Run the Schools LIke WHAT Business? (from 7-10-11)

This post may not seem to be about education at first – but bear with me.

Two articles recently caught my eye after I saw them re-posted on Facebook. The first, posted by my wife, is “Driven off the Road by M.B.A.s.” It is about former GM vice Chairman Bob Lutz, and his book, Car Guys and Bean Counters. The article discusses the takeover by the auto-industry by “bean counters” who stopped focusing on what consumers really needed and focused instead on the bottom line. The engineers who actually thought about creating quality products were shuffled to the sidelines in favor of MBA’s, whose main priority was to cut costs and create products on the cheap, whether they were quality or not. According to the article, this idea has infected nearly all of America business, with only Apple standing out as the consumer/product focused company that works to create quality, not just profits.

After dealing with shoddy American workmanship myself (my little Chevy Aveo still leaks under the dashboard when it rains, despite two trips to the dealership) and with poor customer service (why does Michael’s, where I buy my cartooning pens, have 8 registers and only one of them up and running– to create more profits!), I think I can believe that our too-much focus on profit and not-enough focus on quality could be one of the things dragging our economy down.

The other article was of even more interest to me, since it is about animation, which I am fanatical about, and the collision of creativity and commerce. The New York Times essay, “A Collision of Creativity and Cash,” concerns Pixar Animation Studios, which until this summer had an unprecedented string of commercial and artistic smashes beginning with Toy Story in 1995. But this summer, Cars 2 has premiered to a lot of fairly negative reviews, and indications that it may not have much box office staying power. To be fair, I haven’t seen the movie yet, but a friend who took her daughter said that it confused and bored her target-demographic audience member. (Though I will grant you that the true demographic is young boys who will persuade their parents to buy Cars 2 merchandise.)

James B. Stewart, the article’s author, talks about the key to Pixar’s success to this point: taking risks and focusing, not on potential profit, but on the creative process. I have read somewhere that Pixar’s John Lasseter once said that every Pixar movie sounds like the worst idea ever. A movie about talking toys? A movie about insects building a fake bird? A movie about an old man flying his house to South America? What? And yet each of those movies was a hit. Stewart quotes Lasseter as saying that their success at Pixar is about “the leaders of the company doing kind of the opposite of what every other company does.”

In other words, Pixar has been focusing on the product, not on the profits. Profits came along for the ride because the product was so good. In this way, Pixar has been truer to the spirit of Walt than the Walt Disney Company itself has been since its founder’s death.

But now that Disney has officially acquired Pixar, things may change. Stewart talks about a speech given by Disney chief financial officer Jay Rasulo last year called “The Value of Franchises.” It talks about calculating creativity to ensure profitability. Cars 2 may be the first victim of Disney trying to exploit the value of franchises – a movie made for profit, not out of love. Go buy those Cars 2 bedspreads!

So, what’s better for business? Focus on profit, or focus on product? I suspect that focusing on profits seems better in the short run, but that focusing on product is better in the long run. And this has to do with our motivations for working, for being in business at all. The car industry and the economy in general are suffering. Could it be because the MBA’s have taken over, and money is everything to them, the products have suffered? What if enthusiasm is a better fuel for the economy than greed?

Apple and Pixar (Cars 2 aside) have thrived because money is the secondary concern. The people at Apple and Pixar, are, from everything I have read, motivated intrinsically by what they do. They are jazzed by creating products or movies that their fans will love. The financial success is nice, but not primarily why they’re doing what they do. I have read about innovators and artists from all fields talk about their love of their craft – but not once have I heard one talk about being primarily motivated by money. Bugs Bunny animator Chuck Jones said they made their movies to amuse themselves, not to please the front office people at Warner Brothers. Composer lyricist Stephen Sondheim once did a show with Richard Rogers because everyone told him it would make a lot of money; when it was an artistic and financial disaster, he promised himself he would never do another show that wasn’t done out of love for the project.

Perhaps you need to worry about both – creativity and profits. But there needs to be a balance. That’s what was nice about Disney in its Hyperion Days: it had Walt being the idea guy and Roy worrying about money. But Walt the idea guy was the driving force, not Roy the money guy. We’ve put Roy in charge and told Walt to go sit in the back room.

So what does this say about education? Well – a few things. One, as I ask in the title of this post, when people say we should run the schools like a business, I ask: Run them like what business? Run them like the car industry and the financial industry? Or run them like Apple and Pixar?

We have examples. The For-Profit Schools scandal is a case in point: money-motivated schools lure their students in and let them go into debt for thousands of dollars of government loans, on which the students later default. The students are in a financial mess, but the school walks away with the money. Many of the country’s much praised charter schools have been guilty of various kinds of fraud, from rejecting certain students to make their test scores look good, to nepotism. Aside from scandals, it continues to floor me how many people complain about the price of teachers, but have no problem shelling out millions for testing, testing security, consulting companies, statisticians to help analyze scores and come up with value-added models to help make firing and hiring decisions, and standardized curricula that promise to raise test scores. Do we really think the people in these companies are motivated by what’s best for kids?

As Lucy says as she dictates a letter to the Great Pumpkin for Linus, “Greed makes people do strange things.”

I’m not saying all charters or for-profit schools are corrupt, but I do wonder at the motivations that lie behind them. I wonder at the motivations behind some public school employees, too. Are there teachers whose goal is to get tenure and then game the system by doing as little as possible? You bet. And they need to be dealt with. But you can tell who they are without value-added games.

On the other hand, there are people in education, both administrators and teachers, who are there for intrinsic reasons, who are as jazzed about their jobs as Steve Jobs and as excited about the animation they bring to children’s minds as a Pixar artist is about bringing a toy to life. Think about it. When you have to put your child in a classroom, would you really prefer a teacher who is bottom-line focused and motivated by the promise of merit pay, who sees her job through the narrow lens of raising your child’s test scores? Or would you like your child to be with a teacher who just loves teaching, is creative, and wants to focus not on those bean-counter test scores but on your student’s actual strengths and weaknesses and academic development?

Do you want an MBA teacher, or a Pixar teacher for your child?

The business people who are saying we need to run the schools like a business have in mind an auto-industry, bottom-line mindset. I wonder if they can even comprehend what makes a company like Pixar really tick. I certainly don’t think they understand that teachers just love teaching, and love kids. Why else would we spend tons of our own money on classroom supplies and libraries? Why else would we do so much more than is required of us, and even try to buck the system to try to do what’s best for kids? We want money to live on – everyone needs that – but we are not in this profession for the money. We are teaching, as the title of a book I’m about to read states, for “love and wisdom.”

From a business perspective, it seems, you hand over leadership to the bean-counters at your own peril. When money becomes your main motivator, quality actually goes out the window, along with innovation and creativity. But when you let people who love the business for its own sake run the show, be it cars or computers or animated cartoons… or schools, you get a better product, and profits (or test scores) may come along for the ride.

If you want to run my school like a business, fine. Just make sure it’s the right business.