In Cleveland recently to facilitate a daylong board retreat, I dropped by the administrative headquarters of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to chat with one of Eric Gordon’s top lieutenants, Dr. Roseann Canfora, the district’s Chief Communications Officer. You might know that Eric, who was named Urban Educator of the Year by the Council of Great City Schools in 2016, is “Chief Executive Officer” – not superintendent – of the Cleveland Schools. I can’t say for certain, but I think it’s highly likely that Eric’s CEO title is intended to send two messages to the citizens of Cleveland, Ohio. First, the title signals loudly and clearly that a full-fledged chief executive officer is at the helm of this large, tremendously important public corporation – on a par with the CEOs of other large for-profit and public/nonprofit corporations in the Greater Cleveland community. Of course, the traditional title “superintendent” suggests a more operational and tactical role that isn’t very CEO-like. The only other superintendents that come to my mind provide operational direction to prisons, mines, and utility plants and handle building maintenance. So I predict that you’ll see a steadily growing number of districts headed by chief executive officers over the next few years.
And, second, Eric’s CEO title communicates to the wider Cleveland community that the Cleveland Metropolitan School District is a major league enterprise. I can’t recall hearing more than a handful of superintendents over the years describe their district as an “enterprise,” no doubt because most people think of an enterprise as a business organization aiming to generate a profit that can be reinvested in the business and/or distributed to one or more owners. However, when you set aside the profit motive, successful enterprises can teach public school districts valuable lessons about thriving in an increasingly competitive environment, characterized by widespread questioning of the value of public education and apparently growing support for investing tax dollars in alternatives to our public schools. Some characteristics of business enterprises that will almost certainly help public school districts compete in these challenging times are:
- A customer focus: not only treating students and their parents as the preeminent customers who must be satisfied, but also paying close attention to less direct, but important, customers of the public schools, such as taxpayers without kids in the public schools, local governments, postsecondary institutions, business organizations such as chambers of commerce, etc.
- Systematic product innovation: thinking of educational services as a product that must be steadily improved to more fully meet evolving customer needs – by capitalizing on new technologies, strengthening teaching skills, upgrading physical facilities, etc.
- Expanding ownership: engaging representatives of the public at large and key stakeholder organizations in ways that make them feel like owners of the K-12 enterprise (for example, by involving them in your district’s annual strategic planning retreat). Owners tend to be supporters, while uninvolved outsiders are far more likely to be critics.
- Aggressive image building: assuming that good works never have and never will speak for themselves and, therefore, communicating clear messages to all customers about the practical benefits of public education.
- Revenue diversification: going beyond traditional state and local tax revenues by expanding foundation and other grant funding, building a private donor base, and even experimenting with earned income (such as charging for the use of school facilities after hours)
Be on the lookout for a series of podcasts highlighting practical ways districts around the country are transforming themselves into more competitive educational enterprises. And by all means comment on this article by sharing your perspectives on the enterprise concept.