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John Florez: Fix education like my dealer fixes cars

Published: Saturday, July 16 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah lawmakers want to fix education. How about doing what my auto dealer does to improve customer service: ask customers how well they were served and what suggestions they have for improvement. Sounds simple, but it works.

After I get my car serviced, I get random survey calls from the carmaker and/or my local auto dealer. The results are shared with dealers throughout the system. Most important, service managers review them with their workers who are then rewarded for their accomplishments.

So why do lawmakers keep asking bureaucrats — special interests and other stakeholders — who run the system how to improve education, instead of asking customers — parents, students, and employers? Lawmakers seem content to keep complaining that schools are falling behind those of other nations, but then make cosmetic fixes offered by a special interest group or individual. They have been doing that for the last 50 years, and one might ask, "How's that working?"

My car dealer understands that performance and customer satisfaction count, so that's what gets monitored. Frontline workers are rewarded for the value they add to the company in terms of timeliness, quality and customer satisfaction. It's something successful companies do in today's highly competitive, high-performance workplace: They retool their organizations to keep pace with changing customer needs, rather than making minor fixes. If they don't, they are out of business. Can you imagine an auto dealer asking only mechanics how well they are doing?

Last session, lawmakers jumped on the latest idea: on-line learning. Now they are supporting the Ogden School District for introducing merit pay for individual teachers and ending collective bargaining with the teachers' union — not unlike three years ago when lawmakers gave money to schools to implement merit pay, and shortly thereafter stopped funding it. When 104 legislators keep local school boards in constant chaos trying to accommodate any whims turned into law, is it any wonder our schools are floundering?

Merit pay is one way of improving our schools; however, it ought to be done the way my auto dealer does it: based on what the customer believes is a quality outcome. Survey the customers and retool education to satisfy them; they will pay for good service. The landscape is filled with research studies on how to improve education. What is lacking is the political will to restructure the system to prepare students for a world economy that requires more knowledge, creativity and imagination, rather than for the industrial era.

For their 1996 book "Teaching the New Basic Skills," Richard Murnane and Frank Levy studied what makes corporations succeed in today's economy, identifying five management principles that could also improve education.

Their suggestions:

First, ensure that all frontline workers understand the problem. Parents, teachers, and students need to recognize the skills needed in today's workplace. Second, design jobs so that all frontline workers have both incentive and opportunity to contribute solutions. Students and teachers need to see the connection between education and future job prospects. Third, provide frontline workers with the training needed to pursue solutions effectively. Teacher training currently is sporadic and unrelated to school goals. Fourth, measure progress on a regular basis. Most schools measure student achievement through memorization of facts that ignore the ability to structure problems, test solutions, write English clearly and work constructively in groups. Fifth, persevere and learn from mistakes. There are no "magic bullets." Schools should be allowed the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

Want to fix education? Make it performance driven and create a stable regulatory environment customers can count on — just like my car dealer does.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education.

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