Ben Bova: How to run a school system without fear of failure

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Imagine you are running a multimillion-dollar business.

You have a near-monopoly on the services your provide and you can set virtually any price you like for those services, because your customers have to use what you’re selling. Even if they turn to one of your few competitors, they still have to pay you for your services, whether they use them or not!

Sounds like a nearly perfect setup. But there are a few problems. For one, your work force is highly unionized and so entrenched that it’s almost impossible to fire any of your workers, no matter how poorly they may perform. And there are growing pressures on you to improve your services. Your customers aren’t satisfied; they say you’re not giving them their money’s worth. They want better services from your employees.

What to do?

One thing you can do is insist that your workers produce better results. So you put out an order that all the segments of your company must show improved performances.

How do you measure performance? Remember, your product is a service, not a piece of hard goods such as an automobile or a refrigerator. How do you measure your employees’ performances? You set up a test and you order your employees to take this test every year.

But because you know the employees will resent — and even resist — your efforts to measure their performance, you leave it up the various departments of your company to set their own standards for performance. Every department can determine for itself what counts as a passing grade on the performance tests.

Naturally, confusion reigns. Some departments set higher test standards than others. Most of the employees bitterly resent the tests. Some even cheat on them.

Despite the confusion, though, it becomes clear that the tests are revealing that most of your employees are not producing as well as your customers demand. Test scores are shockingly low, and after several years of testing they don’t appear to be getting much better.

So what? Your business is still running. It doesn’t really matter if your customers are unhappy. They still have to use your services or pay you even if they go to one of your competitors. Why worry about complaints?

The scenario I’ve just described is the situation that our nation’s public school systems are in. For more than half a century critics have pointed out that American public schools are not delivering quality education. School dropout rates are high, universities complain that incoming freshmen have difficulties reading and writing. Among the top 30 industrialized nations, the United States ranks 21st in science and 25th in mathematics.

The educational establishment’s response boils down to: So what? We’re doing the best we can. Don’t blame us. Blame single-parent families. Blame the influx of immigrants who can’t understand English. Blame school overcrowding. Blame drugs. Blame teenagers’ hormones. Blame sunspots.

But do not, ever, in any way, try to measure the performance of teachers and peg teachers’ salaries to their performance scores!

The No Child Left Behind program initiated in 2002 by former President George W. Bush calls for testing students to see how much they are learning. In our state, the tests are called the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

FCAT produces data on how schools are performing. But the No Child Left Behind law leaves it up to the individual states to set the standards for what is acceptable. Thus, what is a passing grade in Florida might be a flunking grade in New York.

School bureaucracies have resented and resisted the mandated tests. The latest FCAT data shows that student scores are, in general, sinking lower. The result? Educators want to eliminate FCAT!

Collier County has actually refused to take money the state offers in connection with the Merit Award Program (MAP) and the Special Teachers Are Rewarded (STAR) program because they would pay more to better-performing teachers.

Any attempt to measure the performance of teachers, to reward the good ones and weed out the poor ones, is strenuously resisted by the teachers unions. Not just in Florida, but all across the nation.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is unveiling his new education program, promising that it will bring us better teachers and improved schools.

Lotsa luck.

Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of more than 120 books, including “Able One,” a thriller. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com

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