RERUN–Two School Systems–and Two Foundries

Originally posted 2/24/2007

This post compares two school systems–Oakland, in northern California, and Compton, in southern California. Both have been trying to improve their performance–Compton has tried to reduce class size, boost teachers’ credentials, adopt a tougher curriculum, etc. Oakland has taken an approach based on competition and parental choice:

(In Oakland), kids are not required to attend their neighborhood school, especially if it is failing. Rather, they can pick any regular public or charter school in their district and take their education dollars with them; more students therefore means more revenues for schools. Furthermore, as the name suggests, the revenues are “weighted” based on the difficulty of educating each student, with low-income and special-needs kids commanding more money than smart, well-to-do ones. Schools have to compete for funding, but the upside is that they have total control over it.

Based on the statistics cited in the linked article, it appears that the kids in Oakland are doing better than those in Compton.

As regular readers of this blog know, just about everything reminds me of something else. And this post reminded me of something Peter Drucker wrote many years ago (in The Practice of Management, IIRC.)

Drucker compared two foundries, both of which were components of large manufacturing companies. In company A, the foundry was a purely internal operation–it made castings only for use in the company’s own manufacturing operations. In company B, the foundry made castings for internal use, but was also allowed to sell its services on the open market.

Over the years, Drucker observed, the company “A” foundry did a workmanlike job, but nothing spectacular. The same guy ran the place for well over a decade. The company “B” foundry, on the other hand, was continually at the forefront of innovation–and several of the foundry managers had been promoted to other parts of the business.

For both the school systems and the foundries, competition made the difference. When an organization deals only with those who arerequired to use its services, whether these be students in a school district or users of castings in a corpoation, there will be less dynamism than in an organization that must submit its services to the free choice of outsiders.

8 thoughts on “RERUN–Two School Systems–and Two Foundries”

  1. I coached little league sports for 18 years and was constantly caught between the parents of higher ability kids who urged a focus on winning, and the parents of lesser skilled kids who urged a focus on broad participation. That parental bias was very understandable as all parents highest priority was what they perceived to be the best outcome for their kid.

    You have to know the school competition is exactly the same. Good teachers and the parents of good students want to compete and excel. Lousy teachers and the parents of lousy students want mere participation to be the goal.

    While the parental motives on both sides of the issue are very understandable, the ‘participation advocate parents’, whether in sports or academics, aren’t doing their kids any favors in the long haul.

    The motives of teachers who advocate participation over results is understandable, but deplorable in that, unlike parents with a misguided view of what is good for their under-performing kids, the teachers are motivated by self-preservation regardless of the impact onkids.

  2. I’ve had less experience than, you, Bill, but in little league / knothole, I’ve noticed, three kinds of kids who are “lesser skilled”:

    1. Kids who are being forced to be there and are just marking time until they can go do what they really want to be doing.

    2. Kids who have had insufficient practice and coaching and are never going to get much better because their lack of skills create a vicious circle, sitting on the bench and doing one inning in right field does nothing to build skills and even less to build confidence and enthusiasm.

    3. Kids who are not physically capable of much improvement due to various limitations; overweight, small/short for age, badly near sighted, etc.

    and, kind of a 4th. You also occasionally see a kid who is caught up in bigger issues of family drama etc. (Couldn’t get to the game because dad was supposed to drive him but he was too drunk, they suddenly had to move again, couldn’t sleep before the game because sister and brother-in-law were fighting and the cops came…)

    Of course some kids have combinations of these things.

    In trying to draw a parallel with academics, I’d say that most “reform” efforts have been aimed that fourth category. I’d like to see more help for category 2. I’ve seen a lot of baseball “coaching” which has consisted of coaches yelling “You’ve got to catch that ball!” and I think a lot of academic “teaching” is of the same type.

    I think that in sports or academics, merely filtering out and celebrating the highly skilled without doing anything to teach the lesser skilled isn’t really all that helpful, it is a form of “drawing your curve and then choosing your points…”


  3. The times are changing. In 1963, my wife taught elementary school in east Los Angeles, in a school near LA County Hospital and USC medical school where I was a student. It was called Evergreen Avenue School and the students were a mix of about 70% Hispanic and the rest mixed black and white. The principal was a dynamic guy who had actually volunteered to interview applicants so he could screen for them for his own school. He picked his candidates and gave them a rush like a fraternity would. They got extra school supplies, some of which we paid for but not much because our income was low enough to qualify for welfare then.

    She has language problems with the kids but, by midterm, the language problem was pretty much gone, She did not speak more than a few words of Spanish. At parents night, the parents were all there, most speaking Spanish with the kids translating for their parents, She quickly learned that she had to be careful about criticizing the kids’ behavior to the parents. If she did, the kid would come to school black and blue the next day. Discipline was not an issue.

    Needless to say, there was no union. These girls were all chosen from high achieving graduates of USC and UCLA. My wife and her pal, Nancy, were married to medical students. A personal friend, a teacher at another east LA school, was married to a law student and her parents owned a plane with which they attended every USC away game with many coaches as passengers. Education was what nice girls did while they waited for a husband or supported the student husband getting an MD or LLD or MBA.

    That was a different world. She went back to teaching about 20 years ago, we had divorced and she was laid off from a bank executive job in a merger. She ha a life time credential. The experience was totally different. Teachers were uninterested in the kids and sometimes mocked them in the teachers’ room. They seemed to be different group, more like DMV employees. They came from lesser colleges and did not have good grades. The union was pervasive, as was the attitude.

    After that experience, she told me she would home school the kids. Her principal actually tried to recruit her, who hadn’t taught in 30 years, as his best teacher but she went back to a banking job when one opened up.

    It’s not totally the schools’ fault but a lot of it is.

  4. Schools are not for learning. They’re a political object. All politics can indeed be local. When parents have had enough, you’ll have your schools back. Or not depending on who you are.

  5. John,

    I agree with you completely. Lesser skilled kids always have a story behind them – some times stories to sympathize with and sometimes not. I’m sure the same is true in school.

    My beef with the schools is that too many teachers use the presence of kids of all 4 categories you outlined as a shield to protect them from accountability for results and want a policy of merely having those kids participate serve as accomplishment enough to prove the teacher did her/his job.

  6. Elfsta,

    That’s true if parents can organize. There are, however, costs to organizing. Individually, the schools will simply ignore you.

    Isn’t it interesting that both Clinton and Obama sent their own children to expensive private schools while denying that ability to poor students in DC? Even a small number of them.

  7. Gail Collins cheerfully complained about a Texas that “hijacked the American Agenda.” Of course, she mixed apples & oranges; we also might ask whether it is New York or Texas that has surplus U-Hauls. A major argument was that Texas encouraged such practices as letting people take their children from failing schools, charter schools, for-profit schools, etc. Later, in anothe context, she laughed about the editorial room of her early career & its rainbow of diverse colors, ethnicities. Of course, she laughed, what they all had in common was a Catholic education. She thought that diagramming all those sentences helped. Saracasm she can deal out, but she seemed without irony in that discussion. Cogntive dissonance, as my friend always says.

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