Are you measuring the future or the past?

This was the story of Hurricane
Creative Commons License photo credit: cyberuly

Recently, I’ve found myself involved in a multitude of conversations about community benefit organizations and education.

Something Hildy said reminded me that I need to discuss running those two entities “like a business”.

One of the first things that you hear from business people after a story in the news about a failing school or wacko teacher is that schools need to run like a business.

Listen to the news about today’s natural disaster response (or some such) and you’ll hear the same about community benefit organizations (sometimes called non-profit or non-governmental organizations).

“Run them like a business and it’ll solve all your problems”, they say…in so many words.

Backlash

Of course, the next thing out of the mouths of some of the folks involved in education and community benefit (you might call them non-profit – a poorly chosen name) organizations is something like this:

“Oh, you mean like Enron, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers?” (or the currently top-of-mind business cretin of the moment)

Why yes, of course. That’s exactly what those silly business folks meant.

They have studied your troubles at length and have decided that it’s best to run your school district or your food bank like some sort of corrupt dictator, complete with automatic weapons, fast cigarette boats, and under the table money.

With that behind us, let’s get real.

Reality strikes

Seriously though, what does someone mean when they say they want to run your school or non-profit  “like a business”?

In the case of schools, let’s gloss over the likelihood that it probably means they don’t really get how complex a school district budget is, noting that it’s a recursive budget of budgets consisting minimally of bond funds, Fed and state monies and that oh-by-the-way annual operating budget.

Those oddball budgets are then scrambled a bit more by the goofy manner we’ve chosen to fund education: Head count, which produces oddball economies of scale of the type that few in business have to deal with.

In the case of the community org, the common mistake is assuming that all (or most) activities have to have a hard dollar return on investment – and that if it one can’t be found, they are failing somewhere, perhaps everywhere.

What they really mean about schools

I think much of this comes from a sense of low/no accountability, something that makes business owners nuts (oh just wait, we’ll come back to that).

Much of this comes from the news media. You see stuff about the teacher in Florida who slept with her 15 year old student, or stories of rooms full of bad teachers in NYC who are paid not to teach because they can’t be fired, or the litany of schools failing based on No Child Left Behind Act criteria and it isn’t long before it’s easy to stick em all in one bucket of non-accountability.

The obvious place for business people to start is “Why are you spending $ on that?” and “Why can’t you fire that bad teacher?” (contracts, legalities and the 17 conflicting definitions of “bad teacher” notwithstanding)

What they really mean about orgs

In the case of a non-profit (I had to use the term at least once), it often relates to the blank stare you often get when asking for standard business metrics, such as marketing leads, “sales” and return on investment.

The organization that measures their success on things that are hard-to-quantify financially is going to take some heat from people used to using standard metrics to gauge success. Even the ones I’m involved in often have a difficult time producing that info.

Questions of a future past

The big questions in all of this are:

  • What’s getting measured – and are those the right things to measure?
  • What are you doing with that information?
  • What does any of that have to do with what you’re REALLY trying to accomplish over the long haul?

Think about it… we measure teachers based on their students’ grades and test scores. Like tax returns, they indicate historical performance.

What do we do to measure future performance?

I’d like to be able to see trend info showing how various learner types do in each teacher’s class and how each type of student’s learning, problem solving and creativity advances as they experience each teacher type.

For example: Who is the most effective math teacher for 6th grade kids who learn visual/spatially and are reading 2 years below grade level? Why is that teacher so effective for that group? Why does that teacher fail to reach non-spatial/non-visual learners as well as other teachers? Why is he so effective with Asperger’s kids? Do these success trends change when they are teaching science or history? Why?

Do these patterns of success (or not) change based on race, income, family situation and other factors we can’t control? What controllable factors are impactful, if any – for this learner type? Have you tried addressing them? What happened?

Answer: They have no idea. But it isn’t entirely their fault. They’re forced to answer the wrong questions in order to find a way to balance their budget.

Is there a line of questions like that – about your business – that would transform your thinking from past performance (letter grades) to future performance? (matching learner types with teachers who are the most effective at teaching each type of learner)

The punch line: Considering that last question, are you truly running your *business* like a business?

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