The US education is in crisis. The evidence is well-known and summarized in my post earlier this week.
A root cause of the crisis is the application of the factory model of management to education, where everything is arranged for the scalability and efficiency of “the system”, to which the students, the teachers and the parents have to adjust. “The system” grinds forward, at ever increasing cost and declining efficiency, dispiriting students, teachers and parents alike.
The root cause of the problems: factory model of management
Given that the factory model of management doesn’t work very well in factories any more, or anywhere else in the workplace for that matter, we should hardly be surprised that it doesn’t work well in education either.
Less obvious is what to do about it.
There is a terrible tendency to think: if something is amiss in education, then we need “better management”. Let’s have stronger management. Let’s have tougher management. Let’s have more rigorous standards. Let’s do more testing. Let’s hammer the teachers who don’t perform. Let’s ruthlessly weed out “the dead wood”.
However when the problems have been caused in the first place by introducing the practices of “management”, then a more rigorous pursuit of this kind of “management” will only make things worse.
The five shifts that are needed in education
Just as in reinventing management, where five fundamental and interdependent shifts are needed, so in reinventing education five fundamental and interdependent shifts need to occur:
1. The first shift concerns the goal which has to shift from a focus on the efficiency of “the system” to one of putting students first. This is a shift from running the system for the sake of the system (“You study what we tell you to study, when we tell you, and how we tell you, and at a pace that we determine”) to a focus on the ultimate goal of learning (“Our goal is to inspire our students to become life-long learners with a love of education.”
2. The second shift stems from the first transition, as well as the transition from static knowledge to dynamic knowledge. There was a time not so long ago, when the system told little Freddie what to study and if he mastered that, he was set for life. Today, apart from a few core skills like reading, writing, math, thinking, imagining and creating, we cannot know what knowledge or skills will be needed when young Freddie or tiny Janet grows up.
Hence education has to shift from imparting a static package of knowledge to a dynamic goal of being able to deploy core skills to new situations, whatever they turn out to be. In this world, teaching by transfer of information doesn’t work well. Instead the role of teachers (and parents) becomes one of enabling and inspiring the students to learn, so as to spark the energies and talents of the students.
In this world, the administrators have to realize that managing the teachers through a traditional hierarchy isn’t going to work anymore. The role of the administrator has to shift from being a controller to an enabler, so as to liberate the energies and talents of the teachers and remove impediments that are getting in the way of their work.
Instead of the teacher or the administrator being the judge of progress, there are explicit criteria where both the students and the teachers can understand themselves how they are doing (in real time) and thus learn how to improve.
To support and sustain those two shifts, three other shifts are necessary:
3. The mode of coordination needs to shift from hierarchical bureaucracy to dynamic linking, i.e. to a way of dynamically linking self-driven knowledge work to the shifting requirements of delighting clients. One of the great achievements of the modern firm was disciplined execution with scalability. Very large numbers of people could work together and achieve consistent results. Through the use of detailed plans, rules and processes, management specified both the goal and the methods for achieving that goal; progress was systematically tracked by reports to managers. In a word: bureaucracy. And education has adopted the same approach, which doesn’t work when it comes to dynamic knowledge work where innovation is required.
Instead, what is needed is an approach called “dynamic linking”. It began in automotive design in Japan and has been developed most fully in software development; it has been applied in education in many schools, including hundreds of Montessori schools across the country. It means that (a) the work is done in short cycles; (b) the administration sets the goals of work in the cycle; (c) decisions about how the work is to be carried out to achieve those goals are largely the responsibility of those doing the work; (d) progress is measured by direct feedback at the end of each cycle.
4. There is a shift from value to values; i.e. a shift from a single-minded preoccupation with economic value and maximizing efficiency to one of instilling the values that will create a climate of innovation and enhanced learning over time.
5. Communications shift from command to conversation: i.e. a shift from top-down communications comprising predominantly hierarchical directives to communications made up largely of adult-to-adult conversations that solve problems and generate new insights.
Individually, none of these shifts is new. However when one of these shifts is pursued on its own, without the others, it tends to be unsustainable because it conflicts with the goals, attitudes and practices of traditional management. The five shifts are interdependent.
The StudentsFirst.org movement
Against this background, it was heartening to learn of the StudentsFirst.org movement launched this week by Michell Rhee. According to its website, its mission is:
Our mission is to build a national movement to defend the interests of children in public education and pursue transformative reform, so that America has the best education system in the world.
America's schools are failing our kids. On this point, the data is clear. While some people blame the kids, or simply want to throw more money at the problem, we know that real change requires a better system — one that puts students' needs before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies.
To succeed in our mission, we're working with parents, teachers, administrators, and citizens across the country to ensure great teachers, access to great schools, and effective use of public dollars. Together, we'll demand that legislators, courts, district administrators, and school boards create and enforce policies that put students first. We'll make sure politicians and administrators recognize and reward excellent teachers, give novice teachers the training they need, and quickly improve or remove ineffective educators. We'll work to ensure that every family has a number of options for excellent schools to attend, so that getting into a great school becomes a matter of fact, not luck. And we'll make sure all Americans understand that our schools are not only an anchor for our communities, but an absolute gateway to our national prosperity and competitive standing in the world economy.
Certainly, the goal is right—putting the interests of students first, ahead of the wasteful bureaucracies and special interests.
But getting the goal right is only one of the five shifts that are needed. Unless it is accompanied by the other four shifts, even the best intentions will not succeed. Inexorably, the traditional managerial practices of hierarchy and bureaucracy will seep back into the system, once again dispiriting students, teachers, parents and administrators alike.
If on the other hand the leaders of the new movement learn from what has been learned elsewhere in the workplace as to how to generate continuous improvement and innovation, and implement the five shifts simultaneously, then we have a chance for education in this country to attain unprecedented levels of achievement.
To learn more about the ongoing reinvention of management, read my earlier blog post on the reinvention of management or read The Power of Pull by John Hagel, John Seely Brown & Lang Davison, or my new book, The Leader's Guide to Radical Management.