My husband occasionally watches Jon Taffer’s Bar Rescue on Spike TV. It’s kind of sucked me in, too, but I often find myself watching the show and thinking about education reform. Yes, I think about school pretty much all the time.
The premise of the show is simple: Someone has a bar that once did well and is now hundreds of thousands or even a million dollars in debt because it’s failing. Jon Taffer, a professional in “bar science,” comes in and turns the place around. He runs several successful bars himself, so he’s not an outsider to the industry, and he is invited in by the bar owners. He doesn’t just show up.
Now, at the beginning of the show, he pretty much always gets into a screaming and swearing match with someone at whatever bar he’s rescuing. It’s obviously part of the formula. He always announces that if the owner doesn’t straighten up, he’s not going to rescue the bar. Most of the time, it’s a gimmick, but occasionally they just refuse to cooperate, and he does walk out and let them flounder in their own mess.
It’s after the gimmicks are done that I think about what he does and doesn’t do to rescue these bars. (And those who cooperate improve their business anywhere from 30-100 percent.) I’ve never once seen him look around and say, “You know what would improve this bar? More competition. I’m going to build another bar in the neighborhood, and that will motivate you to do better.” There is already competition. Patrons already have other bars to choose from, or they can cook a meal and have a cocktail, beer, or glass of wine at home.
Schools are like that. Colorado has open enrollment, and Jeffco has charters, options, and neighborhood schools. Also, people can home school. All of these choices exist right now.
I have never seen him look at a bar—even one that was over a million dollars in the hole—and say, “Let’s shut this place down and bring in a corporate franchise.”
Each bar has its own clientele. Each exists in its own neighborhood. Some are in swanky districts in places like New York City, others in blue-collar neighborhoods in cities like Detroit. Some are positioned off highways and function as stopping places for travelers. One size of reform doesn’t fit all. He knows that the kinds of menus, drinks and décor must be dictated by the market each bar is in, and he adjusts all of these accordingly.
“One size fits all” reform is no more viable in schools than it is in bars. What Jefferson needs to improve is not the same as what Columbine needs to improve, though both schools have challenges. We serve different communities.
Some bars have terribly ineffective cooks or bartenders or wait staff. Some have ineffective employees in every area. I have never seen Jon Taffer come in and say, “All right, we’re going to have a new evaluation system. If you can prepare two drinks at once, measuring accurately, and without spilling, you will be ‘highly effective’ and receive a 1.3 percent raise. If you can prepare one drink at a time, measuring accurately, and without spilling, you will be ‘effective’ and receive a .75 percent raise. If you spill or measure inaccurately, you will be ‘partially effective’ and get no raise.” I’ve never seen him do anything remotely like this.
He brings in people who actually do these jobs—amazing bartenders who can whip up two drinks at once, accurately and without spilling, all while chatting up customers and having a great time—and he has these bartenders train the existing bartenders at the place he’s rescuing. The trainers are demanding, insisting upon top performance from the people they’re training, sharp with criticism and lavish with praise. The vast majority of each bar’s existing employees rise to the occasion and end up beaming with pride at their newfound competence. Every now and then, someone doesn’t make the grade, and they get fired, but every effort is made to get them where they need to be before anyone gives up on them. If the cook is the problem, Taffer brings in the best chefs in whatever cuisine is appropriate for the market of that particular bar, from wings to burgers to gourmet. A burger isn’t seen as a step down, like no one should ever cook or serve a burger. It’s more like, “If you’re going to make a burger, make it a damned good burger.”
What if we did that? What if, instead of punishments and rewards, we brought in teachers who get phenomenal results from kids in various types of neighborhoods to train teachers in the best practices for the kids they’re teaching? What if we assumed everyone could be highly effective, and we treated them that way?
Now, I think we can assume the good wait staff will get better tips, but they’re not necessarily competing for them, and tips aren’t the main objective. I’ve never seen Taffer set up a competition where waitresses and waiters try to outdo each other for tips. He builds a sense of teamwork—if the whole bar runs well and the food is terrific, more people will come and everyone gets raises and makes better tips. Also, everyone takes pride in the success of the business. Their contributions are valuable, and they feel valued, so they work hard.
What a concept. Maybe education reformers should watch a little of Jon Taffer’s magic.