So Maryland’s largest school system sent a delegation to Disney’s complex in Orlando a few years ago for a lesson in motivating employees from a company that specializes in making dreams come true.
“People need a reason to come to work. At Disney, we teach our employees the first day that we are here to create happiness,” said Bruce Jones, programming director for the Disney Institute, which coaches outsiders in the entertainment giant’s business methods. “What we talk about with educators is, ‘Let’s not forget why we got into this: These are real kids.’ ”
More than 300 school systems and charter school operators have undergone Disney training in the past two years, underscoring the rising influence of business practices in public education at a time when schools are under intense pressure to improve performance.
Many public educators oppose market-oriented policies that promote charter schools or tie teacher pay to student test scores, arguing that competition is the wrong solution for struggling schools. But there is a growing consensus that in quiet ways, businesses can help schools become more focused and efficient, particularly as budgets are shrinking.
School leaders are increasingly bringing on business-trained employees or consultants to work behind the scenes streamlining bus routes, cutting food costs or revamping hiring procedures.
In Montgomery, where students are scheduled to return to class Monday, school leaders meet regularly with senior executives from corporations including Marriott International, Lockheed Martin and accounting firm KPMG.
With 145,000 students and more than 22,000 employees, the school system rivals many companies in size and complexity.
Through the meetings, facilitated by the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education, school leaders have received training on cultivating a consistent brand and managing projects by setting clear goals, timelines and deliverables.
The help has been pragmatic rather than dogmatic, said Jerry D. Weast, who retired in June after 12 years as superintendent. “Business doesn’t have to sit around and accuse, blame and criticize,” Weast said. “Our businesses didn’t take that approach. They treated us like a client; they listened to our problems and helped us devise solutions.”
Montgomery officials consulted with “corporate diversity officers” from Kaiser Permanente to learn how they hire and retain minorities. And they worked with Booz Allen Hamilton to reorganize their curriculum department.
They also turned to business leaders for help building a workforce dedicated to social justice and eliminating achievement gaps. Research shows that teacher attitudes about children’s abilities, based on race and poverty, can become self-fulfilling. Many principals look for a no-excuses mind-set in new hires.