The Management Issue

When Joel Klein was named Chancellor of NYC Schools in 2002, he was touted for his management ability.  He has been described as a “transformational leader” and was always hailed as a strong manager who would reform education in the city with a shift to a more corporate-style culture and environment.  Now, his replacement is also being boasted about for her management acumen.  This is apparently what qualifies her to lead the nation’s largest school district, despite her lack of qualifications and experience.

I differ from many in the Real Education Reform blogging movement (need a better name for this…I’ll work on it) in that I don’t have a problem with this line of reasoning.  The Department of Education in NYC is a huge bureaucracy, and simply operating an organization of this size is a challenge.  I’ve spent some time in Tweed, the DOE headquarters since Klein took over, and there is a meaningful culture of results here.  I imagine this took some doing, and it is clearly an office which is well-managed.

Of course, Tweed houses a tiny minority of the district’s employees, most of which work in schools.  There are other important constituencies of the DOE, most importantly children and families.  When you consider the question of management, each of these groups need to be considered.  A major element of quality management is satisfying customers/clients as well as keeping employees happy.  Management, in essence, is an exercise in motivating people to work hard in pursuit of a common goal or interest.  Here, teachers have a ton of control over the end goal, which is educating children for life as democratic citizens (imho!).  Education IS about skill and knowledge development, too.  The late Ted Sizer, a truly excellent leader and educator who created the Coalition of Essential Schools, identified three goals of education: literacy, numeracy, and civic understanding.

Everyone who is employed by NYC schools works in pursuit of some version of these goals, teachers included.  There are more goals, which we can and should discuss, but that’s another post.  To achieve these goals, teachers have a ton of responsibility and control.  Keeping them motivated and working hard is a serious management challenge.  This is where Joel Klein failed.  He wasn’t interested in meaningfully communicating with teachers, and that shows in his widespread unpopularity–some are saying his decision to move to the private sector was motivated in part by Bloomberg’s disappointment with Klein’s lack of popularity.  There is significant evidence of Klein’s disdain for the opinions of teachers: this is most obviously manifested in the growing import of numbers and data, which inherently devalue teacher and school professional expertise.

Parents also disliked Klein, which you can see from his low poll numbers (hovering at 39% approval as of February), which made him the least popular government official in New York City.  This is another failure of management.  When your inability to effectively communicate and deal with constituents gets in the way of policy reforms, as happened with the school closing plan that the NAACP & union halted, you are not managing things well.  Cathie Black’s tenure will be a failure if she does not improve relations between the Chancellor’s office and parents, teachers and the communities of the city.  This is something unique to public administration; the public never had a say during Ms. Black’s time as a magazine executive, except in their power as consumers.  As a result, poor people (like, I dunno, teachers…maybe public school parents, too…) have a diminished voice, but not so in the public schools.  In fact, wealthier families, Ms. Black’s included, often send their children to private schools.  The public schools are disproportionately occupied by students and adults with lower socioeconomic status, and this is a demographic Klein was unfamiliar with, as is Black.

So, I accept that being an effective manager is a valid consideration when choosing a leader of the school system.  I just define effectiveness differently than the Mayor and others in his camp.  I don’t think pissing off teachers is a good management technique, and I’m certain it doesn’t improve outcomes for students.  Alienating parents, likewise, is a lousy idea if you want to engage them constructively in their children’s education.

This is something that Arne Duncan and Bill Gates also fail to realize.  It’s pretty simple though: for a low-performing school to turn around, teachers have to be empowered, not disrespected.  Individualized instruction has proven to be effective in improving student outcomes, especially with at-risk populations, and this is only truly possible when teachers are in control and, crucially, when class sizes are small.  And let’s get this out of the way: the size of classes matters, and small classes are best for kids.  The evidence is there, and ignoring it doesn’t help anybody.

What does effective school district management look like?  I think of the style employed by Debbie Meier at her schools.  Having had the pleasure of meeting Deb and working with a few folks who have spent lots of time with her, I see that she values discussion and dialog when forming policy and making decisions.  Her schools also value each member of the group, including students, parents and teachers.  To learn more about her approach to education, take a look at this website, which offers links to a few videos focused on Central Park East Secondary School.

When teachers are trusted and empowered to get to know kids and work with them in great depth, outcomes improve.  The kids from this school graduate well-prepared for whatever comes next.  AND! teachers work in a place that they like and feel ownership of.  I firmly believe that if these simple practices were scaled up to district level, and if this style of leadership were expanded, education would improve.  So, at the end of the day, I believe that good management is important in running a school or school district, but I also think that good management consists of working constructively and maintaining a positive relationship with all of the people with whom you interact professionally, but especially those working for you.

This post is part of the National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform (PDF).

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