How Business Leaders Can Help Improve K12 Results

You wouldn't be reading this unless you were interested in improving K12 education results in Colorado, and appreciate how important it is, on many levels, to accomplish that goal.

We’ll also bet that, like us, you've become familiar with the relatively limited number of Colorado business organizations that are focused on education reform. If you're not, links to some of them can be found in the sidebar.

However, if you are an experienced business leader, then you also know that while strategy or policy change is often needed to improve performance, it is never sufficient. And it is not the hard part.

To actually improve measurable outcomes in any organization, including schools and school districts, you usually have to change the way processes function, decisions are made, and people behave. This is the part of performance improvement that is messy and hard.

Why? Because change at the personal level involves an acute sense of loss, and research has shown that we feel the pain of our losses twice as intensely as we feel the pleasure of our gains. And so human beings tend to fight like hell to preserve the status quo, even when the need for change is painfully clear.

Change also increases uncertainty, which often triggers fear, which we use anger to hide. A successful change leader not only has to help people lose in order to win, but also has to calmly and professionally absorb a lot of their anger along the way. When it comes to performance improvement, conflict is inevitable; the only question is whether it is productive or destructive. Seeking to avoid conflict only guarantees that you will fall short of your performance improvement goals.

These statements are as true in the world of K-12 as they are in the business world. But you know that. And I'll bet that, like us, you're frustrated by the gap between the education policy changes that have been made at the state level in Colorado, and the failure of too many K-12 districts and schools to deliver substantial improvements in measurable achievement outcomes (e.g., TCAP proficiency rates, and the percentage of students at or above the college and career readiness threshold on the ACT test that all Colorado students take in Grade 11).

Clearly, we have an implementation problem. Meanwhile, the kids going through the system don't get a second chance, and too many of them will suffer a lifetime of consequences because of our failure to make the hard changes required to improve K12 results.

The good news is that we know what it takes to close that gap For example, see this excellent paper from the Brookings Institution that describes an integrated program to improve K12 achievement that is solidly based on high quality research. Or take a look at this excellent site in the UK that systematically evaluates the cost and effectiveness of a wide range of achievement improvement ideas. The bad news is that this means that more business leaders have to get involved in the hard and messy work of school and district level performance improvement.

This isn't about ideology; it is supremely practical and pragmatic, and focused on a simple question: what works?

For K12 performance to improve, business leaders need to do more than just write checks (though you can still do that, but in venture philanthropy mode). We also need to invest our talent and time to help schools and districts improve measurable achievement results.

One place to start is by asking whether your school district actually has a real strategy.

And when it comes to improving critical management and governance processes, we can bring to bear a lot of valuable performance improvement experience that is directly relevant to K12 education. For example, here is an example of a draft project plan developed by business leaders to help districts address a critical issue: the rising number of increasingly challenging student mental health issues.

Business leaders should also read these three interesting reports from a combined Harvard Business School and BCG team on how business leaders can significantly contribute to improving K12 performance. They include a look at school performance, a guide to improving it, and a survey of Superintendents' perceptions of business leaders as partners. To put it mildly, in too many cases the gap between K-12 superintendents and private sector business leaders remains sufficiently large as to represent a major obstacle to improving student achievement results.

Here is an excellent new research paper from the Boston Consulting Group on business involvement in K-12. And here is another BCG report on applying value-based management principles to K-12.

And here is a report from McKinsey on how the world's best school systems keep getting better.

From the Harvard Business Review comes this research on the four different types of school leaders in the UK, and which does the best job of improving long-term student achievement performance. A must read.

So what can you do tomorrow? First, get to know the data. Second, Volunteer to serve on your school or district's Accountability Committee. These are independent oversight bodies created by the Colorado General Assembly to increase the focus on achievement improvement. This site has a whole section devoted to how they work, and how you can make them more effective. You already know how to do this, as the cycle of a DAC or SAC's work matches a lot of what you already do in your private sector job (e.g., root cause analysis, improvement planning, implementation initiative tracking, etc.).

Third, work with other business leaders — either on your own or through a local chamber — and directly engage your district’s superintendent and management team in a discussion of how you can work together to accelerate student achievement improvement.