Why Schools Can't Be Run Like Businesses (*see editorial on this in the Projo)

"Best Dentist" Analogy (click here)

List of Reasons Why Merit Pay Won't Work (click here)

It is ridiculous to compare private industry to the public education system in our nation, although, this is exactly what many critics do these days. They are not analogous and need to be considered under different pretexts. Given that teachers like to use analogies and metaphors to explain complicated topics, consider the following exchange from Education Week (true story) and others that follow:

            A former business leader of the ice cream industry, Jamie Vollner, was made aware of these differences when he joined a corporate group that advocated reforming public education. In one of his speeches to the faculty at a local school, Mr. Vollner was proclaiming the efficiency and success of the business world in producing fine products, while criticizing the ineffectiveness of public schools to provide quality and successful students.

            During his presentation, an English teacher raised her hand and asked whether his ice cream business produced good ice cream. Mr. Vollner replied smugly, “Best ice cream in America, ma’am.”

            The English teacher then asked, “Do you use premium ingredients?”

            He responded, “Super premium! Nothing but triple-A.”

            The teacher then asked, “When you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?” Mr. Vollner’s ice cream business was famous for its creamy blueberry ice cream.

            Mr. Vollner then replied, “I send them back.”

            “That’s right!” the teacher barked. “And we can never send back our blueberries. WE take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with attention deficit disorder, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all. Every single one. And that, Mr. Vollner, is why it’s not a business. It’s school.” (Jamie Vollner wrote about this exchange in Education Week.)

    The product or commodity in a business is vastly different than a child. There are so many socioeconomic factors to consider, such as the larger share of immigrant groups coming to this state versus a state like Iowa. Our poverty rate is higher than Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as the fact that we have a higher cost of living than most states in this country. Of the 199,000 children in Rhode Island, 27,000, or 14% are living in poverty. Rhode Island ranks 19th in combating child poverty among all of the 50 states including the District of Columbia. (US Dept. of Labor) The median family income for a family of four in CT was 86,001, MA was 82,561, but RI was 71,098 in 2003 according to the U.S. Census ( see report). Consider that an affluent child has parents who can pay for tutoring, a computer, are probably college educated themselves, etc., whereas a poor child is more likely to live with a single parent who is probably not college educated. In other words, a child's education and his/her academic ability are determined by many other factors than that of one teacher's instruction in a year.


"The Best Dentist" Story (by John Taylor, Superintendent of Schools,
Lancaster School District, South Carolina)  - A good analogy:

My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don't

forget checkups. He uses the latest techniques based on

research. He never hurts me, and I've got all my teeth,

so when I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see

if he'd heard about the new state program. I knew he'd

think it was great.

"Did you hear about the new state program to measure the

effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?" I


"No," he said. He didn't seem too thrilled. "How will

they do that?"

"It's quite simple," I said. "They will just count the

number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14, and

18 and average that to determine a dentist's rating.

Dentists will be rated as Excellent, Good, Average, and

Below Average and Unsatisfactory. That way parents will

know which are the best dentists. It will also encourage

the less effective dentists to get better," I said.

"Poor dentists who don't improve could lose their

licenses to practice."

"That's terrible," he said.

"What? That's not a good attitude," I said. "Don't you

think we should try to improve children's dental health

in this state?"

"Sure I do," he said, "but that's not a fair way to

determine who is practicing good dentistry."

"Why not?" I said. "It makes perfect sense to me."

"Well, it's so obvious," he said. "Don't you see that

dentists don't all work with the same clientele; so much

depends on things we can't control? For example," he

said, "I work in a rural area with a high percentage of

patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues

work in upper middle class neighborhoods. Many of the

parents I work with don't bring their children to see me

until there is some kind of problem and I don't

get to do much preventive work. Also," he said, "many of

the parents I serve let their kids eat way too much candy

from an early age, unlike more educated parents who

understand the relationship between sugar and decay.

To top it all off," he added, "so many of my clients have

well water which is untreated and has no fluoride in it.

Do you have any idea how much difference early use of

fluoride can make?"

"It sounds like you're making excuses," I said. I

couldn't believe my dentist would be so defensive. He

does a great job.

"I am not!" he said. "My best patients are as good as

anyone's, my work is as good as anyone's, but my average

cavity count is going to be higher than a lot of other

dentists because I chose to work where I am needed


"Don't get touchy," I said.

"Touchy?" he said. His face had turned red and from the

way he was clenching and unclenching his jaws, I was

afraid he was going to damage his teeth. "Try furious.

In a system like this, I will end up being rated average,

below average, or worse. "My more educated patients who

see these ratings may believe this so-called rating

actually is a measure of my ability and proficiency as a

dentist. They may leave me, and I'll be left with only

the most needy patients. And my cavity average score

will get even worse. On top of that, how will I attract

good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to

my practice if it is labeled below average?"

"I think you are overreacting," I said. " 'Complaining,

excuse making and stonewalling won't improve dental

health'...I am quoting from a leading member of the DOC,"

I noted.

"What's the DOC?" he asked.

"It's the Dental Oversight Committee," I said, "a group

made up of mostly laypersons to make sure dentistry in

this state gets improved."

"Spare me," he said. "I can't believe this. Reasonable

people won't buy it," he said hopefully.

The program sounded reasonable to me, so I asked, "How

else would you measure good dentistry?"

"Come watch me work," he said. "Observe my processes."

"That's too complicated and time consuming," I said.

"Cavities are the bottom line, and you can't argue with

the bottom line. It's an absolute measure."

"That's what I'm afraid my parents and prospective

patients will think. This can't be happening," he said


"Now, now," I said, "don't despair. The state will help

you some."

"How?" he said.

"If you're rated poorly, they'll send a dentist who is

rated excellent to help straighten you out," I said


"You mean," he said, "they'll send a dentist with a

wealthy clientele to show me how to work on severe

juvenile dental problems with which I have probably had

much more experience? Big help."

"There you go again." I said. "you aren't acting

professionally at all."

"You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like

grading schools and teachers on an average score on a

test of children's progress without regard to influences

outside the school, the home, the community served and

stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair

to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to


I just shook my head sadly, but he had brightened. "I'm

going to write my representatives and senator," he said.

"I'll use the school analogy-surely they will see the


He walked off with that look of hope mixed with fear and

suppressed anger that I see in the mirror so often



An Email by Marion Brady - List of Reasons Why Merit Pay Won't Work:
From the farmhouse where I once lived, it was pretty much a straight shot up
Ohio Route 14 to Lincoln Electric on the east side of Cleveland. Fifty years
ago it was about an hour's drive.

Lincoln Electric manufactured electrical equipment, mostly electric welders.
A neighbor, friend, and father of one of my students worked there. He rarely
missed an opportunity to remind me that he made about three times more money
assembling electric welders than I made teaching his daughter.

I knew the way to Lincoln Electric not because I was interested in changing
jobs, but because I was talking to someone there about a project I thought
could improve Southeast High School.

By just about any measure, Lincoln was progressive. In 1914 they created an
Employee Advisory Board made up of elected representatives from every
department. In the next few years, long before most other companies,
everybody got free life insurance, paid vacations, stock ownership plans,
bonuses for useful suggestions, automatic cost-of-living raises, and
continuous employment guarantees. During the worst years of the Great
Depression, average pay for employees more than doubled.

What particularly interested me about Lincoln, however, was the company's
"Incentive Bonus" program. Simply put, the better job you did, the more you
got paid.

Merit pay! I loved the idea! The agriculture teacher and I began an effort,
blessed by the school board, to bring merit pay to Southeast High School.

It was a real challenge. Every problem we solved seemed to create two or
three new problems. Month after month we talked about "the devil in the
details." Finally, notwithstanding how commonsensical the whole idea seemed,
notwithstanding our initial enthusiasm, notwithstanding how "American" the
project, we concluded that the gulf between manufacturing things and
teaching kids was unbridgeable. The devil wasn't in the details; the devil
was in the fundamentals.

Here are some relevant facts - facts still true:

- Every kid is different. In industry, quality controls discard
unsatisfactory "raw material." Teachers have to work with whatever the local
parent population produces - smart and slow, motivated and lazy, clever and

- Every class is different. Two classes of the same size, studying the same
subject, in the same room, at the same time of day and year, will have
different "collective "personalities and have to be taught differently.

- Every subject is different. A performance evaluation for a band director
won't work for a teacher helping kids learn how to give impromptu speeches
in an English class, or analyze propaganda in a social studies class, or
study milk production on a local dairy farm in an agriculture class.

- Every teacher is different. Some come on like Marine drill sergeants,
others like Mary Poppins. Both approaches, and everything in between, can
succeed for teachers who build on their strengths and minimize their
weaknesses. How a particular style works will be different for every
student, and the results may not be known for years.

- Every work environment is different. Some administrators treat teachers as
professionals, encouraging independence, growth and creativity. Others are
authoritarian and controlling, or even see teachers as the enemy. Not
surprisingly, teachers function differently in different environments.

- Every resource base differs. There's no standardization of the kinds and
amounts of instructional tools and materials available, of monies for
supplies and enrichment activities, or for the ability and willingness of
local volunteers to share their knowledge and experience.

That's six major variables affecting teacher performance, only one of which
is controlled by the teacher.

I can think of no way to bulldoze all those variables into a level playing
field for all teachers. In the more than 50 years since we tried and failed,
I've never seen anyone else do it either. Twenty -two governors recently
agreed that merit pay is a great idea, and the governor of Texas went home
and said Texas is going to put a plan in place. It'll be interesting to
watch what happens. A perception of unfairness is a sure-fire way to destroy
a school system.

But even if some genius figures out how to do what my friend and I couldn't
do, it won't solve the problem. Merit pay is based on an assumption about
basic human nature, that money is the ultimate motivator.

The behavior of hundreds of teachers I've known says that isn't true. Robert
Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, argues persuasively
that creating quality is a deeper human drive. Sure, teachers want enough to
live decently. But the teachers which readers should most want teaching
their kids and grandkids are those for whom quality work is more important
than money. If the opportunity to achieve that is missing, raising salaries
enough to keep teachers in the profession will trigger a tax revolt.

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