Monday, March 10, 2014

Public Education Meets Carrot and Stick: Kids Lose

The only advantage I can imagine to being stuck on the tarmack for 2 hours at Austin-Bergstrom Airport last week while the plane was being de-iced was that I got time to read Greg Anrig's excellent book, Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence that Collaboration Builds Effective Schools, which  has been sitting on my Kindle for a few months now. Anrig, is vice president, programs, at The Century Foundation, author of several books and a former journalist.

Anrig's book begins with a brief history of management theory, focusing on two dominant theories put forward by Frederick Winslow Taylor and W. Edwards Deming. Taylor's thoeries eminated from the idea that workers could not be trusted and so he designed a management style based on punishment and reward. Taylor determined how much a worker should be producing and set workers goals accordingly and then tied their pay to productivity. Modern exemplars of the Taylor approach are bill collecting agencies, customer service call centers and national retail chains (Walmart?).

Decades later, Deming, working in Japan after World War II, argued that long term business success required constant incremental progress, the kind that required workers and management to be deeply engaged in sharing information and ideas with each other. Modern day exemplars of the Deming model include Toyota, Sony, Southwest Airlines and Kaiser Permanente.

Clearly, as Anrig points out, the national political debate over education reform has been driven by the Taylor model of management. There is a direct line from the Taylor model to such reformy ideas as merit pay, standardized testing and tying teacher evaluations to test scores. In other words, education reformers have embraced Taylor's carrot and sticks management style of education that failed the American auto and steel industries and that is currently used for only the most low levels of employment.

Anrig shows that there is ample evidence that this carrot and stick method will not work in schools and plenty of evidence that a more collaborative approach, such as that endorsed by Deming, and used by many of the most successful corporations in the world, is a better way to go.

Anrig cites solid research reports starting in 1990 that support the concept of a collaborative design for school improvement. These studies include those done by the Consortium for Chicago Social Research, The National Center for Educational Achievement and Century Foundation fellow Gordon MacInnes all of which come down to two key findings, strong leadership matters and a strong culture of collaboration between teachers and school leadership matters most of all.

The studies found that change is slow and incremental, but it can be successful in any setting, including in high poverty areas, although change is even more challenging there.

Education reformers do not trust teachers. Because they do not trust teachers, just as Taylor did not trust industrial workers long ago, reformers put forward management plans that seek to control workers, rather than engage professionals in systematic improvement. Education reformers wish to motivate change with the carrot of merit pay and the stick of the highly flawed Value Added Measures (VAMs) tying teacher evaluation to student scores on standardized tests.

We know, and Anrig's book very persuasvley lays out, what works. Collaboration works. Teachers and principals working together to improve schools works. Having teachers compete for merit pay through flawed VAMs, not only will not work, but it will destroy the very collaboration that is so necessary for a highly functioning school culture.

We want teachers working together to share instructional ideas, to puzzle out solutions to persistent problems, to design authentic assessments for students. The concept of the professional learning community, where teachers meet to share ideas and solve problems holds great promise for the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. The test and punish model of the corporate education reformers will inevitably kill collegiality and cooperation and, ultimately, public education.

Concerted group action is the enemy of corporate education reform movement. That is why the reformers demonize teacher unions and support policies that will turn teacher against teacher. By driving a wedge through the profession, the education reformers hope to destroy public education and turn it to a for profit enterprise run like a widget factory. This is one way to distract the public from the real issue facing school improvement - poverty. And poverty is one thing the corporate education reformers do not want to touch. Really dealing with poverty would upset the status quo that is paying off so handsomely for the 1%.

In these times, it is more important than ever for teachers to stick together, not only in the sense of unions, but also in the sense of building and maintaining the kind of collegial culture in the every school  that reasearch has shown is the one true way to effect continuous improvement.

Reading Anrig's book will help arm all in the profession against the false narrative of the corporate education reform movement.

Anrig, Greg. (2013) Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence that Collaboration Builds Effective Schools. New York: The Century Foundation Press.

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