Friday, February 11, 2011


I was reading Mark's post today on principals and I thought it was interesting to see that Dean Dad has a post from the other side of the fence today as well. Some of the points in the Dead Dad post are extremely insightful. Consider the following question:

I’ll answer the question with another question. Good, strong, solid, peer-reviewed scientific data has made it abundantly clear that poor eating habits lead to obesity and all manner of negative health outcomes. There’s no serious dispute that obesity is a major public health issue in the US. And yet people still overeat. Despite reams of publicity and even Presidential support for good eating and exercise habits, obesity continues to increase. Why?

In other words, reform is hard to do even when you know where you want to go. In cases where the evidence is weak or where budgets are falling, the problem gets even worse. And, of course, right now we are experiencing a fall in most education budgets in the United States.

However, it was interesting how Dead Dad was unable to resist worrying about tenure as a barrier to reform:

There’s also a fundamental issue of control. Faculties as a group are intensely protective of their absolute control of the classroom. Many hold on to the premodern notion of teaching as a craft, to be practiced and judged solely by members the guild. As with the sabermetric revolution in baseball, old habits die hard, even when the evidence against them is clear and compelling. There’s a real fear among many faculty that moving from “because I say so” to “what the numbers say” will reduce their authority, and in a certain sense, that’s true. In my estimation, this is at the root of much of the resentment against outcomes assessment.

Even where there’s a will, sometimes there just isn’t the time. It’s one thing to reinvent your teaching when you have one class or even two; it’s quite another with five. And when so many of your professors divide their time among different employers, even getting folks into the same room for workshops is a logistical challenge.

Of course, accountability matters. Longtime readers know my position on the tenure system, so I won’t beat that horse again, but it’s an uphill battle to sell disruptive change when people have the option of saying ‘no’ without consequence. The enemy isn’t really direct opposition; it’s foot-dragging.

I think that this line of thinking may also be part of why there is such a huge push for reform of teacher job security. Administrators are under enormous pressure to reform the education system and teachers may be very resistant.

Of course, one element that may be left out is that the teachers may be resistant to change for good reasons. When you have been in an organization long enough, you realize that a lot of reform can be about trying "old ideas all over again". These reforms can be both time consuming and ineffective. They may even lower outcomes due to the friction of implementation.

Let us consider a business analogy. One way that corporations tried to handle bad outcomes is a series of "re-orgs". These changes in structure have two good properties. One, the people in charge seems to be doing something to address issues by making changes. Two, a series of re-organizations can make it very hard to track a long term pattern of bad management as units break apart too often for performance to be easily tracked.

The ability of tenured people to resist cosmetic reforms is, obviously very frustrating to administrators who have little ability to influence the organization but seemingly unlimited accountability. However, endless re-organizations did not, in the end, help corporations like General Motors. Instead, they may well have accelerated the decline by focusing on making changes that were more cosmetic than effective. So do we really need to import the worst practices of modern corporations into the educational system?

[This post is also relevant -- Mark]

1 comment:

  1. The point about cosmetic reforms is particularly important here. Management by fad can do a lot of damage to any institution.