System Failure

Shaking up the bureaucracy is the first step to improving America's schools. A response to Jason Kamras and Andrew Rotherham.

By Eli Broad

Tagged EducationReform

Few professions in this country strike as deep a chord as teaching. Everyone has a warm memory that they can attribute to a teacher who made an impression on their youth. So it was no surprise that Jason Kamras and Andrew Rotherham held up the responsibility and credit for public education’s future to the need to attract the right teachers with the right talents, pay them competitively, and equip them with the necessary tools to do their jobs [“America’s Teaching Crisis,” Issue #5]. Few people will argue with the importance of having the right people in the teaching profession. When they’re successful, they’re enormously successful. And when you’ve got a dud in the classroom, you have pretty much guaranteed that you will handicap about 30 kids for a year.

But Kamras and Rotherham miss a critical point in their argument,
and that is the system in which teachers work. To use a business
analogy, this would be akin to saying that regardless of the top
management at a company and the systems and tools in place in that
organization, the line workers are the determining factor in whether
the company turns a profit. Are they important to the bottom line?
Absolutely. But without the right systems–the leadership at the top and
critical systems in place throughout the organization–success is, at
best, left to chance. That’s why shareholders demand good governance
and operational systems from public corporations. When it comes to
American public education, every citizen is a shareholder in how
successfully schools educate our children–and we must demand more in
how our schools are governed and run.

Improving the quality of teaching, as Kamras and Rotherham argue, is
important. But how do you ensure that you have the right teacher in the
right classroom? How do you give them the tools–like curriculum,
benchmark assessments, and pacing guides–that, across the board, will
move an entire grade level, school, or school district in the same
direction at the same time? How do you measure their success? These are
the underlying problems facing American public education. The real
issue in today’s public schools is the utter failure, at a systemic
level, to create high-performing, well-functioning organizations,
without which even the best teachers cannot do their best.

The largest urban school districts are the size of a Fortune 500
company. The New York City Department of Education has a bigger budget,
more employees and more facilities than companies like Eastman Kodak,
Sun Microsystems, or Continental Airlines. Unfortunately, mired in
bureaucracy, many urban districts today have dysfunctional
organizations that cannot perform even the most basic operations.
Consider the Los Angeles Unified School District, which employs more
than 77,000 people. When the district tried to implement a new $86
million payroll system, a series of computer failures and insufficient
staff training resulted in employees receiving paychecks that were
either too large or too small–or not receiving them at all. The
problems helped boost the cost to $132 million. Or consider the St.
Louis Public Schools, which mapped out its daily school-bus schedule on
an archaic corkboard, outlining the routes with push pins and yarn.
When a business consultant working with the district questioned the
logic of the system, he uncovered a state-of-the-art computer program
still shrink-wrapped and tucked in a storage closet. And each fall,
districts across the country start the school year without a principal
or enough teachers at every school, because their recruitment cycles
start so late in the spring and summer that the best candidates already
have accepted jobs elsewhere. Stories like these abound around the
country. They are absurd. Yet because the problems are deeply rooted in
bureaucratic systems and a historic culture of low expectations,
they’re tough to fix.

That said, there are cases that show what can be achieved by even
the largest bureaucracies through systematic structural changes. In
addition to being the largest school system in the country, New York
City’s is also one of the most closely watched because of the dramatic
reform that has taken place over the past five years. Buoyed by Mayor
Michael Bloomberg’s successful bid for control of the city’s schools,
Chancellor Joel Klein–best known as the federal attorney who
successfully prosecuted Microsoft–has displayed the bold leadership and
entrepreneurship required to turn around such a large-scale,
underperforming enterprise. Klein and Bloomberg ended the controversial
practice of social promotion, moving children to the next grade even if
they were not academically ready. They have implemented a new “Autonomy
Zone,” in which principals who set high goals and meet them are given
more freedom in exchange for greater accountability. And through
successful negotiations, Klein and the teachers’ union agreed to no
longer allow teachers with “unsatisfactory” ratings to transfer from
one school to another.

Boston Public Schools is another success story. The oldest district
in the nation recently overhauled its human resources department after
decades of complaints about bureaucracy, non-responsiveness, and
ineffective and time-consuming pen-and-paper application processes. The
solution, implemented by Harvard MBA Michelle Boyers, is an online
application and hiring system to reduce paperwork. The result is that
more teachers are now applying to work in Boston. And more teachers are
staying longer than a few years. Does that systemic reform benefit
teachers? You bet.

Or consider Chicago Public Schools, another big-city district with
an appetite for reform. When another newly hired Harvard MBA, Monica
Santana Rosen, was stumped by her inability to get someone on the phone
to answer questions about her medical benefits, she put her experience
into action and established a better system: Employees now have an
appointment when they come to the HR Employee Service Center. The
department explains forms to groups of new employees, rather than one
at a time. And an employee who calls to speak to a human resources
representative is never on hold for more than 20 seconds.

These seem like simple, common-sense solutions. But they affect an
entire district of teachers and, ultimately, the children they serve. A
teacher who spends less time on bureaucratic paperwork has more time to
spend in the classroom. These deeply rooted district systems were
upended when fresh eyes saw the problem in a new light. And that’s why
my foundation–which recruited and placed both Boyers and Rosen in
school districts through our residency program–has worked to bring
about systemic reform of America’s education system through improving
the governance and management of our public schools.

Despite these successes, our country is in need of systemic reform
in our public schools today more than ever before. It has been 24 years
since the landmark study of American education, “A Nation at Risk,” and
not much has changed. More than one million students drop out each
year. Where do they go, and what do they do? Many turn to gangs or
criminal activity. Thirty years ago, kids without a high school diploma
were doomed to jobs in the mills or factories. Today, there are no
mills or factory jobs; these kids are just doomed.

To give these children a future, we must give them a high-quality
education. That’s why we need reforms that go beyond teachers and the
superficial qualities of the educational bureaucracy. The length of the
school year and school day, for example, is woefully outdated. Rooted
in the agrarian calendar year, when children were needed to work in the
fields before and after school, our students attend only 180 school
days a year, then take a gaping 10-week break from academics during the
summer. When was the last time you saw a school-age child rushing home
to pick a crop? Yet we are shortchanging our children when it comes to
the hours they spend in the classroom, and we are at a competitive
disadvantage as a nation. By the time students in other countries have
graduated from high school, they have obtained the equivalent of one
year more of education than their American counterparts. The average
school year of nations participating in the Third International Math
and Science Survey is 193 days. China provides 30 percent more
education time than the United States, and Singapore has a policy to
extend math classes by 30 percent for students who fall behind in basic
skills by the end of the fifth grade.

There is also a wide disparity in our country in the skills and
learning of African American and Hispanic children and their white
counterparts, a gap that I consider to be the civil rights issue of our
time. We should be outraged that a recent long-term-trends study, the
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), showed that
17-year-old African American and Hispanic children read at the same
level and perform the same math skills as 13-year-old white children.

And not only do we have achievement gaps that we need to overcome,
but we also have a divide among states. Why should a high school
student in Washington be required to take only two years of math to
graduate, while students in Ohio are required to take four years? We
lack strong national standards that would adequately prepare students
for college, careers, and life. A student in Maine should receive the
same skills and knowledge as one in Montana or New Mexico. More than 60
percent of high school graduates who go on to college say they wish
they had taken tougher classes in high school. Those who head straight
for the workforce have even deeper regrets: Seventy-two percent wish
they had taken tougher courses in high school. Half of them
specifically regret not learning more math. The time has come for
strong American standards. Already, leaders in 30 states have pledged
to raise high school standards to a level that will make diplomas
meaningful again. Nine states have banded together to create common
standards for high school algebra. Common standards make common sense.

Systemic improvement of our education system has the potential to
have a far greater impact than the ability of a single teacher in a
single classroom. The work of teachers cannot be underrated; in fact,
many of the points Kamras and Rotherham raised need to be part of a
systemic reform. If our system of public education is to adequately
prepare every student in this country for college, for work and life,
we need to start with a system that works, including nationwide
standards, a longer school day and school year, and leaders who can
transform the governance and management of a school district. Once we
do that, our students, and our country, will stand a chance at true

Read more about EducationReform

Eli Broad is founder of KB Home, SunAmerica, and The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which is co-funding a national campaign, Strong American Schools, to elevate the issue of education in the 2008 presidential election.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus