Thursday, September 16, 2010

Discounted Education

I have crossed the threshold of having spent more years outside of a classroom than inside one. This occurs to me as September brings legions of students – from toddlers to post-collegiate – back into the learning environment, eager to start fresh. As the child of two passionate and gifted teachers you’d think that I would be a de-facto supporter of schools. Not so much.

Sometime in the early 1980’s I opined at the dinner table how Ronald Reagan was right – I couldn’t find anywhere in the Constitution that justified an “Education Department” of the U.S. Government. My parents, in a gesture of extreme patience, goodwill and genteel temperament, let my ‘Alex P. Keaton’ moment pass. “Not everybody has had the education that you have had and can so easily discount it.”

Discounted education is exactly what we have right now, but not in the way my parents meant. I am indebted for the extraordinary gift that I had been given as the child of educators – getting both a formal and informal education second to none. My teenage arrogance/naïveté of the value of education has given way to adult appreciation laced with frustration that indeed not everybody has the same educational opportunities.

In business I have hired a lot of people. I found in the last several years especially it is harder to find candidates who have reasoning and logic skills. There’s a strong argument that the decades-long trends towards standardized testing has caused some of this. I was a terrible test taker, especially the ones where you filled in a bunch of circles. My SAT scores were an embarrassment. I would likely be a warning statistic in today’s “No Child Left Behind” environment where teaching and studying is more about the right answer rather than the process and the reason for the answer.

Teaching doesn’t belong just in schools, but in all of our institutions. A good executive in business should have many characteristics of our best teachers: patience, the ability to communicate effectively and translate complex data to multiple constituencies. The executive must also be open to learning, from subordinates, competitors and customers. Imagine if our political leaders listened and then took the time to guide citizenry to their way of thinking on a particular policy instead of a 15-second catchphrase. It would make for terrible Cable TV news, but a vibrant, engaged and rich society.

A lack of funding is a constant frustration at the classroom level. As a business person who believes in limited (but effective) government, I see the funding issue as a critical issue – but it’s not just throwing more financial resources at the current system.

Money in and of itself does not guarantee a good educational experience, for teacher or for student. California ranks #16 of all states in per capita spending yet is ranked 49th in educational effectiveness.

EPE Research published a state ranking of education spending per student. It showed that

The highest spending state, Vermont, is rated 30th in SAT scores nationwide. The lowest spending state, Utah, gets higher SAT scores from their students and is ranked 20th above Vermont. The Worst State SAT score comes from Maine yet it spends the 5th most money in the nation.
Statistics can vary widely in this (or any) area – especially in how one might use them to support their particular point-of-view. For example, the US ranks 37 in per capita spending, but do we think that American students are less educated than Malawi or Cuban students?  Complex and emotional issues can quickly get bogged down in “my statistic trumps yours.” For a moment, and for the sake of this discussion, let’s consider that there’s enough money already but it’s the systemic conditions don’t allow for the most effective use of those funds.

This week Los Angeles just opened the most expensive school ever built: $578million. (That’s about $135,000 per student.) The dollars spent on construction come from targeted and voter approved taxes to build schools and that money can’t be used for anything else. I’m not suggesting that those dollars could have saved thousands of laid off teachers...because the funding rules of the tax restrict that…but this nuance of fact is secondary to the message that is sent to teachers, parents and students: building are more important than teachers. $578 million for any building is simply excessive. Was the question ever asked: Do we really need more physical structures?

Does it still make sense to have schools be just 9-months a year? This calendar evolved from farmer’s needs. Studies show that students take weeks to regain ground lost over a three month break. A year-round school schedule makes sense not only from a learning point of view, but a resource point of view as well. Rather than having facilities sit empty, a robust scheduling system can be utilized to keep students and teachers on a continuous calendar while maximizing the use of physical plants. Los Angeles’ experiment with year-round scheduling was abandoned a few years back due to complaints from families with kids on multiple tracks and the approval of dollars for more facilities, negating the need to maximize facility usage. This to me is a logistical problem that smart people can solve and wouldn’t have included building more schools – no matter their cost. While that wouldn’t necessarily mean that the construction dollars would automatically go into the classroom – there would be an opportunity to have dollars better utilized somewhere that ultimately could benefit schools.

The Los Angeles School District in February 2007 introduced a payroll system years late, tens of millions of dollars over budget that couldn’t calculate paychecks properly. Thousands of teachers were underpaid, overpaid and simply not paid. The Los Angeles County Grand Jury in June 2010 found additional hazards of collapse are imminent that will cost some $65 million more to fix.
The payroll system is extremely complex with hundreds of differentiating factors. One teacher, for example, may be paid one rate for Homeroom, another rate for teaching History, another for being a Coach and another for tutoring. That same person may have a whole other pay structure if they lead the same course at another school within the district. Tracking these different pay rates, hours, etc. is time consuming and expensive for all involved. Is this the best use of teacher time? Administrative resources? IT development? How does this benefit the classroom? Union leaders, teachers and administrators should look to streamline the pay structure and utilize third-party vendors (Microsoft? Google? Apple?) to build a working system. This is just one example where schools can learn from what works in business.

Learning and teaching doesn’t end with a degree. Businesses benefit when continuing education is integrated as part of the company’s Research & Development. I ran a services company that had a slower business cycle during parts of the year. Rather than lay off the staff and have to hire and train new staff, providing a continuing educational curriculum was the solution. Managers used the opportunity to correct what seemed like ingrained performance issues. Employees were able to provide recommendations for efficiencies. New skills were learned and taught, all of which benefitted the company with the introduction of new services. In the short term such efforts are not cost-effective. In the mid and long term we learned that investing in staff yields not only financial benefits to the company but improved morale and loyalty.

Business, government and individuals can learn from each other. Who will take the first step?

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