Be sure to see the story in the New York Times today. Obama administration “Race to the Top” money went to states who proposed to replace principals in failing schools. A problem in the strategy threatens the program: Not enough qualified people exist to replace all the “bad” ones.
Wrong-headed education “reformers” keep talking about “firing the bad ones,” teachers, administrators, or janitors. Without significantly raising the pay for teachers, without greatly increasing the number of teachers and administrators in the pipeline from teaching colleges or any other source, reformers can’t attract anyone better qualified than the people they wish to replace.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time these reformers took a step back and did some study, perhaps from the quality gurus, Deming and Juran and Crosby, or from the heights of championship performance, in basketball, football, soccer, sailing (try the America Cup), horse racing or politics: No one can use firing as a chief tool to turn an organization around, nor to lead any organization to a championship. Threatening people’s jobs does not motivate them, nor make the jobs attractive to others.
How can we tell the fire-the-teachers-and-principals group is on the wrong track? See the article:
“To think that the same leader with a bit more money is going to accomplish tremendous change is misguided,” said Tim Cawley, a managing director at the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit group that began leading turnaround efforts in Chicago when Mr. Duncan was the superintendent there.
“This idea of a light-touch turnaround is going to sully the whole effort,” Mr. Cawley added.
Tell that to Steve Jobs, who turned Apple around. Tell it to Jack Welch, the tough-guy boss from GE (who had his own peccadilloes about firing, but who emphasized hiring and pay, at least, as the way to create a succession plan for the vacancies). Tell it to any CEO who turned around his organization without falling on his own sword.
Any competent quality consultant would have foreseen this problem: Nobody wants to train for a job with little future, less money to do the job right, little authority to get the job done, and the sole promise that the exit door is always open.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should know better, intuitively. He used to play basketball, professionally. Surely he knows something about team building and team turnarounds. What caused his astounding, expensive amnesia?
Part of the issue identified in the article is training:
Because leading schools out of chronic failure is harder than managing a successful school — often requiring more creative problem-solving abilities and stronger leadership, among other skills — the supply of principals capable of doing the work is tiny.
Most of the nation’s 1,200 schools, colleges and departments of education do offer school leadership training. “But only a tiny percentage really prepare leaders for school turnaround,” said Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College who wrote a 2005 study of principal training.
That only contributes to the larger problem, that people in the positions are, often, the best ones for the job already; firing them damages turnaround efforts.
In Chicago, federal money is financing an overhaul of Phillips Academy High School. Mr. Cawley’s nonprofit trained Phillips’s new principal, Terrance Little, by having him work alongside mentor principals experienced at school makeovers.
“If we’re talking about turning around 700 schools, I don’t think you can find 700 principals who are capable of taking on the challenge of this work,” Mr. Little said. “If you could, why would we have this many failing schools?”
Education’s problems are many. Few of the problems are the result of the person at the chalkboard in the classroom. Firing teachers won’t help. W. Edwards Deming claimed that 85% of the problems that plague front-line employees, like teachers, are management-caused. Firing their bosses won’t solve those problems, either, but will just push the problems around. (What? “Deck chairs?” “Titanic?” What are you talking about?)
Did you hear? Texas plans to cut state funding to all education by at least 25% for next year, due to Gov. Rick Perry’s $25 billion deficit, which he worked so hard to conceal during last year’s election campaign.
Santayana’s Ghost just dropped by to remind us, suitably the day after Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday anniversary, of the Report of the Commission on Excellence in Education, the report that saved Reagan’s presidency and got him a second term:
Our nation is at risk. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. History is not kind to idlers.
When do we get political leaders who will swim against that tide instead of trying to surf it?
See a small collection of Dan Wasserman’s cartoons on Race to the Top, here.