but not universally, quite good.

"After the Cincinnati Public Schools began participating in the program in 2008, the district asked successful administrators and teachers to coach counterparts in struggling schools, and established a program that paired local business leaders with principals. Cincinnati saw 14 of its 16 underperforming schools meet No Child Left Behind standards after the program."

"At the first 57 schools that completed the program, reading proficiency increased an average of 33 percent and math scores rose an average of 37 percent, Darden says. But schools in St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., and on Indian reservations have seen mediocre or negative results, and a handful have withdrawn from the program after the first year."

Education purists might not be thrilled with this approach, but it seems to have generated enough success to justify what is a rather modest investment. Hopefully, there are no unintended consequences lurking in the background.

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