Down the Education Rabbit Hole
Lewis Carrol - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
I guess I’m not as adaptable as Alice. It’s only the end of Chapter One when she realizes that once she’s hit the bottom of the rabbit hole, nothing will “go on in the common way.” Much of the education reform debate has been down the rabbit hole for a while, but I keep expecting people to act with some common sense.
Apparently, I’m clinging to a strange notion about education: if you want to improve schools, you need teacher leadership, and if you try to improve schools while alienating teachers, you will fail.
It was hard to avoid nausea the past couple weeks watching the parade of union-bashing alarmists tearing down public schools and teachers on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the NBC project “Education Nation” – shamelessly plugging the film “Waiting for Superman” – and all while the L.A. Times abuse of value-added measurement is still reverberating in the edusphere. Earlier this year, Newsweak Magazine essentially blamed teachers for all the problems in education, and a magazine I’ve never heard of before this week titled an article, “Are Teachers Ruining Our Schools?” (link to Nancy Flanagan’s blog post). My ACT colleague Anthony Cody has called the overall effect “The Media’s War on Teachers” – and though I usually opt for less dramatic analogies, this one resonates.
The latest move that has me scratching my head comes from the George W. Bush Institute. Their ambitious proposal would train (or influence the training) of 50,000 principals in the next decade. We certainly need to plan for the future and ensure that we have well-trained principals, but there’s a larger agenda here. Dakarai Aarons of Education Week writes, “The initiative, called the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership, includes partnerships with business schools and with nontraditional providers, such as Teach For America and New Leaders for New Schools, as part of the Institute’s goal to ‘augment the pipeline’ of people pursuing the principalship, [Bush Institute Fellow James W.] Guthrie said.” The Bush Institute press release on the announcement provides this additional information: “Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, KIPP, The Rainwater Leadership Alliance in cooperation with the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, and the Council for Education Change are collaborating with the Alliance and contributing to its mission.”
So, what a surprise! Instead of nurturing the leadership of accomplished teachers and trying to grow leadership from within, the Bush Institute is looking to help non-educators (or minimally experienced ones) to leap into leadership positions. “Curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice would say.
Help me out here – what kind of success have we had with mayors in control of schools? Governors? Ex-generals and ex-admirals? What other profession would have people from the outside come riding to its rescue, with millions of dollars to solve the problems by bringing in people who barely understand the problem?
The paternalistic condescension of the business-minded education reformers is insulting and counterproductive. No matter how many times they display it, and expect us to get used to it, we need to call them out.
And does it even make business sense? I know that sometimes companies bring in CEO’s from different industries, but at least they’re industries! I don’t see them bringing in Air Force colonels or NFL coaches.
In his new book Good Boss, Bad Boss, Dr. Robert Sutton makes an argument that flies in the face of this approach from the Bush Institute. (Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford, and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford School of Business. Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the author). One section of his book bears the heading, “Understand the Work You Manage – Or Get Out of the Way.” Sutton names the top executives at Disney, Microsoft, Oracle, Apple, Pixar, McDonald’s, Xerox, Google, SAP, and The Men’s Wearhouse – and suggests that their success is partially due to the fact that “each had a deep understanding of the work they led.”
It’s not that I think business leadership has nothing to offer to the field of education – far from it. I wrote three blog posts (starting here) about the best business advice I could find for schools and districts to adopt. The problem is that those who come from outside of education tend to make the wrong arguments about making schools more like business. The lineup of organizations engaging in this principal leadership effort is hardly known for valuing teacher expertise in these matters.
And if you want some other lessons about the disconnect between bosses and workers, you might check out Undercover Boss on CBS, Sunday nights. Admittedly, I’ve only seen one episode, but the concept is this: CEO’s have a lot to learn about their own companies, and what better way to learn it than to try doing some of the entry level work while “undercover”? (They tell the other employees that the camera crews are there for some other purpose). In the one episode I watched, the CEO of Choice Hotels came back from his undercover week quite humbled by the hard work and the dignity of workers he may never have even considered before. His version of accountability follows the advice of W. Edwards Deming – putting management on the hook for worker effectiveness. I have a feeling that if we could get school boards, politicians, and district administrators to work as our school secretaries, custodians, special education aides, substitutes and classroom teachers, we’d be having some very different conversations about education reform. Maybe even conversations that don’t seem to favor the Mad Hatters of education reform in Wonderland…
“Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!” said Alice, and she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about; and when she had finished, her sister kissed her, and said, “It was a curious dream, dear, certainly: but now run in to your tea; it’s getting late.”