Lessons for Chicago from the Labor Wars of the Industrial Era

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.

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3 Responses to Lessons for Chicago from the Labor Wars of the Industrial Era

  1. Pingback: Advice for Chicago: Industrial History Shows Value of Collaboration « Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. Thank you. As a businessperson who is also a public school parent and fierce advocate of public education, I grow tired of the anti-business, anti-corporate rhetoric that is too often used by other public school advocates. Imagine what would happen if every school district in America began to collaborate with their local businesses — and I’m not just talking about monetary donations. I’m talking about businesses giving employees time off during the work day to go to the closest public school to be tutors, bus monitors, or library assistants, while local schools make a concentrated effort to reach out to these businesses, tell them “WE NEED YOUR HELP” and “IT REALLY DOES TAKES A VILLAGE”, and invite them onto their campuses. The possibilities are endless. This is happening in some areas, but not enough — especially in our inner cities.

  3. Don LaCombe says:

    I am currently reading Thomas Sowell’s Inside American Education and although it was written in the 90’s it seems to be dead-on in the area of what is being taught or more appropriately what the teachers are being forced to teach and the percentage of core (reading, writing and arithmetic) vs non-core (social aspects).
    I do agree with your approach and the application of Deming principals in education. What Deming proposed to the Japanese was a way to use statistics to help industry make decisions about processes and products-something they really needed. What the Japanese did that made them so successful was to package these techniques in a way that provided the worker with a method to improve things themselves. I think one element lacking in the teaching curricula is a way for teachers to analyze their own performance and verify whether what they are doing to improve is actually working. I sincerely doubt that very many teachers come into the classroom with the idea of “how can I screw these kids lives up today.” One of the barriers to the use of statistical methodology is the potential for administrators to use this data for punishment. My experience in industry was that once data is used punitively you will no longer get good data. For this reason it is important that the teacher have control of this data not administrators.

    The other side is “the system must be managed.” My experience here is that superintendents and principals are very poor in effective management skills. They seem to see their job as keeping keeping parents quiet which often means shuffling teachers around to appease demands instead of solving actual issues. Most teachers that I know don’t feel that their administrators will try very hard to protect them from unreasonable parents. You are correct in the assumption that the “system” cannot be improved without mutual trust. It would be interesting to find out how many superintendents actually spend time with their teachers in a classroom to see what the teachers are facing? I have also found it interesting that superintendents are almost always PHDs which generally means they have the least classroom experience in the school!

    You cannot blame teachers for a bad system. As Deming so frequently stated: “Only management has the ability to change the system” and the vast majority of the issues are systemic. The quote you used in a previous blog said it best: “you either hired the wrong people or hired the right ones and screwed them up.”

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