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Christopher Scott Headshot

Reforming Education Reform -- Teaching in the Broken System

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On Oct. 7, The Washington Post published an op-ed piece titled "How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders." The piece was written by a host of reform-oriented school superintendents.

I always find these types of manifestos fascinating. Like so many, this manifesto completely lacks any real data to back up its ideology. Its appeal is only at the emotional level: our education systems are failing because teachers are failing our kids. Unions are blocking true reform by standing up for failing teachers. Teachers must be held accountable.

Other than the last statement, I can tell you the rest is hogwash. As a systems engineer, I tell you that our system, not its teachers, is failing.

Let's pretend for a moment. You are in charge of a company that makes circuit boards. Quality control is very important to your business because, when a circuit board fails, someone is left on the side of the road with a car that will not run. Your manufacturing goal is that only 5 percent of all circuit boards manufactured are found to be defective as part of your company's quality assurance program at the end of manufacturing. (The numbers I will use are for convenience only.)

However, during your quality assurance process, 10 percent of your circuit boards are found to have defects. This tuns out to cost your company roughly $800,000 per month when the defective circuit boards are put aside and recycled. The other 90 percent are shipped to Volkswagen.

This rate of failure should trouble you. You'd like to meet your quality goals and, therefore, improve your bottom line. The $400,000 being lost per month because the quality metric is not being met could be poured back into further improving the system. So, you begin to investigate what's happening during manufacturing.

You have 20 employees working on the line. As you begin to investigate, you soon find that a large percentage of the defective boards are being "touched" by the same three employees. Further investigation shows these three employees are not following the manufacturing standards established by your quality control officer. You fire all three employees, and the rate of defective circuit boards drops from 10% to 6%. By getting rid of 3 out of the 25 workers associated with the production process you significantly reduced your rate of product defects, saving $320,000 per month.

This story is more than a simplified MBA case study, it is a classic example of systems engineering and management. As a management consultant who specializes in systems, I would tell you the system appears to be working based on the quality parameters you have established for your product. Your goal of having 95% of all circuit boards pass quality control checks is nearly being met. I would encourage you to focus on tweaking the system to achieve the company's goal and then surpass it.

If, however, 60 percent of your circuit boards were failing quality assurance testing, I would tell you the system governing your manufacturing process is defective. The system needs to be redesigned and/or re-engineered. Three of your employees may not be following the manufacturing standards you've established -- but your problems are far bigger than that. Of course, you could fire the whole production line, but because the system is defective, the new members of the production line will likely fail at about the same rate as the old members.

Despite the fact that firing the whole production line is unlikely to improve performance, blaming the employees is just what most businesses do. Why? In my experience, blaming people at the ground level is easy. It costs no political capital and replacing ground-level employees is cheaper than re-engineering an entire system. It also does a wonderful job of deflecting responsibility away from the business manager or owner, who likely oversaw design and implementation of the defective system.

Welcome to teaching in America's education system today.

Reformers like to talk about bringing business philosophies to education. Business will cure our education system's ills, they like to say. I believe this to be partially true -- good business practices could do much to improve our education systems. However, we seem to have brought the worst of business into education and left the good parts -- the rational parts -- on the doorstep of many of our district administration buildings.

The education leaders of today seem to be trying to reform our education systems based on ideology rather than data-driven decision making. School districts tell their constituents that teachers are failing and that charter schools will fix the problem because charter schools can fire teachers, which can't be done in traditional public schools because teachers unions stand in the way. Teacher performance must be measured using standardized testing of students, and we must fire teachers who are not performing. That is the standard urban school district reform plan.

Employee performance is undoubtedly a significant management issue in any business. It is not incorrect for school districts to insist that its employees perform at a consistently high level. Jack Welsh, the onetime CEO of General Electric, recognized this, and approached managing employee performance in an interesting way. Welsh believed that employees who were the business's top performers (the top 10 percent) really took care of themselves -- they performed under almost any condition. The bottom 10 percent were likely hopeless, so they should probably be gotten rid of. Jack Welsh knew the performance battle was fought in the middle.

How does that battle get fought, though? Well, MBA 101 tells us a lot about the answer to that question.

To be successful, an enterprise must be managed, and managing human capital is only one part of the job. Human capital has a very low value when the systems of the enterprise are being mismanaged or are in disarray. I argue that this is the case in our education systems and that clear reasons exist for the current conditions for our school districts.

  • Little to no business planning occurs in our school districts or in association with our reform efforts. Many school districts have a reform "plan," but the basic metrics for evaluating progress against the plan and reform milestones are not defined in measurable ways. Plans are then implemented without appropriate feedback to inform evaluation of a plan's success or failure. Further, most reform plans do not describe the indicators to be used to determine if a plan is failing and, thus, a new plan needs to be developed.

  • Our school districts too frequently fail to look at their systems holistically. They fail to see how the many systems in the enterprise work together as one big system.

  • When performing enterprise planning, too many districts leave principals and teachers on the sidelines. This seems to go along with our misguided belief that managers should know "best" because they are, presumably, better educated and typically make more money. Too often we assume that "upper management" is responsible for enterprise planning, but nothing could be further from the truth.

    Two reasons predominate my thinking on this: (1) the Deming effect, which says in a nutshell, if you want to make a better car, ask the guy on the assembly line how to do it, and (2) if the ground level workers have not bought off on the plan, the plan has no chance of success. The easiest way to create consent for a plan is to ensure participation in the planning process and this participation benefits the plan as a whole.

  • Unlike healthy businesses which have a successful plan for staffing the enterprise, school districts in the midst of "reform" frequently have a plan built on the belief that young teachers are better teachers. In most successful businesses, however, a recognition exists that youth and enthusiasm have to be paired with experience and caution.

    It is true that young employees bring energy to any business and this energy is vital. Without experience around them, however, the young are doomed to struggle with many of the same obstacles and make the same mistakes as the generation of workers who preceded them. Of course, young workers are typically cheaper than experienced workers. Operating a business based on hiring and employing the lowest-cost worker, however, usually results in substandard products. The same is true in education.

  • Leaders must have room to maneuver in the enterprise. Education reformers say they want leaders in our school buildings, but these same reformers don't seem to understand what this means. First, leaders must be empowered to make decisions and take risks. Second, leaders must be allowed to ask the hard questions and speak truth to authority without fear of undue retribution. Last, and most importantly, the organization must recognize that leaders are difficult to "manage." Leaders are always looking for ways to do things better, have a deep connection to those who surround them, are not afraid to speak their minds, and usually want to do what's right for the customer. Managers, even the good ones, are very different from leaders.

Without these elements, systems usually fail, frequently catastrophically. Education is no different and is doing just that -- failing catastrophically. That failure cannot be blamed solely on teachers. In fact, teachers may not have that much to do with the system's failure overall. What employee performance data tells us is that Jack Welsh was essentially correct: employee performance is governed by the 10-80-10 rule. Undoubtedly, some teachers are failing. Just as undoubtedly, some teachers are excelling. The rest are in the middle of the performance curve and are capable of performing in the system if it were operating appropriately.

Our education system's products fail basic quality control checks time and again. Here in the Denver Public School System, 50 percent of our students graduate from high school. Four percent of ninth grade Latino students get a college degree within 6 years of high school graduation. These are catastrophic system failures, failures that cannot be fixed by blaming teachers or even replacing all the teachers in the system. The failure of this system cannot be blamed on the teachers union, and it cannot be blamed on principals. Only the system in which teacher and principals work can be blamed given the rate of failure. Moreover, the system can only be fixed using sound planning, implementation and evaluation practices, which are among the "best business practices" education should have inherited by bringing business leaders to education.

Instead, education got the worst practice of business, blaming the guy whose job it is to assemble a better student using the output of a highly flawed system and allowing the flawed system to continue to function unchanged. This is something to think about while you wait for superman. In fact, the whole concept of assembly should cause chills to run down your spine.