It’s the Teachers, Stupid

From Bill Gates’ 2009 Gates Foundation letter:

It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one. Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.

I’ve read this data elsewhere as well.  What this tells me is that I- and probably many others- have traditionally put too much focus on picking a school for our kids and not as much importance on the teachers that make up the school.  As a lawyer (my rarely-mentioned day job), I should have known that.  Rarely, if ever, do clients hire a lawyer because of the firm where he works.  Rather, they hire the firm because the lawyer works there.  The hard part where schools are concerned is that, unlike lawyers, teachers don’t seem to have the opportunity to generate external reputations (e.g., personal brands) that extend beyond their school of the moment.  Or if they do, the customer/parent doesn’t know how to access that information.  I think there’s some intent on schools to promote this lack of transparency.  Because it gives the schools power over the teachers, and because it avoids questions (read interference) from concerned parents.

How can we not demand accountability with our educational system?  If my dry cleaner forgets to replace broken buttons on my shirt, I can call the driver and remind him to do so.  How in the world can we take a “cross-our fingers and hope” approach with our children’s education?

As parents, we need to remember- and to make sure that school administrators remember- that we are their customers.  That we have trusted them with our precious children, and that the education of our children is one of our most sacred responsibilities- on the parental level and as a society.  We need to demand accountability, both on the administrator and the teacher level.  Other than the occasional “squeaky wheel,” some of whom are so angry, illogical or unfocused that their demeanor defeats their entitlement, I think schools too often get a free pass as far as accountability goes.  This is doubly or triply the case in non-traditional schools that deemphasize tests and grades.

I remember when we were choosing a school for our kids.  My wife researched all the options, made a matrix of pros and cons, attended school fairs and, ultimately, we made a decision.  During the first parental orientation, the headmaster (a “pre-owned” car word for principal) suggested that the parents read a certain book.  I read it, and tabbed some pages where I had questions.  After the next session, I asked the headmaster some of those questions.  Rather than engaging me, he simply told me, in so many words, that the school did certain things a certain way and if I was not OK with that, perhaps this school was not the best place for my kids.  In other words, he told me “this is how we roll.”  I remember feeling simultaneously irritated by being blown off and impressed with what I then viewed as his confidence.  But it wasn’t about my feelings- it was about my kids’ education.  So I put my ego and my book away and my kids, in turn, began school there.

Over time and as my exposure and investment, both psychological and monetary, grew, I began to have some new questions.  Nothing major at first, just some lurking issues I was concerned about.

For example, there’s less turnover with Jeopardy contestants than there seems to be with my kids’ teachers.  I’ve been troubled by that for a while, but other than an (unanswered) email or two, for a long while, I never really sought answers as to why.  Recently, I decided to try to get some answers about that and a few other things.

posI emailed the headmaster and asked if he would meet with me.  As the tuition paying parent of multiple students, it never dawned on me that he would refuse.  That is, until he did.  Well, he didn’t actually ever say no.  He just asked if I would meet with one of the other administrators instead.  I said that was fine, as long as I could meet with him afterwards.  Over the course of several emails, I asked nicely but firmly that he meet with me.

He did not.  That, friends, is the complete opposite of accountability.  That is customer amnesia.

Maybe this guy thinks he’s a rock star.  Maybe he likes to hide behind his employees.  Hell, maybe he has a legitimate, albeit hard to imagine, reason for refusing to meet with me.  I don’t know because the only meaningful message I got from him was when I showed up for the meeting and he didn’t.  Even if the “policy” (a shield for unaccountability if ever there was one) is that parents meet with other administrators first, I was willing to do that.  As long as everybody stipulated to the “first” part.

I guess that’s just “how they roll.”

The thing is, though, that the “this is how we roll” argument that may work before our children are entrusted into a school’s care is utterly invalid after our kids- and our time, karma and tuition money- are invested.  At that point, how they roll must become secondary to accountability, what’s best for the children and something that feels like customer service.  Otherwise, the entire system is upside down.  Broken buttons are one thing.  Education is something else entirely.

If I refused to meet with one of my clients, even one who does not work with me directly, all hell would break loose.  If one of my clients, many of whom pay me far less than I pay in annual tuition, asked me to sit in a room for an hour and stare at them, I’d do so without hesitation.  Because I know who the customer is, and because I take customer service seriously.  And because I know that if I don’t, there are plenty of others who will.

I don’t have all the answers.  I mostly have questions.  But I know that education, for all the reasons described in Bill Gates’ letter and more, is among the most important issues we face, on all levels.  I know that accountability generally increases results.

And I know who the customer is.

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