Lemonade Lessons: Should teachers do well if the kids are failing?

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Teachers are rightfully concerned that they and their unions are receiving most if not all of the blame for our education system’s decline. Surely parents, school administrators, student-teacher ratios, federal and state mandates, fiscal shortfalls, the percentage of foreign or learning-disabled students, security, and other issues are material factors.

On the other hand, it seems very few teachers are willing to accept any responsibility for our education system’s failure. They seem to be arguing that since there are so many factors (other than teaching) that impact education, it’s unrealistic and unreasonable to start with teachers. Using this logic, it could be argued that because no single factor is 100% responsible for student performance, there is no appropriate place to begin improving the system. However, beginning with teachers would not prevent us from focusing on the other issues that need attention.

My husband is a management expert who helps turn around troubled companies. One of his principles is that when you are faced with many difficult and complex issues, you should pick one that seems important and get started right away. This concept also applies to our current education troubles.

There is much anecdotal evidence that good teachers prevail even when faced with extraordinary obstacles. How is it that some teachers manage to teach their elementary class all the words to their school plays every year? Do these teachers get first pick of the students? I don’t think so. How is it that certain teachers can control their classrooms even when they have 30 or more students per class when others consistently cannot? Why do the kids taught by some teachers consistently do well on the standardized tests while the students in other classes do not? I realize these examples represent only anecdotal evidence, but the questions still linger.

Business people say that when you can’t or don’t measure it, you can’t or won’t manage it. If this is true for business, why would it not apply to schools? I know — you can’t fire bad students the way you can bad workers. And to make matters worse, you can’t fire bad teachers, either. However, it is human nature to want to achieve and be self-reliant. Let’s use this! Free market capitalism has helped us discover that when you measure success as objectively as possible and offer incentives to achieve, managers and workers will innovate to overcome all manner of hurdles.

It is not the measuring and rewarding of success in and of itself that produces better results. This process only aligns the teachers’ interests with those of the kids and provides the energy and the catalyst to innovate. If we turn loose the ingenuity, intelligence, and creativity of tens of thousands of teachers focused on the right issues across our nation, who knows how much they can accomplish.

Business managers used to make the same “it’s-not-completely-within-my-control” arguments that teachers are now making. Weak suppliers, inadequate supplies of good workers, ineffective senior management, difficult and irrational customers, and unfair competition were just some of their complaints. In spite of these complaints, aligning managers’ and workers’ interests with those of their customers along with measuring and rewarding success has worked in commerce and can work in our schools.

There is no logic that demands that teachers and administrators must be on one side of the bargaining table while kids and parents are relegated to the other. There is potential for a win-win situation. The kids need to be put first, but the teachers also need to be fairly treated. If students achieve, the teachers and administrators need to be rewarded. Teachers’ incentives need to be aligned with the interests of students, not with teacher seniority and the accumulation of advanced degrees.

Everyone (kids, parents, teachers, and administrators) in the education game needs to be wearing the same colored jersey and running the same race. Any system that allows the teachers to do well while the kids are failing is flawed. And likewise, any system where the kids are doing well but the teachers are not rewarded is also flawed.

People are naturally good at adapting to new circumstances, but they are also naturally apprehensive about change. Our teachers are concerned that they will be unfairly blamed and persecuted for that which is beyond their control or was caused by others. As has been done in business, teachers need to be assured that extraordinary circumstances will be taken into account and that every effort will be made to treat them fairly. Once we gain the help and support of teachers (as opposed to their current resistance to change), our education system will be quickly on the mend.

Janie Johnson is the author of Don’t Take My Lemonade Stand – An American Philosophy.

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