Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Are Newspapers Becoming VCRs?

My dog and I have become paper trained. Call me old fashioned, but I still get the print version of the daily newspaper. Each day I engage in a trivial, but memorable tribal dance with the delivery person. Timing is everything in this archaic ritual, and simple nuances in the unseen interchange between us nag at me all morning like a food particle stuck between my molars. His/her job is to precisely toss the daily rag into a ten foot diameter invisible circle on my driveway at approximately the same time each morning. My job is to retrieve it in a sweeping motion that consumes exactly the amount of time it takes a Golden Retriever to relieve herself on the front lawn. If he fails to hit the mark I notice. If I fail to awaken at the appointed hour my dog notices and becomes an insistent telepathic alarm clock at my bedside.

Since I’m really not that fond of newspapers or reporters (along with lawyers, legislators, and radio talk show hosts) it has struck me as quite odd that when there is a disturbance in the force and my newspaper is not where it’s supposed to be I get inordinately upset. I stand there bewildered and unsettled in my gym shorts and T-shirt wondering why this 50¢ entitlement is not where it’s supposed to be! I call to complain and demand that the circulation staff makes it right.

When that happens, my dog also notices that the time-space continuum is out of balance and she decides to sniff around for a few extra minutes in a vain attempt to find my newspaper. All the while I am awkwardly hoping that my super-commuting neighbors don’t come out to witness what I might look like as a bedmate. I feel their eyes on me as the seconds tick by. How bad is my bed head hairdo? At least the newspaper provides me some cover and a credible excuse for standing half naked in my driveway at dawn. Sans newspaper, they probably can’t figure out if I’m coming or going.

This morning, I dutifully traipsed out to the driveway at sunrise, inwardly smiling with smug satisfaction that my trusty newspaper was “in the zone.” Game on.

So, with my morning coffee I'm reading in The Sacramento Bee about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos buying the venerable Washington Post for $240 million. The Graham Family finally gave up the ownership ghost after 80 years in the business making Bezos a sole owner with no Board of Directors or stockholders. This follows by a week an announcement that the owner of the Boston Red Sox had purchased The Boston Globe for pennies on the dollar of what it was worth a decade ago.

Question: Are newspapers now becoming the retro playthings for the super-rich just like professional sports teams?

Answer: Probably not. Pro Sports is a multi-billion enterprise on the rise and newspapers can’t turn a profit in a collapsing industry. But maybe they make a kitschy hobby for the hipster one percent.

As I read on, it dawned on me that I already heard about everything related to the Bezos/Post affair from watching the nightly news and catching news items on Internet sources. This news story was so yesterday. Isn't it ironic that one of the people contributing to the 44% decline in Post revenue over the last five years now owns the paper he was putting out of business? That feels like a very hostile takeover to me. Amazon (Bezos) very effectively kindled the fire in people to get their news online (pun intended).

Question: How can the print media stay alive in an Era of Instantaneous Reporting by citizen journalists?

Answer: Maybe by being the master of the content and not a slave to the delivery system the press can keep its edge and relevance.

Seniors are about the only ones actually reading print newspapers anymore (remember now, 60 is the new 50).  They read the obituaries to see if they're in them.  The Pew Center reported two years ago that on any given day in America only about 34% of the adults actually read the daily newspaper. That means if you get hammered by the press, there’s a three-in-one chance nobody knows about it.

For older folks, cars on freeways seem to careen past them at break-neck speeds, so they often self-regulate traffic by locking into 65 MPH in the fast lane to gain a sense of control. It’s the geezer factor in commuting that drives us nuts. With respect to news consumption the same holds true. Seniors are trying to drive in a media market fast lane using a slow-paced device that cannot hit light speed. Newspapers don’t have the horse power to keep up with the Internet traffic. Newspapers are not even 1G in a 5G-Force world.

However, for communicators we are still in that transitional gray area where we cannot decide to drop print materials altogether in favor of e-communications. Old folks (and traditionalists like me) like to get our fingers smudged from the ink on what we read. We also turn out to vote at five times the rate of our offspring.

So if content is key, maybe Mr. Bezos can make good on his initial statement that The Washington Post will not change. It will still be a diligent sentinel for truth and accuracy in a sea of shameless hit-piece sensationalist “news reporting.” I hope that standard can stay intact when the pressure of the marketplace shakes confidence in his $240 million gamble.

Newspapers need to take a lesson from the VCR. We all had them 15 years ago. Now they are relics of a bygone era. They are unplugged gathering dust in the garage. Many of us still cling to libraries of the clunky oversized VHS tapes (mostly Disney classics for our grandkids). Soon those physical relics will become little used collectibles too. But Hollywood is still making movies and TV shows. They control the content and adapted nicely to each new generation of media that came along to show their stories (DVD, BluRay, streaming, Netflix, etc). Maybe newspapers should learn a lesson here. Be the reliable story teller. Be the trusted "wire service" for their community.

Newspapers can decide to stay as VCRs or they can become the reference point for the Internet conversations of the future by presenting an accurate, timely, credible, and objective accounting of the news. Don’t become perspective-driven tabloids to keep up with the Internet Joneses; they can’t win on speed and quantity, so win on quality. The newspaper business should be an honorable profession where getting it right matters more than getting it fast.

Maybe Jeff Bezos has the wherewithal and long range vision to transform the daily newspaper into something that people read with a sense of enthusiasm and dedication. My Golden Retriever sure hopes so because our daily ritual is important to both of us in so many ways.
© 2013 by Thomas K. DeLapp

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I am very proud and deeply honored to be recognized by my peers for my career in school communications. Some colleagues and friends have asked that I post the introduction of me by NSPRA President Joe Krumm and my acceptance speech. Enjoy!
National School Public Relations 2013 Seminar    July 8, 2013
First General Session of the Manchester Grand Hyatt, San Diego, CA    
Presentation of the President’s Award by NSPRA President Joe Krumm, APR

The NSPRA Presidents Award is the highest and most prestigious award our organization can bestow. It was established in 1979 to honor NSPRA members for outstanding professionalism and integrity throughout a career as a school public relations practitioner, and to recognize them for their contributions to the advancement of educational public relations and to our Association.

The people who receive this award are true professionals in every sense of the word. It is my privilege this morning to introduce someone who is not only a highly respected communication strategist and advisor, a wise and generous mentor, and a passionate advocate for public education, but also a great friend and colleague.

Tom DeLapp is president of his own company, Communication Resources for Schools in Rocklin, California. A  communication veteran with over 35 years of experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors, Tom is an active contributor to the body of knowledge that school communication professionals need in order to be successful practitioners of the craft.

Along with an extensive grasp of education issues and communication challenges at the national level, Tom has an impressive ability to “dial in” and focus on specific regions of the country, making him a sought-after strategic advisor and invaluable resource to NSPRA members from coast to coast. He has long been a “go to” expert when a district or NSPRA colleague has a crisis or difficult PR challenge, and is one of the first to pick up the phone and offer assistance, no matter the situation. Whether it is contentious labor negotiations, sticky personnel actions, natural disasters, school shootings and campus crime situations, attendance boundary disputes, environmental issues, bond elections, reputation management, or just your everyday solid communication planning, Tom is the one you want on your speed-dial.

As one colleague describes him, “Tom is the go-to guy when big school districts need big help getting out of big league trouble!”

Tom is adamant that every school district and educational agency needs a strategic communications professional on staff and he is dedicated to convincing school leaders of that need. This is evident in how successful he has been in influencing countless superintendents to create school PR positions, even if it meant he would lose them as a client. And once a new position is created, Tom is there to mentor and support that colleague so that their success is ensured; and I know there are a few of you here today who are a testament to his efforts.

In 2001, Tom and NSPRA Past President Bob Noyed took the seed of an idea and grew it into the NSPRA New Professionals Program, which has since helped close to 150 members find their “PR legs” and build successful careers on a sound foundation of theory and practice.

Tom received the Barry Gaskins Mentor Legacy Award in 2006, and served on the NSPRA Executive Board as Southwest Region Vice President from 1998-2001. He continues to serve NSPRA and our members, as a counselor-on-call, providing workshops and presentations, and wherever else he is needed.

An eternal optimist, he doesn’t know the meaning of the word “no.” He is now working to help cultivate and “grow” education foundations in California and currently serves as a vice president on the Board of Directors of the California Consortium of Education Foundations, helping them to focus on strategic planning, programs and fund development.

Throughout the course of an impressive career, Tom DeLapp has distinguished himself as a tireless professional and champion for public schools and children. He generously shares his time and expertise and continues to make a positive difference for education, our profession, and NSPRA.

Will you all please join me in recognizing our 2013 Presidents Award recipient, Tom DeLapp!

“Leaving a Legacy of Leadership”
Acceptance Speech by Tom DeLapp, Recipient of the 2013 President’s Award
At the National School Public Relations Association Seminar in San Diego, July 8, 2013
Thank you so very much Joe.
This is a one of those moments in life --- a hallmark --- that will forever be etched in my memory, so excuse me if I savor it for a moment. This is awesome!
This ranks right up there with the first glimpse of my high school sweetheart as she walked down the aisle toward me in her wedding dress 41 years ago. She turned my knees weak then and she still takes my breath away today. She holds the marker for a debt of gratitude I can never repay for her years of tolerating my ridiculously optimistic attitude, my crazy desire to work on the professional high wire without a safety net, and for getting me to the airport on time despite my best efforts to cram last minute details under a deadline before I took off. She’s probably thinking right now, “Shut it down Tom, you only have 10 minutes.” Ladies and gentlemen; my wife Jan.
Anyone who has sat through one of my workshops knows all too well how much I talk about our kids. This award ranks up there with the sheer enormity of the moment when they were first born and I held them in my arms and thought, "How the hell am I going to pay for this?”
We’ve succeeded in raising two pretty remarkable children --- a philosopher and a drama queen.  Don’t laugh; they both have tenure track jobs! Our college philosophy professor Kevin (or as we call him Doctor Smarty Pants) is here with us.  His sister Kathryn is here in spirit only because she’s starting her first day on the job as a theater teacher in the New York City public schools.
Let me also recognize Jan’s sister Audrey Patterson and my brother-in-law Mike who have taught me that family members can also be best friends. I am enriched by your friendship and honored by your presence here today.
And a special thanks to Rich Bagin and Karen Kleinz from the NSPRA staff who for over 20 years have believed in me and helped make me a better communicator.
I guess in speeches like this I’m supposed to give you some sage advice from a battle hardened veteran; encouraging words of wisdom like:
·        As I’ve grown older I’ve learned that pleasing everyone is impossible, but pissing everybody off is a piece of cake, or
·        Dance first, think later --- Dance like nobody is watching --- Don’t look down when you dance because it really won’t help much --- Just Dance (and I plan to later tonight), or
·        Keep this in mind, everybody is somebody else’s weirdo, or more seriously:
·        The quality of your character is as important as the caliber of your work.
No one succeeds in our profession alone. We try with a little help from our friends. We get by with a little help from our friends. And we annually get high with a little help from our friends. This morning is certainly a tremendous high point for me as a professional.
Let me also offer my salute to the countless volunteer NSPRA members who rushed in to aid the Moore Public Schools in the aftermath of the devastating F5 tornado that tore apart their community, schools and lives. You are heroic as true first responders who ran toward the danger and assumed great risks. People like Kelly Arnold who devoted hours and hours on the front lines in Moore only to have her own district offices ravaged by the second F5 tornado a week later. Remarkable resilience and courage demonstrated by her and her colleagues. This was a teachable moment about the power and significance of the NSPRA network to answer the call in times of great need.
I am humbled to be recognized by my peers for this prestigious honor. The list of names that have received this award is truly impressive. It includes some of the legends in our industry. I consider them my role models and my friends. I’ve been blessed, through NSPRA, to be surrounded by a cadre of some pretty remarkable people --- a whole line-up of unusual suspects that have always been there for me. There are far too many to mention all by name, but I would like to single out my home state chapter, CalSPRA, and especially Trinette Marquis Hobbs for placing my name in nomination. I would also like to thank Jim Dunn, Bob Noyed, Chris Tennill and Rick Kaufman for your kind words of support. And for the countless others, your fingerprints are all over my career. Through the years, I have tried to be there for you as well. That’s the NSPRA way. I have a reputation for never saying “no” and that’s a habit I intend to keep.
After I got the call from Joe saying I was joining this illustrious company I was also struck by two simple facts:
1.       I must be getting old. Too many gray hairs, wrinkles and scars create the benchmarks of my 40-year career in communications. I started practicing public affairs communications before many of you were born.
2.      Many of you here this morning do not know these giants except as names in a program or on a plaque. You may not even be aware that their footprints in our profession form the pathways to success in your careers.
You bright rising stars might know more than we do, but we still know some things that you haven’t learned. That reminds me of the story of the two young fish swimming in the lake. As they were darting around with enthusiasm an old fish calmly swam by and asked, “How’s the water boys?” The two fingerlings just nodded and smiled at the old cod. When the old fish was out of sight one youngster turned to the other and said, “What the hell is water?”
I believe in you. I am honored to have mentored some of you. My goal is to have every school district in America recognize, employ, and value at a high level the school communicator position. We need more of you, a lot more! You are an amazing generation of communicators with an arsenal of communication tools at your disposal.  As you harness that capability, I would encourage you to:
·        Worry more about what you communicate than about how you communicate it
·        Be as concerned with high touch as much as high tech so that we build enduring relationships of support for public education
·        Embrace the challenge of being the new thought leaders of NSPRA who are unafraid to speak the truth, debunk the myths, and challenge the loud angry voices that so want to dominate the debate about the future of America’s children and the public schools that serve them.
In my career I have tried to be an unwavering advocate for children who in our society are often the most vulnerable because they don’t have a voice and don’t have a vote. We can be that voice. I am also a passionate believer in public education as the vehicle for a brighter future for all children. We can tell that story. And I believe we are the messengers who can best mobilize a nation to make education its highest priority.
And I guess that brings me to the main point I want to leave you with this morning.
Live your professional life as a Lasting Legacy
Set down an imprint that endures by the impact of your work. Out there are future Presidents Award recipients. Will it be you?
What you do matters more than you know, and it matters now more than ever.
They say that children are our future. I disagree. We are their future by the decisions we make and the actions we take every day. Now is the time for action. Now is our moment of truth. Now we need to shape the conversation about the future of public education. It isn’t enough to simply inform people; we must convert them to advocacy.
They say you can tell a lot about what someone stands for by who they stand next to. I am proud to stand next to you. Together, through NSPRA, it is our time to stand up for children, stand up for public schools, and stand up for each other.
Thank you

Friday, July 13, 2012

Finding a "cure " in the public school House

Finding a “cure” in the public school House!

I am a big fan of the recently-ended TV series House. With a masterful touch, actor Hugh Laurie played the brilliant, irascible, arrogant, prank-playing doctor who is known for sweeping in at the last minute with his diagnostic team to save a dying patient with a miracle cure to a complex condition. There is one thing for certain though the last thing you wanted to be on that show was the patient.

Why? Because it usually meant that at some point during your 60-minute hospital stay you had to convincingly and realistically pass prodigious quantities of blood through various orifices of your body. Hundreds of emerging young actors can now proudly add to their professional resumes “expert at hemorrhagic vomiting.”

The mystery ailment often was so arcane, elusive, or disguised that they had to treat symptoms without directly attacking the cause. Patients went through every type of test or procedure imaginable; sometimes with life threatening consequences. More than once after infusing an exotic pharmaceutical cocktail, conducting intricate open heart/brain surgery, or inducing a claustrophobic incident in the CT scanner the medical team found they had misdiagnosed the problem and had to bring out the paddles to revive the patient. Treating a moving target of symptoms had led them down a series of recurring blind alleys. It was a guessing game and the clock was ticking as the patient’s life hung in the balance. They threw solutions at problems hoping one would stick and voila a patient would be cured for another week.

The scripts from House transport readily to the modern era of school reform in the Public School House. Our patient (the public schools) shows dramatic and alarming signs of illness. Our financial temperature has dropped sharply, we’re amputating appendages to save essential core services, and using a plethora of triage techniques to keep public education from flat lining. The prognosis is dire and the condition is deteriorating rapidly. Is there a doctor in the house?

The harsh critics in our House say it’s too late; we’re riding a dead horse on life support. Privateers, born-again educationists, voucheristas, home schoolers, charter advocates, and politicians have started making our funeral arrangements while educational theorists, academics, think tanks, sage retired superintendents, private industry turn-around specialists, and canned reform-in-a-box software/ hardware/ human-ware marketers have gone Code Red in treating our symptoms.

These Public School EMTs (education management theorists) use tell-tale signs like dropout rates, Achievement Gaps, multilingualism, no common core, not enough electives, outdated teaching styles, lack of parental engagement in the learning process, too much or not enough technology, and a litany of other problems to pitch their solution for creating and maintaining a 21st Century learning environment for a demanding and complex student population. They diagnose a symptom with an absolute conviction that by treating it we can create overall health in the patient.

These reforms may work for a while. Personally, I think we can’t really produce a healthy, life sustaining public education system unless we cure the real cause for our malaise . . . Malnutrition. Each year Americans seem more willing to spend money on Starbuck’s than schoolhouses. The percent of personal income devoted to education has steadily decreased each year over the past few decades. As a society we’re starving our students to death. In some societies that would be considered child abuse. On a national scale it’s educational genocide.

In California, we have been systematically de-funding public education by billions of dollars. I’m all for ending obesity and maintaining a reasonably healthy diet, but in this case we’re forcing our schools into anorexia. California is trying to run 2013 schools with 2000 income levels. If the lifespan of a PreK-12 student is only 14 years, in effect, we have abandoned an entire generation on operating table. Schools can now only offer life support and keep the little patients as comfortable as possible.

Watch any TV ad for new miracle drugs designed to cure a host of Baby Boomer maladies and they all end the same way: a thirty second speed-talked disclaimer that warns if you take this drug it might cure the one symptom you have, but could cause dangerous side-effects (anything from fainting, convulsions and dry mouth to four-hour erections, heart attacks and strokes). Maybe we need to mandate that we cannot impose an educational reform or funding bill on our public schools without a similar disclaimer about their unintended consequences, dangers from overdose, and adverse side effects. On the label of the regulatory prescription bottle we should also caution that resisting tax increases for education can become an addiction that is hard shake.

As communicators we need to be truth tellers. Today, the Health of Public Education sucks. We need people to see that there will be deep and fatal consequences if we keep treating symptoms instead of getting to the root cause that will cure this patient. We have to stop expecting miracle cures and start investing our resources in systemic educational wellness. It will take a long-term commitment and a lot of patience if our patient is going to pull through. But time is of the essence or the patient may die. We need a Dr. House and his team in the Public School House STAT to accurately diagnose our condition and prescribed a cure that doesn’t kill us!

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas K. DeLapp, Communication Resources for Schools

Friday, March 2, 2012

Seeking Sanctuary in Public Schools

Through the ages, during times of trouble and anguish people under stress seek sanctuary. For America’s children today, that place is their public school. Yet headlines in the media once again remind us that this sanctuary is threatened. In the daily ritual of dropping kids off at school, families are laying at the altar of public education their most precious resource, their children; and along with that they invest their highest ideals, values, and hopes for a better future. They expect the great American public school system to serve as a sanctuary where the young are nourished, protected, and revered. They also expect their public schools to offer children sanctuary from an overwhelming and scary world.

What does “sanctuary” mean?  Sanc-tu-a-ry (noun)
A safe haven
. . . for people who are in trouble or being persecuted to find shelter and support
A protective refuge
. . . where an endangered species can be protected from predators or from being destroyed or abused
A “holy” place
. . . of reverence where our core beliefs, legacies, and values are preserved and where we lift ourselves up

The American public school must be adequately supported to fulfill its mandate under all three definitions.
In recent months, I’ve been working with school clients who are grappling with incidents of bullying, child abuse, teen suicide, campus violence, weapons on campus, sexual predators, homelessness, racism, family neglect borne from economic recession, and devastating cuts to vital services like counseling and interventions for troubled youth. All of these colliding at the same time made me appreciate even more that the public school really has become the last best hope for an entire generation of children.  The school is both their sanctuary in troubled times and their cathedral in which we empower them to reach their potential.

This raises two crucial public policy questions around which school communicators can play a vital role in building community dialogue and action:

§ Are we doing everything we can as a society and as educational leaders to empower our public schools to be the sacred refuge that shelters children from the perils and pressures of a complex and threatening world?

§ Since school is the last line of defense for so many at-risk kids why don’t people respect and treat our schools with the degree of reverence they deserve?

All surveys show that the public basically wants three simple things from their public schools: (a) Make them safe and secure learning environments for children, (b) demonstrate continuous improvement in academic achievement for all students, and (c) be cost-effective and efficient in the way we do that. In other words, “Keep kids safe, give them a good education, and spend my tax money wisely.”

Clearly, maintaining safe schools is the highest priority for parents and the public. It trumps academic performance and economic efficiency every time. But when it comes to policy makers and budget setters they have become fixated on increasing test scores, closing achievement gaps, and balancing budgets on dwindling resources.

We are working hard to maintain drug-free and gang-free schools. But in doing so, educators often get sidetracked from confronting the more subtle oppressors . . . a campus culture and climate that can be fraught with tribes, intolerance, indifference, isolation, racism, sexism, harassment, and bullying (by adults, coaches, and students). If school is to be a true sanctuary it must offer protection from all of these and not turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the signs that something is wrong in the life of a child.

But it costs money, talent, and time to build that type of protective bastion and nourishing culture. It also takes the moral and political will from everyone in the community (parents, students, staff, voters, and community) to make eradicating these subtle oppressors a priority in both word and deed.

The heartfelt thoughts of my good friend and colleague Rick Kaufman always resonate with me as I confront the issue of campus safety. I served on Rick’s communication response team during the tragedy at Columbine High School over a decade ago.  In the wake of the shooting on February 26, 2012 at Chardon High School in Ohio, Rick’s words serve as a poignant and eloquent reminder of how we must stay vigilant to the mental and emotional health of all students:

“We must once again resurrect lost hope, and tend to the emotional and physical scars left in the wake of another school shooting. We will hear the pundits blame the bullies, the parents, the schools (it's always the school's fault), the loss of religion and faith, and the state of the world. Should it not be enough that we find a way to transform violence? I'm afraid the painful images of another ‘Columbine’ will visit us again all too soon.”

Bullying is the cause célèbre these days as we search for answers and struggle to build a supportive school environment. Whether it’s a suicide or a school shooting, people should resist applying sound bite solutions to complex situations. Bullying shouldn’t be used as a knee-jerk explanation or catch-all motive for the sadness and isolation that many children feel.  Adults need to learn to listen to the voices of children. They need to pick up the unspoken cues.

More importantly, adults need to model the behaviors they want children to emulate. When political discourse has descended into school yard name-calling is it any wonder that bullying and name-calling happen in our schoolyards? Have we sunk so far that it is impossible to disagree without being disagreeable?

For example, when a self-absorbed close-minded shock jock like Rush Limbaugh can get away with calling a college student a “slut” and “prostitute” for speaking her mind before a Congressional committee simply because he disagrees with her views, what message does that send to children? When someone in a position of power (in this case multi-megawatts in 250+ media markets) uses that position to ridicule and intimidate someone who is different he is demonstrating the crassest form of bullying.

There is no room for bullying in our sanctuary called school. Likewise, there should be no place in a civilized society for the kind of bombast, bias, and bullying displayed by Limbaugh. Bullying behavior by adults in any forum should not be glorified, discounted or accepted.

A quality education for every child is an article of faith and a core belief in our country that deserves to be practiced with reverence and respect in the “sanctuary” called the public school. To that end, public education can become a “Bully Pulpit” to stand up for civility, tolerance, integrity, and open communication about the needs and problems facing our children and our society.

That’s where school communicators can do their best work: courageously convening the conversation about how we should treat each other. Maybe if we can create an environment of tolerance and respect in schools, adults can start learning from children how to play well with others.

Can I get an “Amen” to that!

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas K. DeLapp

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Stop Giving Public Education the “Business”

Should we run our schools like a business? Many business leaders and free market privateers are “all up in our business” asking schools to be more business-like to achieve results. But I wonder if a company CEO actually could lead the average public school district any better? I doubt it. There are some powerful differences that might make the average titan of industry fail as an educational CEO. Here are twenty ways that running a school district is a lot harder than running a business:

1.     No Investment Capital
Capitalism depends on capital. Return on Investment (ROI) means you spend enough money first and then see if it pays off. Investment yields return. In education, our incentive programs are the complete opposite Investment on Return. We mandate that schools achieve certain rates of improvement and then we promise to give them more money. As a superintendent, the corporate CEO would have to use promised incentives instead of concrete investments to get results. But chronic underfunding of education (NCLB for example) has shifted ROI to IOR which actually means IOU to an educator. “Show me the money!” isn’t the quid pro quo in public education that it is in the private sector. In fact, our only incentive is to avoid the sanctions. Corporate leaders throw money at their problems. Educators don’t have that option and, in fact, society has been systematically de-investing in its public schools as a percent of personal income or GDP.

2.     Educators Can’t Niche Market
Businesses succeed when they find their market niche and focus all of their energies on perfecting their products or services in that market. The education marketplace is demanding, comprehensive, and diverse. The push-me-pull-you between state and federal standard-setters, parental demand, and what districts can actually provide as a well-rounded education causes tremendous tension. Science, the Arts, Social Studies, History, PE, Health Education, and Career Tech take a back seat as we are judged primarily on English and Math proficiency. Yet the consumer base still demands services in all subjects. Taco Bell doesn’t serve pizza, and Pizza Hut doesn’t serve filet mignon. However, our menu needs to be all encompassing or our customers get upset. They want mass personalized public education a private tutorial on a public school dollar.

3.     The Customer Isn’t Always Right
There’s a false axiom in business that “the customer is always right.” That simply isn’t true. Sure a business wants customer satisfaction, but if a business can’t satisfy the customer or its customer is too obnoxious or demanding the business cuts them loose. They give them a refund check and show them the door. Companies can pick and choose their customers and abandon the difficult “unprofitable” ones. Public education has to serve everyone. We don’t have a refund check to give them and if we tell them to leave they come back with a lawyer. Business leaders can be a little disingenuous when they advocate that parental choice is the answer to education’s ills. For a corporate CEO, that model would only work if they could also choose their parents and students. Educators can’t and won’t do that. We take them all whether they are tough to serve or not.

4.     Simultaneous Over-Regulation and De-Regulation
Many business leaders complain they are forced to move out of state or off shore to survive because of government over regulation. At least they have the option to leave. Public schools labor under a comprehensive, contradictory and complex set of regulations. The California Education Code contains over 20 million words. For example, myriad regulations and exacting standards mean the only facilities more difficult to build than schools are hospitals or power plants.  Of course, you’re a lot safer in a public school classroom during an earthquake than you are under a freeway overpass, in a corporate office building, or in a Wal-Mart. Some construction firms won’t work on schools because of all the delays and hoops they have to jump through.

The Chamber of Commerce annually issues a list of “job killer” bills pending before the Legislature. Maybe educators should do the same.  The Ed Code and the state budget come to mind since they certainly have been a “job killer” for educational personnel. Business CEOs aren’t used to having government regulators second-guess their business decisions; school superintendents are.

At the same time, quick-fix politicians and born-again educationists think if we infuse competition into the public schools it will force improvements. Over-regulating and under-funding the public schools as you force them to compete with charters, private schools, vouchers, parental choice, and online classrooms is a formula for failure and creates the unlevel playing field that private sector CEOs abhor. Corporations complain loudly to Congress when we don’t subsidize American companies and farmers struggling to fend off foreign competition. How is education any different?

5.     Revolving Door Leadership
One of the biggest differences between private and public sector leadership is that, in business, management stays the same while the workforce is constantly rotating out. In public schools our workforce stays entrenched (tenure and ineffective evaluation systems) while our management structure is constantly churning. The average shelf-life of a California school superintendent is less than three years. Many don’t even finish the term of their first contract or strategic plan. Transitory leadership can kill a business because it lacks consistency, confidence, and coordination. Apple Computer had revolving door leadership that almost drove it under until they re-hired Steve Jobs and regained stability. The same holds true for public education. We need leadership stability and continuity for a change. At this writing, nearly two-thirds of the students in California are being educated in systems led by superintendents who have been on that job less than three years. Now, this is a lot better than the private sector where 90% of the businesses that incorporate go bankrupt within the first two years. Private sector CEOs can walk away from failure; educators cannot not the state won’t let them.

6.     Lack of Control over the Bottom Line
The bottom line is crucial for a business CEO as they balance income and expenses to yield a profit. To do that the corporate leader must be able to control costs and prices. By contrast, the education leader only controls half the equation. In California, school districts receive most of their funding from the state so superintendents have very little influence on the revenue side of the ledger. They spend their time poring over expenses to glean every ounce of productivity so they can stay in balance. And, state law requires them to demonstrate solvency for at least three years even when their funding level is highly unpredictable. We are balancing 2012 budgets on 2000 levels of income. Ninety percent of our budget is spent on people so we have very little wiggle room to avoid layoffs and service reductions to stay in balance. For the past five years we have been doing Donner Party Budgeting in California as we cannibalize our workforce to stay afloat. Imposing a price hike to maintain quality services, staffing and “products” is not an option for a superintendent, but it is for a corporate CEO.

7.     Support for Employee Training and Renewal
In its prime, one-third of the IBM workforce was in some form of management, sales, or technical training. And it was done on the company’s dime. Contrast that approach to public schools where we are lucky to have one day at the start of school to get classrooms and work areas ready for the next term.  Professional development is a dying commitment in most school districts because of budget cuts. If our employees are to remain current in their fields, we ask them to pay for it themselves on their own time after the school year is done. Great businesses invest in their own employees, public schools can’t afford to any more.

8.     Marketing, Communications and PR on the Cheap
Most businesses spend a lot of money on Marketing, Communications, and Corporate Relations. Not including the cost of sales, it can range up to 30% of a firm’s operating expenses, with an average of about 7-10%.  In public education we grudgingly spend about 1% of district resources on school communication, community outreach, civic engagement, and public/media relations. Getting your message out to consumers is stock and trade for a corporate CEO. It’s a luxury for a school superintendent. Yet the number one reason a superintendent is hired, fired or gets a better job is their ability to communicate with consumers, school boards, employees, and stakeholders. Corporate CEOs, like educational leaders, would find it hard to survive with the paltry amount we spend to get our message out.

9.     Our Customers are Co-Producers
In business, the customer is the recipient of a product or service. In education, our customers (students and parents) are actually co-producers of our product called “learning.” Imagine if Ford Motor Company’s success depended on a car buyer helping on the assembly line and then on how well they drove and maintained their car over time? Each driver would define Ford’s product based on their own interaction with it. In public education, our Product is Learning and our Profit is Performance. Our customer’s involvement in making our product is integral to our profit margin in a way that would confound most corporate CEOs.

10.  Everyone’s an Expert on What We Do
Most people think they know how schools should operate because they went to one. In most industries the consumer accepts a company’s perceived expertise. We don’t tell our dentist how to fill a cavity, the CPA how to prepare our taxes, or the surgeon how to remove the tumor. If we are unhappy with the quality or value of that transaction we vote with our feet and choose someone else. In education, our customers feel entitled and knowledgeable enough to tell us how to run our business. Just because you were a student doesn’t mean you can be a teacher or administrator.

11.  Schools are Change Resistant
Businesses can change and transform themselves at will. “My way or the highway” is the ultimate hammer CEOs can use to impose change and compel adherence to new directions. Because of tenure and civil service, superintendents need to “sell” their staff into accepting change as a good thing. In a corporate environment, you will never hear, “That won’t work; I’m not going to change.” An ingrained workforce would drive the private sector CEO nuts! They would have to be much more adept at building coalitions, alliances and teams because they could not compel allegiance. It’s pretty easy to be a company team builder when you have the power to trade players at will.

12.  Unions Hold a Trump Card
Only about 10% of the American workforce is unionized anymore. Most unions are in the public sector; primarily education. Companies bargain with unions over pay and benefits and the occasional agreement around hours of employment and vacation/leave policies. Their working conditions are just that, working conditions. They don’t negotiate over what their product or service should be. In public education our working conditions are actually our teaching and learning conditions and over time union contracts have begun to define our educational product. Contracts constrain management rights to call meetings, enforce collaboration among teachers, curriculum and textbook adoption processes, school governance and advisory systems, hiring processes, etc. Learning is a process and when the union contract limits the engagement of adults in that process it has a huge impact on our product.

13.  Shared Decision-Making Isn’t Just Lip Service
Most good businesses encourage employee involvement in setting policies and practices that will improve company profitability and performance. It didn’t always operate that way, and in many cases is still doesn't. In business, shared decision making was, “I make the decisions and share them with you.” By contrast, public education has a rich tradition of collaboration and collegiality. We have scores of advisory mechanisms for people to provide input, criticism, and feedback to leaders. Some of those are mandated and some are voluntary. In one communication audit for a moderate sized school district I discovered that the superintendent had 17 advisory bodies reporting to her. Even she didn’t realize that. Processing decisions is anathema to most private sector leaders who want the flexibility to take advantage of targets of opportunity, changing market conditions, and innovations. Shared decision making in public education almost assures that we will not be nimble enough for most corporate CEOs.

14.  Schools are Under-Led
Public schools keep getting accused of having a “Bureaucratic Blob.” Myths, stereotypes and lies about how much money is “wasted” on overhead and administration abound, usually spread by private sector leaders. Yet if you examine the facts, public education has a leaner management structure than almost any other business.  I’ve reviewed Bureau of Labor Statistics figures comparing the number of managers/supervisors to rank and file employees by industry and the data are conclusive. Business has almost twice as much overhead management as public schools. We average about one administrator (including principals) for every 30 employees. Other industries like communications, retailing, media, manufacturing, transportation, construction, etc. have ratios of 1:12 or less. I would suggest that we need more, not less administrators and specialists to lead us forward as an industry. The corporate CEO is used to delegating to a multi-tiered staff structure. The superintendent doesn’t have that support system.

15.  Public Schools Must Be Transparent
We must do the public’s business in public and offer accessibility and transparency in the process. Each financial transaction, agenda item, policy change, and email is potentially subject to a Public Records Act request. This alone would cause most corporate CEOs to cringe. Imagine if stockholders, competitors, and customers could access every email, document and record kept by your company? The cloak of corporate secrecy just doesn’t wear well in the public schools.

16.  Society Drops It’s Problems on Our Doorstep Every Day
I can’t think of any other industry that has to contend with so many challenges from its customers. Kids come to school hungry; we feed them breakfast and lunch. Kids can’t get to our place of business; we give them a bus ride. Kids are abused, neglected, and homeless; we take them in and nurture them. We inoculate them from disease, and provide health care when they’re sick and hurt. In a society filled with incivility, double-standards, and double-talk, we have to teach them tolerance, manners, work ethics, and countless other basic life skills. If they are obese we make them exercise. If they have learning disabilities, psychological problems, or substance abusing parents we have to provide them a haven and hope.  Could the CEO of a retail department store chain even comprehend addressing the magnitude to those challenges for every customer who came in just to buy a pair of jeans?

17.  Our Product is on the Production Line for 13 years
The quarterly balance sheet is the yardstick for a business leader. For an educator, our success is measured in decades. Our first goal is to get all students to graduate and our ultimate end product is a well-educated young adult with the skills and temperament to succeed in college, a career, and citizenship. Educational leaders need to be patient while maintaining a healthy impatience with status quo performance. As we invest so much time in each child’s future, it might be hard for a private sector CEO to stay the course for over a decade when they have come from a “fiscal year” frame of mind.

18.  Education is Dominated by Isolated Generalists
Businesses tend to run on specialists working in their own silos production lines, departments, product teams, etc. Schools have a lot of generalists, but they also work in silos. We still operate in a “sage on the stage” environment where the teacher’s classroom is his or her domain. Collaboration is not a condition of their work product or craft; it is something we have to induce them to participate in. Sadly, we also expect a teacher to come into the profession with all of the classroom management, content expertise, interpersonal techniques, and workplace savvy to handle any classroom situation or subject. That’s just unrealistic and unfair. Schools can’t afford meaningful in-depth orientation, induction, and mentoring programs to bring these generalists up to speed quickly. We push them into the pool and make them learn to swim in their own lane while the crowd at the swim meet is yelling for them to go faster.

19.  Pay for Performance vs. Pay for Presence
Two frustrating concepts for business leaders is that in public education we can’t pay good teachers more money than bad teachers and that we have such trouble identifying and removing poorly performing teachers once they reach tenure. Private sector CEOs achieve results by offering incentives when a person’s performance contributes more to the bottom line. It’s a form of profit sharing, and it works. In a variety of forms, reformers have been trying to ingrain the concept of pay for performance into public education. Good concept, but difficult to realize since the devil is in the details. Do we pay more for test scores, subjective evaluations, graduation rates, etc?  Most corporate CEOs would find our ambiguity about what makes for exceptional performance difficult to administer. Superintendents certainly do.

20.  Schools Are An Old-Fashion Institution
Public schools are a tremendous societal tradition that has endured over the ages. We drive by the old school with fond memories. Our grandchildren are taught in the same classroom we were in as a kid. And that is the problem. Sadly, unlike most businesses we’re still working in the same facilities as we did 50 years ago. We have patched them up and tried to renovate their infrastructure, but our education facilities are definitely old school. Corporations pride themselves on state-of-the-art technology and modern manufacturing plants. Trying to deliver a world class education in a second rate learning environment would certainly pose a huge impediment to a corporate innovator who wanted to change the public schools.

Some final thoughts . . .

Public schools can certainly be more business-like, but to say that a business model is the solution doesn’t wash. I say we ask businesses to run like schools for a year and see how they like it!

The security of our nation depends heavily on developing a highly-educated population that is smart enough to see past prejudice and complacency to create a better future. Public education is still the cornerstone of our democracy, our national security, and our economic future. In 2009, we were all scared into supporting a massive government bailout of the insurance, investment banking and home mortgage industries. They were too big to fail we were told; the negative consequences would be too devastating and immediate.

I suggest that our public school system is hovering at the same precipice and we are also too big to let fail. Instead of condemning public education, corporate leaders should become true partners to help restore the education industry to its former place of world prominence. Instead of mindlessly signing an anti-tax pledge, they should be signing on to help public schools with a massive investment of badly needed venture capital. The American auto industry is surging back because we had the public and corporate will to make it so. We put our money where our mouth was as a nation. Will we be able to say the same for public schools so that an education “Made in America” is once again the standard for the world?


"In fact, to every young person listening tonight who's contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child - become a teacher. Your country needs you." From President Obama’s State of the Union Speech

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas K. DeLapp, President, Communication Resources for Schools