Schools Urged to Apply Business Tools to Improve Performance

Published May 1, 1998

While recognizing that schools are not businesses, and educating students is not the same as making widgets in factories or processing documents in offices, an education consultant contends that schools still can learn many valuable lessons from the business world. The most important of those lessons is the self-imposed use of benchmarking, a tool designed to focus organizations on a process of continuous improvement.

“The first lesson for schools to learn is what to benchmark against,” writes Denis P. Doyle in a September 1997 article in School Business Affairs. “In particular,” he adds, “don’t look at the low performers and congratulate yourself for being better.”

Schools should look for examples of best practices and compare themselves to the best schools in the state, in the country, and in the world. Comparisons should go beyond grade schools and include similar organizations with similar missions, such as colleges and universities. Schools also should look at other organizations that serve children–such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts–and even dissimilar organizations, such as Xerox and IBM.

“Schools must seek out ways to improve their own performance,” argues Doyle, “and one of the best ways is to understand what other organizations do and how they do it.”

Anyone can produce second-rate products, he notes. The important lessons, however, come from studying those who are producing high-quality products at low cost. Benchmarking “reminds you that if someone else is doing it better than you, then there is a way for you to do it better yourself.”

Benchmarking is particularly applicable to the monopolistic public school system. Although the practice is widely used in the competitive business world today, it was originally developed decades ago by another monopoly, AT&T. There, benchmarking served as a surrogate for the competitive stimulus of the consumer marketplace, pressuring AT&T to run a tight ship and focus on customer satisfaction.

What lessons might a school district learn if it adopted benchmarking in earnest? Doyle offers the following as likely revelations:

  • School boards micro-manage too much and offer too little guidance and oversight.
  • Public schools in the U.S. are obsessed with credentials, while businesses in the U.S. relentlessly focus on performance.
  • Other organizations that rely on a highly trained workforce invest heavily in in-service training, which pays for itself in increased productivity.
  • The school’s central mission is academics, not child care, child welfare, or health services.
  • Schools exist to develop a child’s intellect (the “value added” of schooling), not for the convenience of adults, workers, or parents.

“Schools must seek out ways to improve their own performance,” concludes Doyle, “and one of the best ways to do that is to understand what other organizations do and how they do it.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].