Are schools replicating the mistakes of American car companies?

Yesterday I caught the Charlie Rose show, and while the topic wasn’t education, a comment a guest made got me thinking about whether we have a fatal flaw in our leadership structure in the public schools.  Rose had invited Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist with Sequoia Capital, onto the show.  The conversation meandered in many directions, but they paused for a moment to talk about leadership in major corporations.  As they pondered the nature of who should be in charge of companies, Moritz argued that no company can rely solely on “business” people; instead, you must have product people involved in leadership.  He noted that this was one of the fatal flaws of American automakers, contributing to their decline.  As the companies grew, they added more and more business people, and neglected to have product people in leadership, pushing the company towards a better car, towards innovation.

As I heard Moritz speak, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the same might be happening now in education.  Are we stacking our leadership teams with only business people and no product people?  In schools, the “product” is learning, so product people are experts in curriculum and instruction—the process of creating learning in students.  However, research shows time and time again, that most principals in schools spend very little time on the product, student learning.

In his report, “Building a New Structure for School Leadership,” Richard Elmore notes that multiple studies have shown that instruction is an area principals spend the least amount of time on.  In our own report about the function of principals in schools, we found that while principals are told to focus on student achievement, they still must perform a bevy of administrative duties, leading many principals believing that focusing on student achievement simply isn’t doable as the job currently stands.  Some might argue that such a lack of instructional leadership has little to no impact as long as teachers are experts in the product of learning and excel at teaching; however, this too contradicts research.

Just like in companies, leadership in schools does matter.  In fact, the impact of the principal on student achievement is only topped by the impact of the teacher in the classroom.  Research has shown that in schools with highly effective principals: students perform on average 10 percentage points higher than if in a school lead by an average principal, student absences are lower,  and graduation rates are 3 percent higher.

Interestingly, highly effective principals are set apart by one quality: instructional leadership.  In other words, principals make a distinct impact on student learning by being product (i.e. learning) experts, not business (i.e. administration and organization) experts.  Unfortunately, today we’re left with many schools lead by those with little time to focus on the product, student learning.  In the world of automotives, that left us with far too many years of the Ford Taurus.  In education, it’s left us with far too many years of underperforming students.

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