Much ink has been used recently making the case for "inside-out" school reform. Frequently referred to as "capacity building," this approach has emphasized the importance of professional development, staff collaboration, mentoring, formative assessment, and continuous learning. These are all good, sensible ideas.
Championed by iconic education professors like Michael Fullan and Richard Elmore, capacity building has become the standard recipe for school improvement. Its wholehearted emphasis on improving instructional practices, pedagogical techniques, and formative assessments has become the unquestioned industry standard. Inside-out reformers even have a label for this kind of management: instructional leadership.
Unfortunately, this dominant approach to school improvement has its problems. Despite the knowledgeable and influential thinkers who propound it, there is reason to doubt that the inside-out approach will achieve its aims. In fact, it has the business of school reform almost exactly backward. Therefore, I want to suggest an alternative conception of school improvement: the outside-in approach.
The Problem with Inside-Out
What's wrong with the inside-out model? As a rule, organizations that thrive are those that foster excellence, attract talent, reward ingenuity, purge mediocrity, and pursue productivity and new efficiencies.
Unfortunately, we are struggling to reform a schooling system seemingly designed to frustrate competence. Teachers are hired--essentially for life--through haphazard recruiting processes. There is little systemic recognition of excellence. Compensation and desirable assignments are treated as rewards for longevity. Informing decisions with data is considered novel, while the very words efficiency and productivity are deemed alien. The result is a culture of incompetence in which educators learn to keep their heads down.
Inside-out doesn't necessarily address any of these concerns. Instead, it tries to work around existing constraints, relying on good intentions and expertise to sidestep the obstacles posed by dysfunctional organizations and anachronistic management practices. Capacity building has nothing to say about balky human resource departments or management information systems, stifling collective-bargaining agreements, or personnel systems that neither recruit nor reward excellence. The capacity-building approach amounts to patching a worn tire: it will help for a while, but it's not a permanent solution.
Capacity building focuses on those who can mentor, coach, and collaborate in today's school cultures. In doing so, it accepts the established culture as a given. It teaches leaders to focus on patchwork rather than reinvention and encourages schools to seek out those leaders who can make do in the existing school culture. This approach rejects those who would challenge the utility of today's schoolhouse culture and looks askance at those who would import fundamentally different ways of organizing the institution, hiring and firing, assigning and rewarding staff, using technology, or operating the enterprise.
There's nothing innately wrong with the components of inside-out reform. With enough time, patience, support, and resources, they work fairly well at some times and in some locales. They make particularly good sense when they are being pursued inside organizations that are already configured to attract and reward excellence, support tough-minded management, and relentlessly boost productivity. This describes few, if any, of our public school systems.
The real problem, then, is that efforts to use inside-out techniques as levers to drive systemic improvement misjudge the ability to reshape organizations in this fashion and turn a blind eye to the changes required for large-scale, sustained improvement.
Outside-in reformers believe that even the useful guidance offered by capacity builders is tangential to the most pressing business of school improvement--rooting out the culture of incompetence that is so entrenched. Experience tells us that people work harder, smarter, and more efficiently when they are rewarded for doing so; that people do their best work when goals are clear and when they know how they will be evaluated; and that smart, educated, motivated people will find ways to succeed.
Outside-in reformers assume that educators are, for better or worse, a lot like everybody else. Absent the pressure of accountability and relentless leadership, mediocrity or inefficiency can easily become acceptable. Absent such pressure, it is easy to shy away from pursuing efficiencies when they require dislocation or wrenching adjustments. School districts bear the scars of having operated for decades under just such conditions.
Today's balky arrangements once worked just fine. When schools had a captive teaching force of talented women, it made sense to limit entry into the profession, encourage teachers to stay put, and not worry too much about spotting or rewarding excellence. When it was difficult to collect and analyze solid information on student learning rapidly, it was reasonable to compensate educators without regard for student performance and protect them from being capriciously fired.
The world has changed. A changing economy requires all students to master skills once restricted to the elite. Our assurance that talented women and minority college graduates would be forced to choose teaching from a lack of viable options is long past. Schools compete for increasingly mobile workers in a labor market filled with tens of millions of white collar jobs that beckon potential teachers. Advances in technology and testing have made accountability and information available in a manner unimaginable even fifteen years ago. Our schools must change. That is the work of outside-in reform.
School Business Officials and Outside-In Reform
What does outside-in reform look like? And what is your role in it, as a school business official?
The key work of outside-in reform is to recast school systems in a way that creates and nurtures a culture of competence. It is about altering resource allocation, staffing, technology use, compensation, and human resources processes to promote performance. This approach requires focusing resources on seeking, recruiting, and retaining talent--whether through traditional or "nontraditional" mechanisms. It means linking compensation to scarcity of skills, quality of work, and difficulty of assignment. It means building benchmarks, quality control, and a concern for efficiency into all organizational processes. It means rolling back the statutes and routines that impede cost-effective and creative problem solving.
What does this mean for school business officials? As the person in the organization with the perspective and daily experiences that transcend schoolhouse issues, you need to be part of the reform team--not simply the person in charge of the "business stuff." Because so many of the challenges of addressing the culture of incompetence are not uniquely "educational"--but are the types of challenges faced by troubled organizations everywhere--the business staff may be the school system employees best equipped to tackle them. This means three things, in particular.
First, business officials should be the voice of outside-in reform in their districts. Most members of a superintendent's team are drawn from the world of public schooling. They share certain experiences, biases, and training--all of which may incline them to accept the existing culture as inevitable and to accept the inside-out perspective. It will frequently fall to the business official to be the voice of outside-in reform and to advocate for the importance of tackling human resources, information technology, management systems, and business practices.
A crucial reason that education has always woefully underinvested in information technology, data collection, and analysis is that educators are inclined to view the microbusiness of classroom management as a more pressing concern.
Second, for the most part, the educational accountability movement has been a good and healthy influence. One of its flaws, however, is the tendency of school and district officials to try to measure everything and everyone by their effects on student achievement. At one level, we know that efficiencies and productivity gains throughout the organization will eventually show up in the classroom. But the primary criterion for whether information technology or procurement employees are doing good work is whether they are contributing in their jobs--which requires clarifying what their jobs are and then identifying appropriate performance measures.
There is a reason that Dell doesn't evaluate customer service on the basis of how many computers it shipped last month. Business officials are the ones who have the acumen and toolbox to ensure that districts are using sensible benchmarks--and that they draw them, as appropriate, from inside and outside of schooling.
Third, education officials aren't in their positions because of their expertise in running buses, feeding kids, coordinating maintenance, managing payroll, or any other number of business management responsibilities.
If the inside-outers are serious about seeking educational leaders with expertise in teaching and learning, it makes sense for school systems to offload as many of those responsibilities as is possible and cost-effective to specialists. The expanded use of contracting and vendor relationships to simplify school management is something worth pursuing-- even though it is a tactic that offends the sensibilities of many conventional educational leaders. Again, it is the role of the business manager to ensure that experiences from outside education inform school district decisions, and then to design and oversee the district's capacity to effectively monitor contractors in a disciplined and tough-minded fashion.
It's not enough for business managers to simply tend to "business affairs." Unique responsibilities, training, and skills equip business officers to help school systems build a culture of competence. In a sector where productivity, efficiency, and rigorous management have too long been derided as "business" concepts, doing so is no easy task. But it is a critical one.