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Make Schools More Like Business? (Part 3)

July 14, 2010

This post was originally conceived of as the second part in a series on the application of business thinking in the field of education, but then in a moment of blogger inspiration I put in a different Part Two and this piece became Part Three.  If you haven’t read the prior entries, there’s no particular need to read them in order, but here are the links to Part One and Part Two.  Taken collectively, I think they provide convincing evidence that the current trends in education “reform” are reflective of attitudes that do not make sense in the business world – despite what they tell us – and they certainly won’t work in education.

At the end of Part One, I mentioned Bob Sutton, a Stanford business and management professor, author of several books, and blogger at Work Matters.  I highly recommend taking a look at anything on his blog – it never ceases to provide useful tools for reflecting the educational workplace.  However, for the moment, I’m looking at his posts on the blog of the Harvard Business Review.  In What Every New Generation of Bosses Has To Learn, Sutton argues that the real challenges and solutions in the workplace are not anything incredibly novel, or hard to understand.  In an educational setting, I would ask this question about schools or systems in crisis:  has this school/district/state been funded and provided with all the resources necessary to provide for the educational needs of the students, and the instructional needs of the teachers?  I suspect the answer to that question is usually negative, and yet we search for the best practices and methods and systems from elsewhere and think we can adapt them on the cheap and bypass the critical needs we can’t address or aren’t willing to confront.  Who benefits?  The researchers, think tanks, publishers, and now charter school operators and even investment managers who peddle all things New! and Innovative! to taxpayer-funded systems that never took care of basics first.

Another Sutton post at Harvard Business Review stresses a point that is somewhat obvious to classroom instructors, but partially explains the failure of No Child Left Behind.  Sutton argues that it’s a mistake to focus constantly on huge and lofty goals – like having every child proficient by a set date.  It’s not that goals and vision are a problem but rather that focusing on them constantly is counterproductive.  Why?  First, the goal is so obvious it hardly bears discussion – of course we want every student to learn.  Second, the goal, and the measurement of progress towards the goal, is too big and too blunt to provide useful or satisfying feedback about short-term work.  Third, the goal may be so lofty that it’s “daunting” – the mountain is so high that we are discouraged from attempting the climb.  Why begin the impossible?

Another source I look at from time to time is LeaderChat, “a weekly blog about managing in today’s work environment and what leaders can do to create an engaged, motivated, and productive workforce that gets results.”  The blog is moderated by David Witt, who also writes many of the entries.  Witt’s Twitter feed is also a good source of informative articles and studies.  I challenge any education reformer espousing business thinking for education to show me an agenda that matches these three most recent blog posts from LeaderChat:

Is it just me, or do the people espousing business-thinking for schools forget to talk about the importance of trust?  It seems to me that the more you push standardization and scripted curriculum, you send the opposite message.  When you talk about eliminating job protections for teachers before addressing job training, support, and evaluation, you sacrifice trust.  When you ignore the best evidence and the advice of leading national research organizations, you forfeit trust.  As for the individual perspective and a personal approach that promotes “employee work passion” – well, we haven’t heard a word of that in ages.  Teachers are the problem, so why ask for their perspective?  Their passion is mainly for their job security, getting off work at 3:00 p.m., and having summers off, right?

But let’s move on.  Larry Underwood, an author and former business executive, writes a blog about corporate culture.  I first noticed him on Twitter, when someone “retweeted” this observation from him (5/20/10): “Ever Notice…The Most Successful Companies Make Employees Their #1 Priority. No Hidden Agendas…Just Genuine Support & Recognition.”  So I checked out more of his “tweets” and his blog, and while I doubt we’d agree on much politically, I did like his blog entry, “New Year’s Resolution Suggestion to Corporate America” – in which he wrote:

Welcome to Corporate America; an overstaffed and inefficient bureaucracy; where micromanagement, finger pointing, and backstabbing reign supreme.  In this hostile environment, is it any wonder things are in such a mess?

It doesn’t have to be this way; the solution to much of Corporate America’s woes requires a pardigm shift in the way most hierarchial operations conduct business.  This requires a tremendous leap of faith from the CEOs, themselves; they’ve got to place more trust in their management teams in the field; a successful organization gives the maximum level of autonomy to its high level managers; let them do their jobs!  Cut the red tape, the useless reports, and the fruitless meetings; focus on the things that really matter in running the business.  By concentrating on providing better service for the customers and creating a positive work environment for the employees, everybody wins.

Funny… we don’t often hear the proponents of business models in education suggesting that teachers need be trusted, autonomous agents in a less hierarchical organization.

In fact, the business-minded ed-reformers who want to get tough with teachers might be better off if they’d just back off.  It turns out, according to this article by Andrew O’Connell in the Harvard Business Review, that employees don’t do their best work when the boss is a jerk.  Some bosses don’t really care – (Michelle Rhee?) – but then they are becoming part of whatever problem they should be feeling responsibility for solving.  Here’s how O’Connell’s article opens:

Believe it or not, the mere thought of you can make your employees do a lousy job.

In fact, if your employees consider you a controlling person, even an unconscious thought of you can have a negative effect on their performance. If, for example, they were to happen to subliminally see, out of the corner of their eyes, your name flash for 60 milliseconds, you could expect them to start working less hard. Even if they didn’t intend to slack off.

Another well-known business and management guru was the late Peter Drucker, whose insights were described this way in the Wall Street Journal:  “[Drucker was] among the first to see the limits of large industrial organizations and their authoritarian hierarchies. Long before the Internet, before even the first computer chips, he foresaw the arrival of ‘knowledge workers’ motivated by personal pride as much as by fear and a paycheck. Harnessing their talents, he argued, required a new approach to management.”  Do I detect support for an argument against merit pay and layoffs based on test scores?

So, the next time you hear someone tell you that if schools would be better if they were run more like businesses, ask them to clarify.  Do they imagine businesses are places where tough bosses set the agenda and submissive employees rise to the challenge, motivated by the “stick” of losing their jobs, or the “carrot” of a big bonus?  Do they imagine that business management is a highly scientific process driven by numbers and data?  If so, send them my way.  Because the more I look into it, the more I find business leaders talking about the same workplace conditions that motivate and support teachers – learning, support, growth, trial and error, trust, and respect.

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