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Down the Education Rabbit Hole

October 3, 2010

“…but Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.”

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.”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Chuck permalink
    October 3, 2010 5:17 am

    “Bush League Plan” akin to bringing an architect in to argue a criminal law case. Among others, this is a “kind” analogy

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      October 3, 2010 8:31 am

      Thanks for reading, Chuck. Does this strike you as an argument that current administrators who have come up “through the ranks” lack the skills to bring about “real” reform?

  2. Jim Davis permalink
    October 3, 2010 10:10 am

    Teachers are better prepared than Alice to recognize the “curious dream” for the nightmare it really is. Unfortunately, too many of us act as though we are waiting to awaken from it, when we urgently need to awaken and oppose the reality the nightmare is becoming. O f course, pseudo-reformers, their strategies actually promoting privatization for non-educational reasons, are counting on the cumulative infantilizing of teachers to serve their agenda. Then a new cohort of principals may aptly serve the kinds of schools the society has allowed. JSD

  3. Mary Golden permalink
    October 3, 2010 3:09 pm

    Your piece touches eloquently on many of the issues I struggle to come to grips with on a daily basis. I often wonder how it happened that those outside of education were able to co-opt the reform debate so thoroughly. At what point did educators lose so much credibility that the business establishment was called in to dictate solutions? It is frustrating that educational reform has come to be associated in the public discourse with economic concepts like free-market, pay for performance, and privatization.

    The NBC/MSNBC Education Nation series that heralded the opening of “Waiting for Superman” had me on a roller coaster last week. The opening Teacher Townhall meeting moderated by Brian Williams seemed to give teachers a real voice in the discussion, but the high I felt after that event was dashed by the panel discussion that followed in which teachers’ unions were relentlessly blamed for all the ills of education. I am afraid it is a sentiment that resonates with much of the public. I agree with you that we need to reclaim the debate and bring teacher leadership to bear.

  4. Cheryl permalink
    October 3, 2010 7:24 pm

    I’ve said many times that Arne Duncan, President Obama, Bill Gates, and on and on and on all need to go on “Undercover Boss” and try to teach for a while. In a poverty-stricken urban area.

  5. October 3, 2010 7:33 pm

    Great idea! Let’s bring in the guys who wrecked our financial system to run the schools. I hear there are a whole lot of them out of work. What’s that? They weren’t fired and continue to make so much money in finance they’d never work in the public sector? How’d that happen?

  6. Mary permalink
    October 4, 2010 2:55 pm

    I contend that the K-12 system was built largely on the backs of smart women who had only two career choices. That does explain, at least a little bit, the paternalistic approach of outsiders as well as the dismal salaries and ridiculous working conditions. I agree KK that the wall street crooks would be ideally suited to bring reform to our schools.

  7. Teri Adams permalink
    October 4, 2010 5:41 pm

    As a teacher (and I think I’m a good one) I take offense at teachers being blamed for climbing high school drop out rates, below par testing scores, rising discipline issues, NCLB (which hurt our special ed kids more than helped), etc. etc, etc. I am tired of being the scapegaot for the mess that the Federal Govt has made of our education system. In the next few years, I predit the mass exodus of a lot of great teachers who are as tired of demoralizing, unwarranted critcism as I am.

  8. October 5, 2010 5:31 pm

    Scary stuff. I think one of the most damaging things happening in education is non-teacher leaders attempting to coach teachers on how to improve their classrooms. Even some people who do have minimal experience in the classroom, but who got their start in programs like TFA, often harm classroom instruction more than they help. This has been my personal experience anyway.


  1. Down the Education Rabbit Hole (via InterACT) « Transparent Christina

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