The (Management) Education of a Charter School Leader

This week, Deborah Kenny, the founder of the Harlem Village Academies charter schools in New York City, wrote an impassioned argument against government-mandated individual teacher evaluations. Kenny, who draws at least some of her inspiration from management gurus such as Peter F. Drucker, and ideas such as kaizen, the Japanese business improvement philosophy, describes the culture of trust that is necessary for schools to be effective:

Principals need to create a culture of trust, teamwork and candid feedback that is essential to running an excellent school. Leadership is about hiring great people and empowering them, and requires a delicate balance of evaluation and encouragement.

Where Kenny errs is in the assumptions she makes about what schools can, and cannot learn, from the way businesses use employee evaluation and ratings systems. The problem with “new government proposals for evaluating teachers, with their checklists, rankings and ratings,” writes Kenny, is that “successful companies do not publicly rate thousands of employees from a central office database; they don’t use systems to take the place of human judgment. They trust their managers to nurture and build great teams, then hold the managers accountable for results.”

In this, Kenny couldn’t be more mistaken both on the details of how many leading companies evaluate their employees or on the lessons that schools can learn from businesses. Indeed, Kenny’s assumption is that if only schools would follow the lead of “successful companies” they too would succeed. She couldn’t be further from the truth.

The truth is that successful companies often succeed despite awful employee evaluation systems. Moreover, companies, which define their primary mission as making money for shareholders by tailoring products to select customers, have very different cultures from schools, which aim—or should aim—to nurture and educate all young people who come through their doors. And culture is key to managing employees.

Several years ago, one of the best companies, IBM, developed a dreadful evaluation system—one that highlights the problem with many employee rating schemes that seek to reward high-performers and to punish laggards. At the time, IBM instituted a forced-ranking scheme that required all supervisors to identify and reward the “top” 10 percent of its employees and to give the “bottom” 10 percent a failing grade and just three months to improve their performance or be fired. It was no coincidence that the system was instituted during an economic downturn, and was widely seen as a way to get rid of employees without violating the company’s no-layoff pledge. (IBM’s bell curve violated—as it usually does—basic statistical rules: Bell curves only work when they are applied to large random samples—not to relatively small, carefully selected groups of employees.) Some IBM supervisors got around the problem by creating a “designated dummy” system, by which employees took turns getting a low ranking during performance reviews. Following an employee revolt, Big Blue eventually modified its forced-ranking system, but remained wedded to individualized pay and rankings.

The absurdity of IBM’s ranking scheme was made only starker by the fact that it was instituted even as the company was marketing its employee-hiring and -training expertise to outside companies.

The push for fine-grained rankings derives from a misguided belief that the path to organizational success is in identifying star performers with high ratings (and more pay) and punishing laggards with low ratings (and less pay or dismissal). The biggest problem with this approach is that rating schemes frequently undermine efforts to help employees improve. They are often perceived as unfair. And pitting employees against each other erodes teamwork.

Of course, the quest for the perfect employee evaluation system, has been fueled a multi-billion dollar consulting industry. Even Peter Drucker, the respected management guru, may have been too close to the CEOs he consulted with, especially GE’s Jack Welch who embraced forced rankings a la IBM, to ever distance himself from the practice.

Jack Welch, GE’s former CEO, was also known as Neutron Jack

The most misguided consequence of such rating schemes—in both business and education—is that they focus attention on weeding out “poor performers,” a very small minority of employees, rather than on improving the vast majority of at-least competent employees. Ask even the most hawkish education reformers what percentage of their employees are “poor performers,” and the estimates range from 2 to 8 percent. Paul Vallas, Bridgeport’s controversial superintendent,  in a recent interview conceded that “The vast majority” of teachers “are excellent when provided with the curriculum, instructional models and supports.”

A small, but influential group of companies and management thinkers have long recognized the limitations of focusing on individual performance, in lieu of team work and system-wide improvement. Kenny herself, in her new book Born to Rise, pays tribute to the influence of David Kearns at Xerox, who appreciated the importance of teams and systems, and to the concept of kaizen, which was developed by Toyota Motor Co. as a holistic bottoms-up way to continuously improve production systems.

Both Toyota and Xerox under Kearns were highly influenced by the work of W. Edwards Deming, a leading proponent of a systems approach to management, who argued that in the best organizations—and presumably IBM was one—the average performance of employees will be high, and there will be much fewer outliers on the high and low ends than at most companies. If management does its job right, Deming argued, most employees will be relatively high performers. Or, as Deming also aptly put it: The only reason for having deadwood is if management hired dead wood or if it hired live wood and killed it.

Deming also warned against an over reliance on end-of-the-line inspections, the factory equivalent of the testing regimes imposed by NCLB and Race-to-the-Top.

Kenny quite rightly argues that education must be a system for developing people—both students and teachers. “Teachers who were underperforming in their old schools become rock stars in a positive culture,” she writes in another article in the Wall Street Journal, and suggests that “teachers stuck in schools that don’t have the right to hire by performance” are doomed.

But she is mistaken in implying that the hard work of systems improvement and cultural transformation can only happen in nonunionized environments. Indeed, the concepts of kaizen were quite successfully implemented at leading U.S. automakers, including Ford, in the early 1980s, as an answer to the industry’s competitiveness crisis; when those efforts unraveled after a few short years, it had more to do with the top-down bottom-line driven policies of CEOs like Ford’s Jacques Nasser than it did with resistance from union workers who had been thrilled by the opportunity to make substantive contributions to product improvement.

In schools, as in the auto industry, the best principals know that improving the system and the performance of all employees is the key to better outcomes for kids. And achieving continuous improvement is more a function of leadership and culture than the influence of union contracts.

Indeed, one of the most proven, and enduring, examples of continuous improvement is at Brockton High, the largest public high school in Massachusetts, where teamwork and a decade-old teacher-led literacy strategy have once again improved academic achievement. On the latest Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test scores, for spring 2012, 88 percent of Brockton’s students scored in the top two of four categories–proficient or advanced—in ELA (up 10 points from last year), while 77 percent scored in the top two categories–proficient or advanced–in math (up 13 points from 2011. Only 2 percent of Brockton students—18 kids—failed.

Susan Szachowicz, the principal of Brockton High, at a Saturday morning literacy strategy session with her teachers

Like Kinny, Brockton’s long-time principal, Susan Szachowicz, a one-time social studies teacher, knows how important teachers are to Brockton’s success. Back in the 1990s, when Brockton was a failing school, it was Szachowicz and a grass-roots teacher-led effort to turn around the school that finally made the difference.

Kinny and Szachowicz each make a compelling case for strong leadership and a culture of teacher-led system-wide improvement. But the case has little to do with whether schools are charters or traditional publics.

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2 Responses to The (Management) Education of a Charter School Leader

  1. Gail says:

    One troubling thing about Kenny is the gulf between the wonderful things she says and what seems to be the practice at her schools. While she speaks often of building a culture of trust and teamwork, the community she has created seems highly unstable. According to state education department figures, the teacher turnover rate for Harlem Village in 2010-2011 was about 60 percent; at Harlem Village Academy Leadership it was 26 percent in ’09-10. The schools also have been criticized for pushing students out — a charge they deny. The number of students in each cohort seems to shrink, though, as students advance, and suspension rates also are high — 38 percent at Harlem Village in 2010-11 and 50 percent at Leadership.

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