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“The Corner Office” for Schools: Teamwork, Fun, and Getting Stuff Done

March 24, 2013

Here’s another post based on “The Corner Office” feature in Business section of the Sunday New York Times. This weekly interview with business leaders provides insights into the philosophies and practices of successful individuals in various industries. I always find it interesting to see what people in other fields are saying and doing regarding organizational management, and compare these ideas to the field of education. Over the years, I’ve found that most of time people espousing “business” solutions for education are thinking of us menial labor to be supervised and coaxed into simply working harder. Of course, our work place is more professional, creative, and in a sense, managerial – as we are responsible for managing our classrooms and our students’ learning.

Earlier this month, the interviewee was Kris Duggan, C.E.O. and a co-founder of Badgeville, who said something that surprised me a bit at first: “[We] look for… people who just get stuff done. We’re very focused on metrics — we have goals and controls, and everybody in the company has them. We even have a rating system we use to score employees, from 1 to 5, based on their ‘getting stuff done’ index every quarter.” This idea seems to risk violating some of the principles espoused by W. Edwards Deming, who advised against numerical targets and rankings, and it’s certainly not the kind of approach I would want to see applied to education and to teacher evaluation. But let’s look at the rest of Duggan’s quote here: “People take the scoring concept very seriously, and really like the accountability and the transparency around some of these things — and the fact that they’re empowered to get stuff done.” I happen to think teachers, contrary to popular view, would welcome more of the right types of accountability and transparency around our work, but we’re leery of all the bad ideas foisted upon our profession in recent years. And I think there’s an essential distinction to make here: “they’re empowered to get stuff done” just doesn’t sound like something we’d say about teaching, partly because we’re not empowered the way I expect Duggan’s employees are, and partly because “getting stuff done” just doesn’t sound like education. We’re never done!

So maybe Duggan’s company is a bit different from a school, but there are some overlapping values. Here’s what he said regarding the core values of his company:

“[T]here are five. Working as a team is No. 1. I noticed in other companies that people would sometimes say, ‘Oh, that’s a sales problem,’ or, ‘That’s a product problem.’ The whole reason you have a company is to basically acquire and serve customers, so customer acquisition and service and delivery is everybody’s problem. One thing about our culture is that people are thinking about the customer, even in departments where they’re not often in touch with customers.

“No. 2 is delivering customer success — focusing on the results we actually deliver. No. 3 is being ambitious. No. 4 is personal development, and No. 5 is having fun.”

To the extent that we might apply these values in education, I would urge policy makers and other stakeholders to consider how their ideas contribute to or detract from these values. Working as a team is harder when teachers are afforded so little time for collaboration – significantly less than teachers in other nations with leading education systems. Focusing on results is increasingly difficult when we don’t agree on which results to look at. In a company it might be easier to agree on the results that matter. And actually, it’s not that hard when we have these discussions among teachers, or with parents. The challenging conversation is the one with the public and the policy community, who choose standardized test scores as the result that matter. But the tests barely scratch the surface of what matters, and the results are not reliable indicators of school quality or teacher effectiveness.

Promoting Quality Teaching: New Approaches To Compensation and Career Pathways

Promoting Quality Teaching: New Approaches To Compensation and Career Pathways

Do schools support ambitious teachers? Not really, and that’s why I helped produce the ACT report on teacher compensation and career pathways – to promote the idea of teacher leadership, expanding roles and responsibilities for effective teachers. Do schools promote personal development for teachers, or… “fun”? I think the answers vary considerably, but in the current economic climate, I’ll bet there are few systems that are investing enough time, money, or energy in their teachers’ overall learning and development, and the inclination to rank and shame schools is not conducive to building a “fun” workplace. But if “fun” matters in an all-adult business environment, surely it’s a subject worthy of serious consideration for a workplace centered around children.

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Prior posts relating to business and education:

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