Patrick Lencioni is the best-selling author of books about business and management and has sold millions of copies of his business fables worldwide.  According to his own bio, his work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Bloomberg Businessweek, and USA Today.  In 1997, he founded The Table Group, a consulting firm to help leaders improve their organizations’ health.

I’ve read all of his books, but his most recent publication has really resonated with me.  While his first books were written in the style of business fables (Death by Meeting and Three Signs of a Miserable Job are my personal favorites), The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business simply shares lessons learned from Lencioni’s 20+ years of experience in working with organizational leaders in both the private and public sectors.  As a fun side note, Lencioni says he started his career at Bain & Company (of Mitt Romney fame).

The book was already captivating well before I reached a section near the end that I knew I would have to share here on Plunderbund for its identification of the key problem in American public education system today.

From the book:

Most organizations I’ve worked with have too many top priorities to achieve the level of focus they need to succeed.  Wanting to cover all their bases, they establish a long list of disparate objectives and spread their scarce time, energy, and resources across them all.  The result is almost always a lot of initiatives being done in a mediocre way and a failure to accomplish what matters most.

When a CEO announces that her company’s top priorities for the year are to grow revenue, improve customer service, introduce more innovative products, cut expenses, and improve market share, she is almost guaranteeing that none of those objectives is going to get the attention it deserves.

And to be clear, Lencioni isn’t the first person to propose this notion that a business needs to have a concise list of top priorities in order to maximize success.

And if you haven’t heard education reformers, especially elected officials, claim that “we need to run schools like a business” you’ve been living in a cave.  Governor Kasich even used the phrase immediately following his election in 2010, though this should be considered a bi-partisan problem.

I’ve generally assumed that they meant to run them like a “successful” business, but comparing top business practices by individuals like Lencioni to the public education priorities adopted by these “run schools like a business” officials.

Here is a list of the top priorities that schools in Ohio have been assigned to adopt over the past two years and continuing into the foreseeable future.

Common Core: Entirely revamped math and reading curriculum standards that teachers will need to begin teaching in all grades that are aligned to new state assessments coming in 2014-2015.  Schools can’t switch to soon, however, or they risk leaving gaps in student learning that could result in lower scores on the Ohio Achievement Assessments that will still be administered in the next two years.  The change to Common Core directly affects over 50% of Ohio teachers, and 100% of all students, schools, and districts.

New state tests: To accompany the new Common Core will be new state assessments.  The new assessments are being hailed as more challenging by “raising the bar” on the state standards.  These new assessments will be created and delivered by PARCC, one of the consortia approved by the US Department of Education.  According to their website, PARCC’s next-generation assessment system will provide students, educators, policymakers and the public with the tools needed to identify whether students — from grade 3 through high school — are on track for postsecondary success and, critically, where gaps may exist and how they can be addressed well before students enter college or the workforce.

PARCC Assessments delivered ONLINE only: The assessments will be administered via computer – for every student.  Minimum standards were released just this April (see below).  And if the cost of this technology wasn’t enough to cause budgetary concerns, the fact that we have school districts in the state without high-speed internet access might be considered a much greater impediment to successful implementation.  At the current time, PARCC does not have a paper-testing Plan B option (unlike the other testing consortia that Ohio did not choose, SBAC).

Additional tests and testing dates: In addition to new, online tests, these next generation assessments have multiple dates spread throughout the year, meaning that the number of mandatory student assessments in math and reading is TRIPLED.  And if schools would like, they have an additional TWO optional tests that students can take earlier in the year to determine progress on the tests (teaching to the test, anyone?).  The effect of this change is a loss of at least four full days of instruction at all grades 3-12.

New curriculum in science and social studies: New curricular standards in science and social studies have been adopted by the state of Ohio for full implementation along with new state-created assessments in the 2014-2015 school year to align with the Common Core adoption.  These standards were already in the works before the Ohio legislature adopted the “Founding Documents” bill during the most recent session in time for it to be required in schools during the 2012-13 school year.  To clarify, new social studies standards were adopted and scheduled to be implemented in two years, but the Ohio legislature believed a micro-managed component to revise the curriculum next year was necessary.

Teacher Evaluation system: New state law (supported by federal Race to the Top initiative) seeks to overhaul the evaluation process of teachers.  The new requirements are not exactly a “tweak” either, but require districts to link the evaluation process to a state-created framework that includes student data in ways that have yet to be created (anywhere).  The framework allows little creativity by local school districts to choose methods of gathering student growth data in non-core classrooms, areas where traditional testing does not exist.  Further, the yet-to-be-passed Senate Bill 316 contains major revisions to the evaluation process including a change to the identification of which teachers will be required to be evaluated by student growth measures (at least 50% of time on instruction – think counselors, nurses, social workers, etc.).  Thus any work that districts are making on this process looks to be completely upended by the Ohio legislature.  Most teacher evaluations are currently administered by school principals, but the new framework will at least double or triple the workload of principals on this process alone, while requiring that principals attend state training and be certified as an evaluator annually.

Principal Evaluation system: The principal evaluation system will be holding principals accountable for student achievement scores (value-added scores) within their building in addition to other professional standards.  The principal is required to be evaluated twice per year.  My favorite line of the description provided by the Ohio Department of Education is at the end where they spend a local district’s funding – “The local board of education will also provide for the allocation of financial resources to support professional development.”

Teacher retesting: Teachers in low-scoring schools will be required to take licensure tests on their teaching content as identified by the state.  The district must pay for these tests and the results need to be integrated into the district’s re-hiring procedures.

New school ranking model:  Schools and districts will be subject to new ranking criteria that will form a new final ranking grade of A-F.  There will either be three or four separate criteria (depends on version of legislation and whether you’re buying Heffner’s unpublicized and last-minute changes to Ohio’s federal NCLB waiver request).  This change will require schools to revamp programs and communicate the new grading criteria to all employees and parents to avoid confusion over the new rankings.  These new grades will be used by the state determine supplemental funding sources and other miscellaneous ranking-based components such as whether school should be recommended for closure or state takeover (may especially affect charter schools).

Third Grade Reading Guarantee: The third grade reading guarantee will have the most significant effect of mandating new diagnostic assessments for children in grades K-3.  This testing should be expected to take more than a single day per child as is customary in the higher grades as younger children are not yet indoctrinated into the method of independent test-taking, online or otherwise (Ironically, it’s third grade when we actually ruin our kids by teaching them to sit silently for 2.5 straight hours with a pencil and test booklet). In addition to the testing, districts will be required to increase the amount of intervention and tutoring support to students performing below the state-identified level.  This will require different levels of implementation across different school districts. You can read more about the third grade guarantee in some past posts.

Expansion of school vouchers: Whether it’s a full statewide voucher program or an attempt to expand the eligibility rules for Ohio’s EdChoice program, the ever-changing protocols of school vouchers is excessively disruptive for budgetary planning.


I’ve tried to cover the big items, but even this list of massive changes is likely an incomplete list of the major priorities that schools are having imposed upon them in Ohio — none of which has been identified by either the Board or the CEO/Superintendent of any of the school districts.  Said another way — not a single item on this list reflects the specifically adopted needs of a local school district – items such as school levies or issues of poverty (including student mobility, homelessness, attendance).

Finally, it’s important to put this problem in the context of our “schools need to be run like a business” model.  Our businesses (schools) have been placed with a large number of top priorities by an outside entity while simultaneously being handicapped by other factors:

  1. Unpredictable local funding not linked to performance (see Westerville City Schools’ academic success)
  2. Decreased funding by Ohio for local school districts
  3. Decreased funding to Ohio Department of Education, entity tasked with creating and supporting major priorities
  4. No school funding formula (John Kasich repealed the state’s Evidence-Based Model in 2011 and has yet to adopt a new one)

So while elected officials like to tout their business acumen as they enact new requirements for schools, they overlook the very simple idea for successfully operation an organization as was so clearly stated by Lencioni:

Wanting to cover all their bases, they establish a long list of disparate objectives and spread their scarce time, energy, and resources across them all.  The result is almost always a lot of initiatives being done in a mediocre way and a failure to accomplish what matters most.

And what matters most is educating our children, something a laundry list of legislation will never accomplish.