Make Schools More Like Business? (Part One)
Usually, I try to avoid or deflate comparisons between businesses and public schools. There are some fundamental differences that invalidate many comparisons. These differences have to do with the mission, mandates, governance, and moral imperatives that are part of the DNA of public education in ways that are entirely different from private enterprise.
However, in recent months, I’ve grown increasingly interested in some of the writing I see about business, management, and human resources. While the institutions are not entirely comparable, I think that there are similarties between schools and businesses when we look at something more basic: how do people work together?
Interestingly enough, I’m finding that some business gurus offer advice about effective management and labor practices that, to my ear, sound quite a bit like the advice of our best educational leaders. I hear plenty of talk about autonomy, choice, trust, and empowerment. Yet, when education reformers and critics claim that schools should be more like businesses, it seems like I keep hearing talk about tightening up accountability, imposing the will of management down through the education hierarchy, strict alignment with and adherence to a master plan, and similar ideas.
So, in this blog post, (and Part Two, coming later), let’s look at some samples of what business experts are saying about the workplace when they don’t know teachers are listening!
How about beginning at the Wall Street Journal? Earlier this year, they editorialized about the need for toughening up evaluations for teachers – and I happen to agree that most teachers are inadequately evaluated. I have no quarrel with their observation of the problem, but want to suggest an approach that would probably shock the Journal’s editorial board and many of their readers: maybe teachers should not actually undergo a corporate style annual performance review with their principal. Crazy, no? Well, I read about it in… the Wall Street Journal. “Get Rid of the Performance Review!” is a fascinating article by Dr. Samuel Culbert of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. He argues,
To my way of thinking, a one-side-accountable, boss-administered review is little more than a dysfunctional pretense. It’s a negative to corporate performance, an obstacle to straight-talk relationships, and a prime cause of low morale at work. Even the mere knowledge that such an event will take place damages daily communications and teamwork. (emphasis in original)
Communications and teamwork are the sine que non of school improvement, but there’s a chorus of we-know-better-than-you business-driven education reformers who seem not to understand that. And for those who suggest performance pay and student test-scores are the key to improved evaluations, I offer this perspective from Culbert:
I believe it’s immoral to maintain the facade that annual pay and performance reviews lead to corporate improvement, when it’s clear they lead to more bogus activities than valid ones. Instead of energizing individuals, they are dispiriting and create cynicism. Instead of stimulating corporate effectiveness, they lead to just-in-case and cover-your-behind activities that reduce the amount of time that could be put to productive use. Instead of promoting directness, honesty and candor, they stimulate inauthentic conversations in which people cast self-interested pursuits as essential company activities. (emphasis added)
When teachers make this argument, it’s seen as self-serving. If Culbert’s analysis would hold true in educational settings, and I believe it would, then business-minded education stakeholders should rethink some of their assumptions. If they don’t want to listen to us, perhaps a management expert on the pages of the Wall Street Journal can get through.
Culbert does offer an alternative to the annual performance review, one that sounds highly appealing for use in education:
The alternative to one-side-accountable, boss-administered/subordinate-received performance reviews is two-side, reciprocally accountable, performance previews. (emphasis in original)
Let me explain.
The boss’s assignment is to guide, coach, tutor, provide oversight and generally do whatever is required to assist a subordinate to perform successfully. That’s why I claim that the boss-direct report team should be held jointly accountable for the quality of work the subordinate performs. I’m sick and tired of hearing about subordinates who fail and get fired, while bosses, whose job it was to ensure subordinate effectiveness, get promoted and receive raises in pay.
Holding performance previews eliminates the need for the boss to spout self-serving interpretations about what already has taken place and can’t be fixed. Previews are problem-solving, not problem-creating, discussions about how we, as teammates, are going to work together even more effectively and efficiently than we’ve done in the past. They feature descriptive conversations about how each person is inclined to operate, using past events for illustrative purposes, and how we worked well or did not work well individually and together.
The preview structure keeps the focus on the future and what “I” need from you as “teammate and partner” in getting accomplished what we both want to see happen. It doesn’t happen only annually; it takes place each time either the boss or the subordinate has the feeling that they aren’t working well together.
Realistic assessment of someone’s positive qualities requires replacing scores on standardized checklists with inquiry. As a result, step No. 1 in giving effective feedback almost always involves “active questioning” inquiry. Inquiry contrasts with most performance reviews, which begin with how the evaluator sees the individual and what that boss has already decided most needs enhancing.
Imagine if we applied that model of accountability in education! If there are school turnaround models and reform efforts that hinge on firing the teachers, what about the uppermost administrators and school boards that have had stewardship of the schools and responsibility for the staffing of the schools?
Some of the principles that Culbert offers are quite similar to those in a forthcoming report that I helped to write. The report, “A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom: Creating a Teacher Evaluation System that Works for California” (edit: link) is the debut publication from Accomplished California Teachers (the organization that sponsors this blog). Using the insightful contributions of teachers from many types of schools and different parts of the state, our report argues for evaluations that are ongoing, collaborative, and growth-oriented to support all teachers.
I found the Culbert article through a business blog that I read often – Work Matters, by Bob Sutton, a Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. His blog offers plenty of great insights into workplace dynamics, and no shortage of suggestions about how to avoid common pitfalls and improve the “quality of life” at work. I will take up some of Sutton’s advice in Part Two of this post.