Commentary: John Dewey, Meet Peter Drucker

Your revenues are rising, but not as fast as the cost of serving customers. Labor costs are climbing, but antiquated work rules and poor morale limit your flexibility. Your overseas competitors pay more, spend lavishly on training, and get far better results. Your physical plant is crumbling. Computers are scarce. And your customers are dissatisfied.

Welcome to America's public school system. Its problems are so profound and its disorganization so pervasive that it would be a challenge to the savviest of America's business managers. Just for starters: There is no central management--only 16,000 local school districts run by amateur boards pursuing their own agendas: football, creationism, condom distribution.

The school-board situation isn't going to change anytime soon, since local control is considered an inalienable right in America. But some help for what ails the schools is on the way, thanks to contemporary management theory. Two related movements--toward school choice and school standards--have far more to do with Peter F. Drucker than with John Dewey.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST. School-choice advocates hope to foster competition among schools. That way, the weakest schools will lose students and either improve or fold. The strongest schools will prosper and expand. One plan would offer vouchers for purchasing education from existing private and public schools. Vouchers are strongly opposed by teachers' unions and the Clinton Administration. They argue that some kids will be left in bad schools and some schools will use the wrong lures--such as lavish spending on sports. Still, Republicans will give school choice a boost if their numbers increase in state legislatures this year.

Other reformers favor charter schools that contract to provide education to willing public-school students. Often operating out of storefronts or underused public buildings and free of bureaucracy, charter schools are generally cost-effective. These schools must demonstrate results or lose their charters. There are some 245 of them in 19 states. "This is just applying America's entrepreneurial spirit to the school," says Joseph Nathan, director of the Center for School Change, a research group in Minnesota that is tracking the trend.

Curriculum reform based on setting universal standards of knowledge is progressing much faster. It is based on sound business principles: First you decide what students should learn, and then you hold teachers and administrators accountable. "In states where they take standards seriously, they have seemed to make a difference," says Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which helps schools in the standards effort. Critics complain that teachers will concentrate on drilling students to pass tests instead of pursuing broader educational objectives. Still, parents seem to like the results. In their second year of a standards-based curriculum, Maryland students boosted their scores by 25%.

Pressure for schools to become more efficient is intense. Immigration is swelling enrollments. The number of students with limited proficiency in English jumped by 26% during the 1980s. And children who require special education increased by 15% over the past decade. "We've got a whole influx of kids who have been exposed to alcohol and drugs, hurt by environmental contaminants, or diagnosed with learning difficulties," says Kathy Christie, a Denver-area school board member and an analyst at the Education Commission of the States.

FALLING BEHIND. All this is happening as an unpaid bill for neglect of school buildings is coming due. One-third of America's schools, serving some 14 million students, require extensive repair or replacement, according to a 1995 report by the General Accounting Office. A quarter of all public schools lack sufficient computers, and 42% have inadequate science laboratories, says the GAO.


That is a lot for local school boards to deal with. Without a clear focus on educational goals, they tend to "pay too much attention to asbestos and not enough to training teachers and developing curriculum," says Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences. American science scholarship in grade school is falling behind because much of the industrialized world pays "enormously more attention to teacher refresher courses and to professional development," says Alberts.

America's management gurus may not have the whole solution. But the notion that schools must measure and improve their output--graduates who can read and do math--can only help.

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