Back in the 1970s, American industry knew just what was wrong with American industry: Recalcitrant workers and high wages, which made products made in the U.S.A uncompetitive with Japanese imports. The result, especially in Detroit and the U.S. auto industry, was a pitched battle between unions and management. Roger Smith, GM’s former CEO, even invested billions in futuristic robotics that he hoped would one day replace those pesky workers.
GM’s robotics strategy was a bust. And by the early 1980s, the first time Chrysler needed a bailout and GM was virtually on the brink of bankruptcy, it began to dawn on auto executives and the rest of American industry that the problem in Detroit and elsewhere wasn’t the worker, but management.
When it comes to education reform, Chicago and the rest of the country is replaying the divisive labor wars of a bygone era. As Joe Nocera wrote in his column yesterday:
It’s a little like the battles in the 1970s and 1980s between unions and industry, the two sides fighting each other so fiercely that neither noticed that imports were on the rise and globalization was making their squabbles irrelevant.
By framing the teacher’s strike as a zero-sum game, both sides are missing the opportunity to improve schools via much-needed cooperation. For example, the best examples of public-school reform—think Brockton High in Massachusetts—couldn’t have happened without strong leadership. Principals need more control over their schools and whom they hire; but even in highly unionized states like Massachusetts, Brockton’s principal Susan Szachowicz had ways of sidelining the relatively few recalcitrant teachers who stood in the way of a school-wide effort to turnaround the state’s largest high school.
This brings us to the wrong-headed hullabaloo over evaluations, which focuses on using punitive evaluations to get rid of the relatively few bad apples. This represents a huge lost opportunity as experts in both education and industry understand that the real benefit of evaluations is when they are used as a tool for improving the performance of the vast majority of teachers and the system as a whole. At the root of the respected Kim Marshall method of mini-observations for teachers as well as the Toyota production system is the realization that constant monitoring of processes by both employees and supervisors—whether in the classroom or on the factory floor—is the best route to improvement.
Marshall notes that when he was a principal in Massachusetts, which had “no-nonsense union leadership,” he was able to win agreement for rolling mini-observations into the official year-end evaluations. “In other words, we dispensed with the dog-and-pony show. This happened because there was plenty of honest feedback during the year—and trust.”
A recent study by Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, confirms that trust and collaboration are, indeed, key. The study, “Collaborating on School Reform”, shows that contrary to popular practice and the dictates of many corporate education reformers, the secret to long-term improvement for teachers, schools and students is “substantive collaboration” at all levels — from the classroom to administration to unions. Developing quality teachers, says Saul Rubinstein, an associate professor at Rutgers and one of the authors of the study is about “mentoring, sharing instructional practice, collaborating.”
The U.S. auto industry got its wake-up call in 1980 when NBC aired a documentary: “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” The unlikely hero of the story was W. Edwards Deming, a statistician from Wyoming, who had convinced the Japanese that quality was best achieved via a collaborative culture and a disciplined approach to process improvement.
What’s missing in Chicago and elsewhere in the nation is trust and a commitment to collaborative improvement. A first step would be to end divisive yo’fault teacher bashing.