I once worked with a frustrated chief financial officer at a public school district. She came from the private sector. As a former bond trader, she was a non-traditional leader for a public school finance department. Most traditional public school leaders emerge from within the public schools. She and I had many discussions about public school finance. The discussions usually ended with her shaking her head and concluding that good finance in the public sector is not good finance in the private sector.

A public-private divide exists in more than finance.  There is a deep divide in leadership development programs in the public and private sectors. Private sector leaders get MBAs.  Public sector leaders get Masters’ of Public Administration, or occasionally for school leaders, doctorates in education.

Harvard’s Leadership for the Common Good series seeks to bridge this public-private divide. It is a book series that is a partnership between two Harvard departments: Business Administration and Public Leadership. The partnership defies conventional wisdom. The knowledge and skills needed in public and private sector leadership are well aligned, according to the project.

Ron Burt, a professor and communications expert out of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, offers an important insight that bolsters the need for cross industry experts. Burt talks about people being bridges or hubs. Bridges are people that cut across traditional industries, sectors and job categories. An accountant that spends his days talking to other accountants is a hub. An accountant that spends his days talking to teachers is a bridge. This article is about would-be bridges. It is a call for more bridges in education.

In the last 10 years an increasing number of public school leaders including superintendents have been getting MBAs instead of education school doctorates. Education traditionalists resist this change, and perhaps for good reason. The traditional career path for a school administrator begins with teaching and then moving up the totem pole: department chair, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent, superintendent.  The path to additional principal or superintendent licensure is often the same path that leads to a doctorate. Depending on whether one thinks schools are succeeding or failing, this well-worn path has worked or failed at creating effective school leaders.

Public opinion polls and international test scores suggest schools in the US are not succeeding. Criticism of public schools in the United States is increasingly vocal. Some criticism is not made in good faith. I have a cousin who dislikes teachers because they make too much money, get too much vacation time and have overly generous pension benefits. She would say US schools are failing because they spend too much for the results they produce. I have a creeping suspicion that she is a little envious of public school teachers. I don’t want to downplay this envy-based criticism. I have explained elsewhere that envy of generous pensions is a significant source of the anger that non-union workers direct at unionized teachers, especially in Illinois with its worst-in-the-country pension situation.

More informed criticism about the failure of US schools cites problems that are more quantifiable.  Each of these concerns warrants significant attention: decreasing international test scores, the skills gap, lack of cost-success proportionality, the achievement gap, antiquated systems and many other quantifiable, non-envy-based criticisms.

US schools are not succeeding, but even reasonable criticism faces resistance from deeply entrenched interests. Good luck finding a school superintendent, school board or even local teachers’ union that will admit to having a failing school district. Failure is always the problem of the neighboring school, district, state or country. Removing those entrenched interests from the analysis, the more informed critics are comfortable saying that US schools are failing. If they are failing, leaders are not facilitating the transformations needed to make schools succeed. School leaders fail because they have not been trained to succeed.

School leaders are trained through credential programs. Administrative, principal and superintendent credential programs generally start with regulatory standards. State governments create standards listing what the programs need to cover, like bullying, staff evaluation systems, monitoring student progress, using technology and working with parents. Universities offering credential programs do not innovate. Rather, they design courses around mandated standards, usually covering them week-by-week in a syllabus. This is the first significant difference between MBAs and public administration credential programs. The goal of the MBA is to prepare students for a changing work environment. MBAs are designed by universities given the latitude to adapt program goals to a changing world. There are no statutory mandates for what an MBA program must address. Education programs seek to cover a list of regulatory rules. The effect is this difference is enormous: education administrators are not taught to be visionaries. They are taught to be functionaries.

Here are a half dozen reasons school leaders need MBAs:

1.     Talent management. Traditional school leaders do not make a priority of merit-based hiring. School insiders always propose friends, family members and political allies for jobs. In previous work with a school system with a litigious teachers’ union, around the same time that the union filed grievances to ensure all jobs were posted and created a fair shot for them to be filled with the best candidates, a president of that same union asked for a job for his wife. My attempts at creating blind hiring processes went nowhere.

When comparing my MBA to my education leadership credential program, the contrast in how each program taught hiring methodology was among the most significant differences. The MBA focused on systems of identifying clear outcomes for the company and then matching recruitment and hiring to those goals. The education program discussed none of that. My administrative credential program assumed teachers could perform any school leadership function. No credential course proposed hiring systems designed to ensure matching the best people with the right work.

I once spoke with the president of a teachers’ union about specialization of the work of school leaders. It was one of my first meetings with him. As we were getting to know each other, he said, “you know, John, I have no idea what you do.” I took it as a peculiar comment. I knew exactly what he did. I had been a teacher and union leader in the past. I knew the roles he played: teaching kids, negotiating contracts and managing grievances. His not knowing my work seemed reasonable to me. Back when I was a teacher, I knew little about what was needed operationally and legally to run a school.  It made sense to me that there existed experts whose precise role in the complex management of a school district I would never know. That work was not my job, and I accepted the need for specialists. The union president’s lack of trust in what he does not understand echoes the priority of education leadership programs. Talent management in education programs focuses on politics, not outcomes like improved student learning. This is a significant contrast between education and MBA programs. Education programs focus on adults. MBAs focus on outcomes.

2.     Operations. No administration program effectively tackles operations. Operations courses in MBA programs typically involve ways to efficiently and effectively provide a product or service. Operations courses in education administration programs do not exist. Courses in curriculum theory, school finance and human resources touch on creating systems tied to educational goals, but the goals are not clearly defined.  Since school leader programs do not clarify school goals, teaching how to efficiently and effectively achieve that goal is impossible. This should not be surprising. Looking at school operations today, they are similar to the way they were run 100 years ago. Principal training programs in particular focus on improving instruction. This is crucial but not sufficient to create systemic improvement in schools. 

3.     Accounting. By way of full disclosure, accounting was my worst subject in my MBA. Accounting rules are just conventions. The accounting world could have chosen other ones, so learning accounting is memorizing rules. Couple my lack of interest in drill-and-kill memorization with my accounting professor’s big personality, and it is understandable why I had such an unpleasant experience in my MBA accounting class. I understand rule-based systems. I am an attorney, and law, too, is a rule-based system. The bar for lawyers and the CPA exam for accountants are exercises in memorization, not my favorite pastime. Still, I learned enough accounting to lead an organization and allow the experts to dive into details.

Education administration programs do not teach accounting at all. When school reformers say they want public schools to look more like private companies, they are usually talking about financial accountability. When public school critics look at educational leadership programs and find out that school leaders never learn accounting or investing, their worst fears about the capacity of schools to effectively manage finance are reinforced. Public administrators replying that schools are different miss the point. Schools, just like families and corporations, have limited resources, and education leaders benefit from increased financial expertise including accounting.

4.     Leadership. Both MBAs and education administration programs teach leadership. Leadership is courage, savvy, candor, peacemaking, mindfulness, teamwork and a host of other qualities. Having school leaders in MBA leadership classes highlights the universality of great leadership. Teaching public sector leadership classes only to public sector leaders reinforces an unnecessary segregation. Education leaders often say “schools are not businesses.” Segregating public and private sector leaders perpetuates this belief. In my experience, MBA programs do a better job teaching leadership. Education programs focus on politics; MBAs focus on outcomes.

5.     Finance. This is the area cited most frequently when distinguishing public and private sector leadership training. Crystallizing the arguments, public leaders say private leaders only focus on profit. Private leaders say public leaders spend too much. Both these arguments are overly polemical. Public and private leaders seek many common financial goals in their work: directing resources to key programs and personnel, focusing resources to achieve needed outcomes, increasing efficiency, seeking to improve the organization’s overall financial health. MBA programs teach finance with these goals in mind. Education programs focus taxation rules.  Education programs spend little time on universal financial goals. Public educators would benefit from MBA finance courses.

An added benefit is having public sector leaders be able to speak to and understand their private-sector peers. An example of bad public sector finance that makes private sector leaders scratch their heads is when school districts increase taxes not because they need the money but to ensure maintenance of future taxing capacity. This was the most common complaint from my chief financial officer colleague. There are occasionally good reasons to increase taxes when you don’t need the money, but it is usually a bad idea. Financial leaders in the public and private sectors need to know how to build more efficient organizations.

6.     Relationships. Leadership programs create networks. Building cross-sector and cross-industry bridges through leadership programs create the conditions from which good ideas emerge. Diverse networks discourage silos, encourage fresh thinking, increase idea sharing, increase partnerships, decrease partisan politics and, at the risk of offering too great a benefit, decrease worldwide xenophobia. MBAs are far better at bringing together diverse leaders. Local school control has its advantages, but bringing together global leaders is not one of them.

Great leadership training

How leadership differs across sectors is important. MBAs and public administration degrees differ unnecessarily. When I became a school leader, I knew plenty about education. What I needed was training in tying resources to goals. The more insular the profession, the more insular the professionals in it. My experience as a public sector leader with an MBA bridged traditional boundaries and improved schools.

Schools are organizations. Schools, police forces and restaurants have similarities. They all have a product or service they provide. They all have people. They all have financial considerations. To say that a school principal needs to be more focused on curriculum than hiring and supporting the right people is not always the case.

Education leadership needs to be less insular. Bridging the public-private divide is the greatest hope for our schools. A good place to start is giving MBAs to more school leaders.


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