06/18/2012 12:29 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

Finding Value in the Business of Schools

There are several practices in public schools of choice that I find to be quite troubling. In Chicago's Noble Charter School network, students and their families are fined, not in a token economy, but with actual money, for violating the school's discipline code. Such a practice is patently wrong. Some public charter schools require parents to sign up for volunteer hours as a condition of their child's acceptance -- a practice I do not endorse. Getting free labor from parents who may not have the job flexibility, the capacity, the time, or the energy to volunteer at will, is inherently discriminatory. As a child of immigrant parents and a newly single mother after 20 years of marriage, I'm acutely aware that we must be vigilant about eliminating rules that deny educational access to children based on parental circumstance. However, I am not opposed to infusing sound business principles into our country's model of education, as long as there are active regulatory bodies to protect the interests and welfare of all children.

The idea of education as a business tends to conjure up images of schools where there is little regard for workplace quality or for joyous endeavors, painting a picture of cherub-faced children being treated like soulless widgets, merely test scores on a spreadsheet. The fact is, successful schools, can be, like many successful businesses, client-driven, adhering to the adage that the customer comes first.

When teachers at a charter school make themselves available by telephone to help with homework until 9 p.m., that is an example of putting students -- the customer -- first. At Newark Legacy Charter School, our teachers send daily written correspondence home about students so that families can stay abreast of their child's progress, and send a note back expressing any concerns. This is sometimes tedious for teachers, but it is very beneficial for families. Teachers also make "kudos" calls several times a month to share good news about a child with her/his parents. Though time-consuming, these calls are positive and uplifting, and reduce the likelihood that parents will avoid calls from the school in the future.

Performance is at the forefront of any business owner's mind, yet it is arguably the factor that makes educators most uncomfortable. It shouldn't. I happen to think that schools should feel pressured to have great outcomes for students, since a student's academic achievement will have a profound impact on the trajectory of his or her life. For professionals with integrity working in a well-monitored environment, achievement pressure won't lead to cheating scandals or bad, test-driven instruction. Rather, it will promote collaboration, deep thought, hard work and creativity.

Instead of saying that poverty is an insurmountable odd destined to undermine all of an educator's efforts, a performance focus can lead principals and teachers to think of the things that they can do, without any additional resources, to make a measurable difference in the life of a child living in poverty. Such actions can include leveraging social workers' tasks to be more hands-on with families and more proactive than reactive, scheduling teachers to have weekly lunches with individual students to connect with them and provide them with a listening ear; writing catchy rap songs into lesson plans to make the content more memorable; placing great teachers at the center of feedback and support for struggling teachers; and making budget decisions that help to build children's home libraries in communities where there is likely to be a paucity of books in the home. None of these ideas are foreign to great traditional public schools or great public charter schools, but performance focus leads to developing these sorts of ideas -- the kind that bring a school community together and ultimately drive achievement.

Halfway through this year's summer break, our school plans to have a party for our students, complete with dancing, food and games. The students' partially-completed summer work packets will serve as their entry ticket for the summer celebration. And so, with a little innovative thinking, and for pennies per child, we hope that summer learning loss will be greatly reduced. If this idea doesn't work, next year, we'll try something else.

When I recently patronized one of the low-cost bus companies that shuttle hordes of people several times a day from New York to Boston, I didn't do this because I wanted to make the bus company rich. I did it because the bus offered free WiFi, with the added bonus of doing so at a ridiculously low price. In other words, I took the bus because of what was in it for me.

Similarly, parents won't choose a school to advance a political cause, or to promote a certain model of education. They will do it because of what they believe is in it for them -- a better education for their children. Ideally, in an environment driven by principles of business, when schools are substandard, they, like poor quality businesses, will close if not due to regulatory mandates, because of a lack of demand.

Applying business principles to education holds promise for pushing educators to provide our most historically underserved children with the quality education they deserve. We would all do well to recognize that there isn't a protest effort in the world that can squash the expansion of public school choice in America. Only a swath of great traditional public schools can do that.