Give teachers some privacy

By PICOL- PIctorial COmmunication Language (http://picol.org/) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By PICOL- PIctorial COmmunication Language (http://picol.org/), via Wikimedia Commons

“…many trucking companies use cameras that automatically record a driver whenever there’s sudden braking, swerving or speeding up. But in one company Bernstein studied, the videos never go to management and are not used in performance reviews (unless the driver is texting-at-the-wheel dangerous). Instead, a team of coaches, whose only job is help drivers improve, receives the videos. Drivers, he says, like and trust that the system is there to help them, because it keeps their mistakes within a trusted circle of people who are not wielding power over their lives.

…In instituting these four forms of privacy—privacy within team boundaries, privacy limits on employee data, privacy in decision-making, and privacy about time—the organizations Bernstein studied refused the temptation to observe (or try to observe) everything. That refusal did not cost them profits or effectiveness. Instead, respect for privacy enhanced their success.”

–David Berreby, “Want People to Behave Better? Give Them More Privacy” on PsychologyToday

Observations of teacher practice have become a rote chore of paperwork to try and please accountability mavens. Those same mavens then get in a huff when they don’t find a whole bunch of teachers rated ineffective.

How about you just let teachers observe one another and give each other feedback, and administrators just sit in on that process every now and then? You might find that to be much more effective than the rigmarole of compliance that teacher evaluations have become.

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Accountability for the Long-Term

time_distance

I receive a monthly newsletter from bcg.perspectives that I scan for any relevant connections to school systems. Their work often centers on business policy, but sometimes their work has either a direct or indirect connection to the education sector.

A recent post,”Gauging Long-Term Impact in the Social Sector” on developing a system of long-term evaluation for a large international nongovernmental organization (INGO), there are lessons well worth considering in developing systems of long-term accountability for schools.

The INGO discussed, named SOS Children’s Villages, works towards “improving the situation of children who are at risk of losing, or who have already lost, parental care” across 134 countries.

The assessment methodology that SOS Children’s Villages developed jointly with BCG evaluates two elements of the programs’ long-term impact: the nonfinancial (or all-around) impact on the individual program participants and the community and the financial impact on society. The determination of the long-term impact on individual participants is based largely on information gleaned from interviews of former program participants by external researchers. This is supplemented by qualitative research conducted through focus group discussions with former child participants and their caregivers. . . 

The programs’ long-term financial impact on society is gauged by the programs’social return on investment (SROI), a comparison of the programs’ total costs and benefits to society. . .  The calculation of societal benefits is based on easily quantifiable elements.

This combination of intensive qualitative and correlated quantitative data gathering seems to make great sense when considering systems for school accountability. Many school systems have been relying primarily on isolated testing data — but why not go straight to the source, and interview the ones we most seek to impact? The students and families and community. And then correlate that with longer-term impacts via “social return on investment”? What are the long term outcomes of students after they graduate?

Raising test scores is wonderful. But enriching one’s community and society over the long-haul is the true goal of education. Developing better combinations of quantitative and qualitative evaluation of our school systems that can help us determine long-term impact is key to not losing sight of that higher purpose.

Leadership does not happen in a vacuum

“Leadership does not happen in a vacuum; leaders are always acting within a larger organizational and social context. A leader who possesses the “right” competencies has no assurance of success; I’ve seen dozens of leaders who were competency tested to extremes, matched to roles, and failed — social context almost always trumps psychological poo-bah when it comes to leadership success. Leadership is messy, it is relational, and it happens in millions of interactions every day around real work. The lesson for leaders? If you want to be a great leader, the “box ticking” approaches your organization takes to develop you aren’t likely to help. You have to understand the social system you’re working in first.”

–What Separates High-Performing Leaders from Average Ones https://hbr.org/2015/11/what-separates-high-performing-leaders-from-average-ones

What Can Schools Learn from Trader Joe’s?

What can schools learn from Trader Joe’s? Check out my post over on The VIVA Project:

“Isn’t this exactly how we would want a child to feel when they walk into a school anywhere in our nation? To feel a warm, caring community that “wraps its arms around you,” where the staff are working in collaborative, “interlocking” positions that they “genuinely enjoy”?”

Let’s Change Mindsets About Both Business and Education

By Dipl.-Päd. Renate Henning (OSTO Systemberatung GmbH) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In his most recent post, Will wrote about how the language we use to discuss education can impact our understanding. He wrote:

I hope that when we talk about schools and ecosystems, we can avoid the practice of using the vague, technocratic jargon of the business world to describe worlds where financial profit should not be the ultimate goal. The problems of schools and ecosystems are the problems of living things. Let’s talk about them in language that illuminates, rather than obscures, the complex and specific worlds that human beings inhabit.

Will raises an important point: schools are social institutions, not ones of profit. And while we must acknowledge and pay close attention to the operational side of running school systems, we must not lose sight of the most important function of education: to cultivate the character and minds of our children. While we can argue that a quality education has a long-run payoff in economic gains for our nation, the functional and everyday purpose of a school is not to profit off our children, but rather to instill and inculcate the values and knowledge we hold critical for citizenship.

When we talk about education, how easy is it to slip into language (I’m frequently guilty of this) of “human capital,” “social capital,” “achievement gains,” or other proxies of the mindset of business? As Will pointed out, this can obscure the complex and alternately beautiful and excruciating human reality that working in a school really requires.

Yet I also believe that schools should not be set so far apart from the realm of business that we can’t establish relevant and necessary connections between them, and that such isolation can even be damaging, given the amount of research and funding that goes into management topics such as leadership, accountability, training, diversity, relationships, and institutional/organizational health. When I was attending The City College of New York to obtain my Master’s in special education, I did a literature review on the topic of self-control, and found it remarkable that some of the most useful research came from outside the realm of education (sports is another area which has a lot to offer).

I also believe that when schools are so isolated from local economies and the realm of business that students graduate from high school with nearly zero skills or knowledge applicable to a career, this is highly problematic and especially damaging to students living in isolated areas with few opportunities.

Speaking of language, there’s also something about the fanatical inveighing against “privatization” and “corporate deformers” in the education sphere that bothers me.  Perhaps because I’ve worked as a manager in both retail and hospitality industries, or perhaps because I think that markets do have a connection to schools, and that we are putting blinders on when we pretend that education can be something wholly pristine and apart from the influence and interaction of markets. It seems to me that the districts that seek to leverage markets to develop better schools, rather than ignore them, are ones more likely to be successful.

But the fact that education systems at the moment are most responsive and beholden to large investments of money from philanthropists and “Silicon Valley investors” also seems extremely problematic, let alone completely unsustainable.

So how to resolve this conundrum? Well, let’s take a closer look at the other side of things first: the realm of the marketplace itself. Is capitalism and entrepreneurship really only about profit? Perhaps we do a disservice to entrepreneurs to reduce their efforts to such banality.

Muhammad Yunus, who has done inspiring work with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and is a proponent of the concept of “social business,” makes the following point in a speech when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. He states that our current conception of capitalism and business:

“originates from the assumption that entrepreneurs are one-dimensional human beings, who are dedicated to one mission in their business lives — to maximize profit. This interpretation of capitalism insulates the entrepreneurs from all political, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental dimensions of their lives. This was done perhaps as a reasonable simplification, but it stripped away the very essentials of human life.

Human beings are a wonderful creation embodied with limitless human qualities and capabilities. Our theoretical constructs should make room for the blossoming of those qualities, not assume them away.

Many of the world’s problems exist because of this restriction on the players of free-market. The world has not resolved the problem of crushing poverty that half of its population suffers. Healthcare remains out of the reach on the majority of the world population. The country with the richest and freest market fails to provide healthcare for one-fifth of its population.

We have remained so impressed by the success of the free-market that we never dared to express any doubt about our basic assumption. To make it worse, we worked extra hard to transform ourselves, as closely as possible, into the one-dimensional human beings as conceptualized in the theory, to allow smooth functioning of the free market mechanism.”

Interesting how Yunus’ sentiment on capitalism so closely parallels Will’s statement on the mindset and language around education!

Perhaps Yunus’ idea of a hybrid “social business” is a potential solution to the conundrum of what the service that a school provides stands in relation to the marketplace. School districts need sustainable funding and investment, but their goal cannot be one of profit. The goal is to provide the highest quality education to all children in that district:

Social business will be a new kind of business introduced in the market place with the objective of making a difference in the world. Investors in the social business could get back their investment, but will not take any dividend from the company. Profit would be ploughed back into the company to expand its outreach and improve the quality of its product or service. A social business will be a non-loss, non-dividend company.

Once social business is recognized in law, many existing companies will come forward to create social businesses in addition to their foundation activities. Many activists from the non-profit sector will also find this an attractive option. Unlike the non-profit sector where one needs to collect donations to keep activities going, a social business will be self-sustaining and create surplus for expansion since it is a non-loss enterprise.”

A school as a social enterprise. Perhaps such a recognition of schools could help break down the unnecessarily ideological and political divides between charters and district schools? This is an interesting realm of hybridization that I’d like to hear about more, rather than the tired old debates between charter and district systems.

How is Carmen Fariña doing from an “Ecosystems” perspective?

Curved arrow

As Carmen Fariña begins her first full school year as NYC chancellor, now is a good time for us to step back and reflect on how Ms. Fariña is doing from a socio-ecological perspective of leadership.

What might such a perspective of leadership entail? Glad you asked! Looking back through common themes we’ve explored on this blog, some relevant criteria that emerge could be as follows:

A leader who recognizes schools as ecosystems . . . 

  • Values inclusion and diversity (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  • Consistently observes local conditions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Plays the long game  (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Models active listening (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Applies intensive management (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Displays a willingness to try different things (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Utilizes the principle of obliquity (1, 2, 3)
  • Sweats the small stuff (1, 2, 3)
  • Demonstrates humility (1, 2)
  • Facilitates the confrontation of the brutal facts (1, 2)

We could keep going deeper into the sort of systems and investments such a leader might make, such as a focus on developing collaborative relationships, building in redundancy and robustness, creating greater optionality, investing in initial conditions, and investing in infrastructure, but just in terms of leadership, I think this provides us with a good start.

So by the aforementioned criteria, how is Carmen Fariña doing as a leader of NYC’s hugely complex school system?

Here’s what Ms. Fariña has done thus far in her tenure as chancellor:

  • Made parental engagement one of her top priorities.
  • Focused on elevating the role of the arts and extracurricular activities in schools.
  • Constantly stepped foot into a variety of schools, focusing on concrete feedback to school leaders, rather than needless politicizing.
  • Removed letter grades from school progress reports, making progress reports based primarily upon quality reviews from actual observation and contextual knowledge, rather than decontextualized data points.
  • Implemented a series of pilots throughout the city to test out new initiatives.
  • Demonstrated a vision for the sustainability of the profession by requiring longevity and experience for leadership roles in schools and districts.
  • 2014-15’s Citywide Instructional Expectations establish a continuum from prior CIE’s, rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Continues to push for the positive intent and implementation of the Common Core.
  • Collaborates deliberately and strategically with the teacher’s union.

In sum, Ms. Fariña is shaping up to demonstrate the qualities of a leader who recognizes schools as complex systems and is able and willing to both intensively manage, while simultaneously maintain flexibility and empathy. Her actions and words thus far align well with the criteria of a leader with a socio-ecological mindset.

There may things going on politically behind the scenes at Tweed I don’t know about, and I may not agree with all of her positions, most especially her obvious coziness with Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project and stress on independent reading. But Fariña’s leadership has palpably shifted the tone in NYC, and I’m excited to see how her initiatives will continue to develop and play out, and hopefully she will continue to provide a positive model to other leaders across the country.

The Traits of Achievement

A provocative opinion piece in the NY Times, “What Drives Success?” by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, suggested this Sunday that cultural traits can provide the impetus for success:

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success.

Reading this, I thought of how this “Triple Package” of traits connects to some of the concepts that Jim Collins articulates in Good to Great (which I’ve discussed here before) for the most successful organizations.

In the framework of concepts that Collin’s lays out in his book,”Confront the Brutal Facts,” “The Hedgehog Concept,” and “A Culture of Discipline” especially resonate with the logic that the authors of the NY Times article present, though I will argue that the term “superiority complex” that Chua and Rubenfeld choose may not be the most useful.

Let’s look a little closer at how these traits of successful organizations and cultures align.

Insecurity and the Brutal Facts

According to Collins, one of the central traits of remarkably successful organizations that have gone from good to great is that they are willing to “confront the brutal facts.” In other words, these organizations create an environment where the truth is able to be heard, even when it might not be something that leaders want to hear. There are mechanisms in place for people to provide honest feedback without fear of reprisal.

This openness to unpleasant news bears some linkage to the trait of insecurity in an individual or culture. When you are insecure, you are sensitive to feedback even from strangers in the street. You dissect run-of-the-mill conversations to determine why your comments didn’t seem to land the way you imagined it would.

Insecurity, as Chua and Rubenfeld suggest, can be pathological in the absence of the other traits of success: “Insecure people feel like they’re never good enough.” But when complemented by other qualities, this sense of never being good enough can turn into a driver of achievement. Insecure cultures, like organizations, tend not to be complacent.

Insecurity, the Superiority Complex, and the Stockdale Paradox

One of the ways that Jim Collins explains how “Level 5 Leaders” manifest the capacity for “confronting the brutal facts” is what he terms the “Stockdale Paradox.” Named after an Admiral who was tortured “over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973,” the paradox delineates that even as you confront the brutal facts of your reality, you must also be able to “retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.”

This paradoxical faith, even when faced with the most daunting of circumstances, parallels the notion of a “superiority complex” that Chua and Rubenfeld refer to. However, I don’t feel that the latter terminology is the most productive. When considered from the vantage of Admiral Jim Stockdale, it wasn’t necessarily a feeling of being better than others that enabled him to survive and thrive in horrific circumstances—it was that he had an unwavering faith that he would prevail. This may seem like equivocation, but I feel there is a subtle distinction between an unearned sense of superiority and a disciplined determination and will. Someone who believes they are superior or exceptional are not likely to confront the brutal facts of their reality for any sustained period of time. Yet someone who believes they will prevail against all odds—even as they confront the brutal reality of their existence—can continue to endure far beyond even their own expectations.

The Hedgehog Concept and the Superiority Complex

Another concept Collins explores in Good to Great that aligns with this unfortunately named “superiority complex” is the “Hedgehog Concept.” A common quality of successful organizations that Collins studied was that they had a strong and clear understanding of what they were best at, and they took action based on this understanding with a relentless focus.

This is again why I think using a term like “superiority complex” is unfortunate. There are certainly people who are masters of their craft who act like they have a superiority complex. Yet if they are truly masters, they most likely have a fairly accurate picture of their weaknesses and strengths in their particular domain. As Annie Murphy Paul writes in “The Myth of Practice Makes Perfect“:

“Deliberate practice,” Ericsson declares sternly, “requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.” Having given us fair warning, he reveals the secret of deliberate practice: relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out. Results are carefully monitored, ideally with the help of a coach or teacher, and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation (Bold added).

Again, we can see the focus on confronting the brutal facts of reality. Someone who does have a superior skill or expertise in a domain has gained that superiority through a relentless focus on their weaknesses.

Similarly, in the top functioning organizations, a Hedgehog Concept is brought into fruition via a commitment to hard work and investment based on the understanding of what it can be best at. Collins writes that “The Hedgehog Concept requires a severe standard of excellence. It’s not just about building on strength and competence, but about understanding what your organization truly has the potential to be the very best at and sticking to it.”

Impulse Control and A Culture of Discipline

A final correlation between Chua and Rubenfeld’s explication of “What Drives Success?” and Collins’ Good to Great is the skill of “impulse control” and “a culture of discipline.” I’m not going to spend much time on this, as I think this one is more self-evident, especially given the increased focus in education and other realms on self-control and grit. Suffice it to say that what ties together a relentless focus on excellence and an uncompromising openness to negative feedback is discipline.

As Collins’ neatly frames it, “A culture of discipline is not just about action. It is about getting disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who then take disciplined action.”

So what drives success?

It’s interesting to compare Chua and Rubenfeld’s cultural traits of success against Collins’ framework of organizational success, because it enables us to recognize that both any given group of people or organization will rise or fall based upon the culture that is established via thoughts and action. Furthermore, the traits and patterns of successful groups and organizations can be studied and emulated.

So the question for your homework this week is: how does a school establish a culture steeped in such traits of success?

Sundry Links On Complexity

Complexity 3
Complexity 3 (Photo credit: michael.heiss)

Just forwarding a few links that build on the idea of coping with complexity, thresholds, emergence, and entropy which I’ve dipped my toe into here on this blog:

 

1) Following a tweet from John Hagel, this post on Forbes entitled Managing Complexity: The Battle Between Emergence and Entropy delineates the management of complexity as a tension between three processes: 1) design process, 2) emergent process, and 3) entropic process.

 

Money quote:

 

The more open the organisation is to external sources of energy, the easier it is to harness the forces of emergence rather than entropy.

2) Following a comment at the bottom of the aforementioned post, here’s another one entitled Managing Complexity, in which the author points out that the management of complexity requires leadership that goes beyond simply being able to execute well, but moreover must be able to develop adaptivity to that which is beyond prediction or control.

 

Money quote:

 

Simply getting a promotion does not make you a manager.  Until you are ready to take responsibility for that which you cannot control, you are just someone with a title, not a leader.

3) Finally, a post from Steven Strogatz, Dangerous Intersection, which I discovered thanks to a newsletter link from Ed Yong, gives a mathematical exposition of how thresholds are crossed and what occurs when the straw that broke the camel’s back is placed.

 

Money quote:

 

.  .  . the stage is set for catastrophe whenever a line intersects a folded curve tangentially.

Sources

 

Birkinshaw, J. (2013). Managing Complexity: The Battle Between Emergence and Entropy, Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/lbsbusinessstrategyreview/2013/11/28/managing-complexity-the-battle-between-emergence-and-entropy/

 

Satell, G. (2013). Managing Complexity, Digital Tonto. Retrieved from http://www.digitaltonto.com/2013/managing-complexity/

 

Strogatz, S. (2013). Dangerous Intersection, NY Times Opinionator. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/08/dangerous-intersection

 

The Principle of Obliquity

Two years ago, an interview with a writer by the name of Steve Denning was posted on Anthony Cody’s blog on Education Week. Denning is a proponent of what he terms “radical” management and leadership, which entails reduced hierarchies and increased flexibility and continuous improvement. In that article, he applied some of these ideas to education.

I can be very critical of ideas that I end up becoming closely aligned with, so it’s funny to go back and read my comment on that post, which you can see here. The reality is that I’ve ended up repeating many similar critiques of the education system and proposing similar solutions. Perhaps I got so scrappy because I saw it as an encroachment on my turf.
In any case, the reason why I bring him up is that he posted an article on Forbes, Can Complexity Thinking Fix Capitalism?, that makes interesting points about how the idea of managing complexity applies to business. 
His ideas about managing complexity parallels the discussions on this blog regarding intensive management of complex systems and the need to view schools as complex systems rather than simple machines:

Yet as the world has become more complex, management thinking is still largely anchored in linear thinking where command and control and linear cause-effect thinking are dominant. Managers have often treated organizations as machines (complicated but predictable) rather than organisms (complex, with limited predictability).

Efforts to impose linear thinking on complex situations have often led have the opposite of what was intended. As a result, the principle of obliquity becomes relevant. Where explicit articulation of a goal will result in the complex environment pushing back in the opposite direction, oblique goals will often be more effective, e.g. the goal of delighting customers may make more money than an explicit goal of making money.

I found his principle of “obliquity” fascinating. It’s something that resonates strongly with me, because one of the key things I took away from my experience as a store manager with Trader Joe’s was just how much the “bottom line” of making money was enhanced when you focus on treating employees and customers well. At the end of the day, Trader Joe’s makes a lot of money. But they do so not by focusing on making as much money as they can, but rather by seeking to provide the best service and products possible.

Though I haven’t termed it “obliquity” until now, I’ve advocated a similar focus for public schools. Rather than focus on the “bottom line” of student test scores, we need to focus on the content taught and the learning environment of the school. And by focusing on those things, test scores will naturally be enhanced.

Education reformers have much to learn from the principle of obliquity. The debacle with Michelle Rhee illustrates this point to a T: a zealous reformer comes in and imposes strict linear thinking on an incredibly complex system; the opposite of what was intended occurred. Rhee would have done better to have had her principals set oblique goals, rather than goals that were explicitly tied to their students performance on tests.