Deming and Peters, and teacher evaluations

October 12, 2013

Before I was a teacher, I led a tough band of people at the Department of Education, and I plied corporate America (among other jobs).  I spent a couple of years in American Airlines‘s corporate change project, facilitating leadership courses for more than 10,000 leaders in the company, as one of a team of about 20 inside consultants.  I had a fine time in management consulting with Ernst & Young LLP (now EY).

W. Edwards Deming

W. Edwards Deming, Wikipedia image

Back then “quality” was a watchword.  Tom Peters’s and Robert H. Waterman, Jr.‘s book, In Search of Excellence, showed up in everybody’s briefcase.  If your company wasn’t working with Phillip Crosby (Quality is Free), you were working with Joseph Juran, or the master himself, W. Edwards Deming.  If your business was highly technical, you learned more mathematics and statistics  that you’d hoped never to have to use so you could understand what Six Sigma meant, and figure out how to get there.

Joseph Juran. Another exemplar of the mode of leadership that takes lawyers out of law, putting them to good work in fields not thought to be related.

Joseph Juran. Another exemplar of the mode of leadership that takes lawyers out of law, putting them to good work in fields not thought to be related.

For a few organizations, those were heady times.  Management and leadership research of the previous 50 years seemed finally to have valid applications that gave hope for a sea change in leadership in corporations and other organizations.  In graduate school I’d been fascinated and encouraged by the work of Chris Argyris and Douglas McGregor.  “Theory X and Theory Y” came alive for me (I’m much more a Theory Y person).

Deming’s 14 Points could be a harsh checklist, harsh master to march to, but with the promise of great results down the line.

A lot of the work to get high quality, high performance organizations depended on recruiting the best work from each individual.  Doing that — that is, leading people instead of bossing them around — was and is one of the toughest corners to turn.  Tough management isn’t always intuitive.

For the salient example here, Deming’s tough statistical work panics workers who think they will be held accountable for minor errors not their doing.  In a traditional organization, errors get people fired.

Deming’s frequent point was that errors are not the worker’s doing, but instead are caused by managers, or by managerial failure to support the worker in getting quality work.  In any case, Deming comes down hard against firing people to try to get quality.  One of his 14 points is, “Drive out fear.”  In his seminars and speeches, that point was explained with, among other things, a drive to do away with annual performance reviews (wow, did that cause angst and cognitive dissonance at Ernst & Young!).  Performance reviews rarely touch on what a person needs to do to create quality, and generally the review session becomes a nit-picking exercise that leaves ratees angry, and less capable and willing to do quality work.  So Deming was against them as usually practiced.

Fast forward to today.

American schools are under fire — much of that fire unjustified, but that’s just one problem to be solved.  Evaluations of teachers is a big deal because many people believe that they can fire their way to good schools.  ‘Just fire the bad teachers, and the good ones will pull things out.’

Yes, that’s muddled thinking, and contrary to the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, there is no research to support the general idea, let alone specific applications.

Education leaders are trained in pedagogy, and not in management skills, most often — especially not in people leadership skills.  Teacher evaluations?  Oh, good lord, are they terrible.

Business adviser and healer, Tom Peters (from his website, photo by Allison Shirreffs)

Business adviser and healer, Tom Peters (from his website, photo by Allison Shirreffs)

In some search or other today I skimmed over to Tom Peters’s blog — and found this short essay, below.  Every school principal in America should take the three minutes required to read it — it will be a solid investment.

dispatches from the new world of work

Deming & Me

W. Edwards Deming, the quality guru-of-gurus, called the standard evaluation process the worst of management de-motivators. I don’t disagree. For some reason or other, I launched several tweets on the subject a couple of days ago. Here are a few of them:

  • Do football coaches or theater directors use a standard evaluation form to assess their players/actors? Stupid question, eh?
  • Does the CEO use a standard evaluation form for her VPs? If not, then why use one for front line employees?
  • Evaluating someone is a conversation/several conversations/a dialogue/ongoing, not filling out a form once every 6 months or year.
  • If you (boss/leader) are not exhausted after an evaluation conversation, then it wasn’t a serious conversation.
  • I am not keen on formal high-potential employee I.D. programs. As manager, I will treat all team members as potential “high potentials.”
  • Each of my eight “direct reports” has an utterly unique professional trajectory. How could a standardized evaluation form serve any useful purpose?
  • Standardized evaluation forms are as stupid for assessing the 10 baristas at a Starbucks shop as for assessing Starbucks’ 10 senior vice presidents.
  • Evaluation: No problem with a shared checklist to guide part of the conversation. But the “off list” discussion will by far be the most important element.
  • How do you “identify” “high potentials”? You don’t! They identify themselves—that’s the whole point.
  • “High potentials” will take care of themselves. The great productivity “secret” is improving the performance of the 60% in the middle of the distribution.

Tom Peters posted this on 10/09/13.

I doubt that any teacher in a public elementary or secondary school will recognize teacher evaluations in that piece.

And that, my friends, is just the tip of the problem iceberg.

An enormous chasm separates our school managers in this nation from good management theory, training and practice.  Walk into almost any meeting of school administrators, talk about Deming, Juran, Crosby, and you’re introducing a new topic (not oddly, Stephen Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, sits on the shelf of many principals — probably unread, but certainly unpracticed).

Texas works to make one standardized evaluation form for every teacher in every grade, in every subject, in every school.  Do you see anything in Peters’s advice to recommend that?  In many systems, teachers may choose whether evaluators will make surprise visits to the classroom, or only scheduled visits.  In either case, visits are limited, generally fewer than a dozen visits get made to a teacher’s classroom in a year.  The forms get filled out every three months, or six weeks.  Take each of Tom’s aphorisms, it will be contrary to the way teacher evaluations usually run.

Principals, superintendents, you don’t have to take this as gospel.  It’s only great advice from a guy who charges tens of thousands of dollars to the greatest corporate leaders in the world, to tell them the same thing.

It’s not like you want to create a high-performing organization in your school, is it?

More:


2010 Texas Democratic Platform: Making Our Schools Safe Havens for Learning

June 28, 2010

This post is eighth in a series on the education planks of the 2010 Texas Democratic Party Platform.

This is an unofficial version published in advance of the final version from the Texas Democrats, but I expect very few changes.

MAKING OUR SCHOOLS SAFE HAVENS FOR LEARNING

Texas Democrats believe students, teachers and other school personnel should be safe from acts of violence, and students must be protected from bullying. School campuses and functions must be weapon-free and drug-free. We support swift and fair enforcement of disciplinary standards. Teachers deserve support when they exercise their right to remove a disruptive student from class.

Students referred to disciplinary alternative education programs should continue to receive strong academic instruction. When a student’s misconduct is serious enough to warrant disciplinary placement, the state should make sure that the disciplinary setting – whether a school district’s own disciplinary alternative program or a county’s juvenile-justice alternative education program – offers a full array of educational and social/behavioral services to help that student get back on track. School districts should be discouraged from indiscriminately placing students in disciplinary alternative education programs for trivial misconduct.

We support the Dignity for All Students Act to guarantee safety for all students.


School issued computers as spy devices

February 20, 2010

Anyone with a school-issued computer ought to check it over, now.  And maybe put a towel over the thing.  Unplug it, and take the battery out.

And, oh, do I wish I had an AP Government class to discuss this with!

Did you hear the one about Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, school officials spying on students’ bedrooms?

Good discussion at the Volokh Conspiracy:  “Big Teacher Is Watching You?

According to the Complaint in Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (filed a week ago),

2. Unbeknownst to [high school students and their parents], and without their authorization, [high school officials] have been spying on the activities of [the students] by Defendants’ indiscrimina[te] use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District….23…. Plaintiffs were for the first time informed of [this] capability and practice by the School District when … an Assistant Principal at Harriton High School[] informed minor Plaintiff that the School District was of the belief that minor Plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor Plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the School District….

24. [The minor Plaintiff’s father] thereafter verified, through [the Assistant Principal], that the School District in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a students’ personal laptop computer issued by the School District at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.

If this was indeed done, and if it was done without adequately notifying the students and their parents, this was clearly tortious, likely a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and possibly a statutory violation as well (though I haven’t looked closely at the statutory details). It is also appalling — school officials spying on children in their parents’ homes without the children’s and parents’ permission. Who thinks up such things?

Who thinks them up, and can we get them to wear a badge so we know they’re not in our school?

Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars already is on the story — a few good comments there.

A statement from the Lower Merion School District generally ignores the specifics of the allegations in the case, and claims that the monitoring of the self-contained web-cams was done only when a computer was reported stolen.  In the complaint, the plaintiffs allege that a student was reprimanded for behaviors caught on the camera, while the student was at home.  The statement is very much what we would expect from a rich district caught doing something wrong after getting better advice from their attorneys than they thought they needed before they did the wrong thing.

An Associated Press story (here in the Washington Post) said the FBI has opened an investigation into whether school officials violated anti-wiretapping laws.

The suit filed is a civil suit.  Assuming its allegations to be correct, I think the plaintiffs may want to add RICO sections to the complaint.  Under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act a pattern of practices like illegal use of the webcams could easily be evidence to trigger RICO  penalties, which included treble damages.  Such a charge would also scare the textbooks out of school officials thinking they might want to do this in the future.

Comments at the Volokh Conspiracy, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and in the AP story in the WaPo all raised the spectre of child pornography.  If the computers caught images of children in their bedrooms, it might automatically qualify as child porn — and this would greatly complicate the case, and ramp up the noise surrounding it.

School districts who issue laptops to students, or teachers, should review the story and their own procedures and regulations.

Also:


Opening day of testing season: The hunt is on! Wear orange

March 4, 2009

We stopped education in Texas high schools yesterday to test students’ proficiency with the English language.  English is a difficult enough subject that it merits its own testing day, so as not to discombobulate students for the other Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests.

All controversy aside, it’s a grind.

Yours truly won the straw that got to make sure students made it to the restroom from their testing rooms, and back, without discussing the contents of the exam or sneaking off a cell-phone conversation or text message.  (Yes, testing rules require that students check in phones and other devices during the test.)  Classes in bathroom monitoring and cell-phone jamming cannot be far away at America’s great institutions of learning about teaching.

And you think teachers are overpaid?  In Belgium the restroom attendants get tips.  Same at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.  Not in Texas schools.

The worst part:  None of us on bathroom duty knows what we did that we’re being punished for.   (NB:  This is a joke.  Somebody had to do it, and English teachers did a lot of it, in order to keep them out of administering the tests, where they might be accused of doing something to aid cheating to raise scores — teachers who do their job well may get bathroom monitoring duty as a result . . .)

Dallas ISD and the Texas Education Agency had monitors to make sure our testing was secure enough, though I’m not certain such pains are taken to make sure the tests work.  Our school is targeted for “reconstitution” if there are not dramatic improvements in TAKS scores in math and science, so the monitors hunt for errors.  One wishes that wearing orange would keep the guns from being aimed at one, but one suspects it would only improve one’s targetability.

So we take it all seriously.  One would hate to have been the cause of the demise of a community school for having committed some grand error in monitoring bathrooms.

It was one day of testing, but it cost us more than that.  Schedules were rearranged Monday so that instead of our usual block scheduling, each student got a briefer session with her or his English teacher for last minute review and pep talk.  Faculty meetings were for test administration instructions (required by regulation or law).

On test days, students are asked to leave their books and book bags at home (security for the test, mainly).  What sort of education system discourages kids from carrying books <i>any day?</i>

Math, science and social studies tests come at the end of April and early May.  Other tests dot the weeks until then.  One teacher noted in a meeting last year that testing season marks the end of the education year, since little can be done once testing starts eating up the calendar in such huge chunks.

“Time on task,” Checker Finn used to note.  When students spend time on a task, they learn it.  Measure what students spend their time doing, you’ll figure out what they’re good at.

In Texas, it appears, we teach testing.

Dave at DaveAwayFromHome may have put it best, quoting from Tyson’s recent appearance at the University of  Texas-Arlington (image from Dave’s site, too):

clowns to the left of me...
“When a newspaper headline proclaims half of the children at a school are below average on a test, no one stops to think that’s what average means.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking about math illiteracy.

(Actually, I think that should be “innumeracy.”  Is that jargon?  Do we have to know that?  Does it show up on the test?)


Texas AG rules: Bible classes not required

August 29, 2008

Texas school districts are not compelled to offer classes studying the Bible under a new law, according to a ruling from the Texas State Attorney General, Greg Abbott.

State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, proposed a bill to require the classes, in the 2007 legislative session.  Though the bill passed, it was amended several times and in the final form the language was ambiguous as to whether districts would be required to offer the class.

Earlier this year the State Board of Education refused to issue standards for a Bible class, and so the AG’s ruling took on additional urgency:  School districts are left to their own devices on creating a Bible class that would pass scrutiny under the 1st Amendment.  Several districts in Texas have offered such classes, but when challenged on constitutional grounds, the classes have been modified to avoid advocacy of religion.  Most of Texas’s more than 200 school districts are anxious to avoid going to court over courses that they are required to offer.

Now we know the Bible classes are not required.

But if a district does offer the classes, neither the SBOE nor the Attorney General has provided guidance to school districts on how to keep the classes legal.  In the absence of clear guidance, individual districts offer Bible classes at their own peril.  The districts would bear all litigation costs.

“Local school boards can now breathe a sigh of relief,” Miller said. “The State Board of Education threw them under the bus last month by refusing to adopt the clear, specific standards schools need to give the Bible the respect it deserves and help them stay out of court. Now, schools won’t be required to maneuver through a legal minefield without a map.”

After reading Abbott’s opinion, however, Jonathan Saenz of the Free Market Foundation said it was clear “Texas schools are required to have some type of instruction in the Bible, which is the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament.”

“Schools are not required to offer a particular type of course in order to meet the requirement of having some type of instruction in the Bible, but they have to offer something,” Saenz said.

The Free Market Foundation promotes families, churches and freedom.

Abbott’s office referred inquires to the last sentence in the opinion summary:

“If a school district or charter school chooses to offer a course authorized by section 28.011 and fewer than fifteen students at a campus register to enroll in the course, the district or charter school is not required to provide the course at that campus for that semester, but that does not mean that the school is not required to comply with the curriculum requirements in subsection 28.002 (a)(2).”

According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Bible classes are not popular among Texas teenagers anyway.  Maybe the students have more common sense and a greater drive to achieve in education than do the state legislators.

Most Texas high schools offer studies on parts of the Bible, in either in Advanced Placement literature and history courses, or in regular academic English courses.  Rep. Warren Chisum and the state legislature appear to have ignored this offering.

Controversy is expected to continue.

Resources:


Storefront schools

June 16, 2008

Why not?

In comments to the immediately previous post, Zhoen says segregation by gender is no panacea for education. But, she wonders at OneWord: Why not storefront schools?

For many years, I have thought the never-will-be-done answer was to have storefront schools. One room schoolhouses, two teachers and a local adult volunteer, no more than a dozen students, all online classes – a national, self paced, curricula. Touring experts and scholars for special lectures and demonstrations. Kid has a problem with a particular teacher, move ’em to the next neighborhood over. Walking distances from their homes, field trips common (easier to arrange with small groups), flexible schedules (let the teens sleep in). A circle of homeschools in rural areas instead of warehouses to haul whole populations into.

Why not? The idea strikes me as similar to Japanese juku, private schools for kids in public schools, where kids get remedial attention or advanced instruction, depending on what they need. I copy the Library of Congress’ description of juku after the fold.

What do you think? Is there an example of storefront schools we can cite either way, for or against the idea?

Comment away.

Read the rest of this entry »


Does gender-separated schooling work better?

June 16, 2008

Even public school districts toy with the idea of separating genders in the primary and secondary grades.  Some people argue that there is experimental evidence to support the plan, plus there are the arguments about physical differences between the genders, which suggest different educational strategies for girls than for boys.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to implement programs that are supported by research.  Is there solid research to support separating the genders?

Apart from the hoaxes, such as the much ballyhooed “Crokus” in boys brains, the evidence for separating the genders based on physical differences may be a lot slimmer than advocates claim.

For example, do boys really hear differently from girls?   Are the physical differences so great?  Consider the opening paragraph for a lengthy article on the issue by Elizabeth Weil, in The New York Times Magazine last March:

On an unseasonably cold day last November in Foley, Ala., Colby Royster and Michael Peterson, two students in William Bender’s fourth-grade public-school class, informed me that the class corn snake could eat a rat faster than the class boa constrictor. Bender teaches 26 fourth graders, all boys. Down the hall and around the corner, Michelle Gay teaches 26 fourth-grade girls. The boys like being on their own, they say, because girls don’t appreciate their jokes and think boys are too messy, and are also scared of snakes. The walls of the boys’ classroom are painted blue, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the thermostat is set to 69 degrees. In the girls’ room, by contrast, the walls are yellow, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature is kept six degrees warmer, as per the instructions of Leonard Sax, a family physician turned author and advocate who this May will quit his medical practice to devote himself full time to promoting single-sex public education.

Mark Liberman, who writes at Language Log, deals with these issues dispassionately, and scientifically.  He started a policy of publishing on the blog questions that he gets from journalists on the issues.  Here’s his first published answer, for example, and as you can see, it’s a bit of an information-loaded doozy:

1. I’ve read a few posts on Language Log, but please tell me more about what you think about Dr. Sax’s arguments about sex-based differences in the brain?

In his books, Leonard Sax is a political activist using science to make a case, not a scientist evaluating a hypothesis.

Science is sometimes on his side, sometimes neutral or equivocal, and sometimes against him. He picks the results that fit his agenda, ignoring those that don’t; and all too often, he misunderstands, exaggerates or misrepresents the results that he presents.

There’s detailed support for these assertions in some Language Log posts from 2006:

David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist” (6/12/2006)
Are men emotional children?” (6/24/2005)
Of rats and (wo)men” (8/19/2006)
Leonard Sax on hearing” (8/22/2006)
More on rats and men and women” (8/22/2006)
The emerging science of gendered yelling” (9/5/2006)
Girls and boys and classroom noise” (9/9/2006)

This doesn’t mean that his conclusions are false, but it does mean that his appeals to science are not trustworthy.

More nuance than some policy groups might be able to deal with, but enough information to direct a genuinely interested person to some good sources.

You’ll also want to read “Retinal Sex and Sexual Rhetoric,” and “Liberman on Sax on Liberman on Sax on Hearing.”

In our weekly staff meetings with then Assisstant Secretary of Education for Research Chester W. Finn, at the old Office for Educational Research and Information, Finn often opened the meetings by turning to the Director of Research and asking whether, in the past week, we had learned how people learn.  When satisfied that this key breakthrough had not been achieved in the previous week, which would change much of what we did, Finn would say something like, “Now that we know we don’t know what we’re doing, let’s go through the agenda.”

Keeping an appropriate sense of humor about the issue, Finn still provided sharp reminders that the science behind learning, for all of the volumes available, is very tenuous and thin.

When science is so thin, the policy side of the discipline can be waved around by a good presentation coupled with plausible sciency-sounding material.  “Plausible” does not equal “good,” and often it doesn’t even equal “accurate.”

Liberman’s critiques are detailed, and they point out questions that the average school board member or principal is probably ill-equipped to realize, let alone ask from an “expert” or consultant selling a program to the district.

Before we teach critical thinking to the kids, we need a lot more critical thinking from administrators.  Liberman tries to light the path to that critical thinking.

What do you think?  Does gender-separate education work better?  Are there such great differences in the learning abilities and methods of boys and girls that we ought to separate them?

What about other shibboleths we hear?  Classroom size?  Testing?  Delivery of material?  Difficulty of material?   Where is there good research for reforming our schools, for the better?


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