The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Business principles in practice

In a post titled "Up from Compton," Joanne Jacobs points to a good example of a school using the principles of successful organizations to markedly increase student achievement - in this case, enabling a high-poverty school to move from the bottom 10% to the top 30% of schools in California within six years. Quoting from an LA Times article, she highlights 10 elements of their strategy. These include:

  1. Begin with classroom discipline.
  2. Hire carefully.
  3. Train teachers on site.
  4. Test weekly on state standards.
  5. Do grade-level planning and troubleshooting.
  6. Motivate students.
  7. Inculcate goals and dreams.
  8. Develop parental support.
  9. Seek out new ideas.
  10. Tweak and maintain.

(To see the text supporting each point, go to either Joanne' s post or the LA Times article.)

These points all conform to accepted principles of effective organizations, including:

  • Build a conducive work environment (Point 1 from the list). If you create an environment in which people are constantly distracted, they won't accomplish much. By clamping down on discipline issues, the school allows learning to occur.
  • Have a clear sense of your objectives, and invest accordingly (Points 2 and 3). The school's primary objective - raising test scores - determines how it invests and who it hires. The article points out the teachers are carefully screened against the school's established approach and desired outcomes, and only hires teachers who are willing and able to show that they understand how teaching affects achievement and can follow through. Once hired, the school invests in continuous coaching to make sure teachers follow proven processes.
  • Use data to guide your efforts (Points 4, 5, and 10). The only way to know whether you're progressing against a specific goal is to measure your progress and use that data to correct your course. A salesman with a goal of $50,000/month in sales, for example, knows his metrics - number of cold calls needed to reach a viable prospect, number of prospects he can visit per day, close rate, and average order size. By monitoring his numbers, he (or his manager) can determine whether he's on track to hit his sales goal. Learning involves the same "building blocks" approach, and gathering regular data on student comprehension allows the teacher to correct course in order to stay on track. The key in both cases is to capture the right data, consistently, and in a timely fashion so one can take action as needed.
  • Motivate (Points 6, 7, and 8). Motivation is a fundamental tenet of business: employees have to be motivated to perform at their best, and customers must be motivated to purchase your product or service. This school motivates students with praise and encouragement and by regularly highlighting the relevance of a good education can make possible. (Notice that they're not pandering, trying to make the classes "fun" - they're not hiding the hard work involved, but rather telling students that they can do it and that it's worth the effort.) In addition to those "carrots", they also involve parents to provide additional motivation (both of the carrot and stick variety, I'm sure) on the home front.
  • Identify and adopt best practices (Point 9). No one has a lock on good ideas or effective practices; rather than conceive of and test every possible improvement, effective organizations expend significant effort in uncovering what other similar organizations are doing that they can adopt. They invest in publications, conferences, seminars, trade associations, competitive intelligence gathering, and even competitive hiring in order to keep the flow of proven ideas coming in. Schools can do the same in order to set up a cycle of continuous improvement.

To those who say that business principles don't apply to education, I would point you to schools like Bunche Elementary.


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