The Chicago teachers’ strike, which is now entering its second week, represents more than a simple dispute about pay and benefits, as many observers have noted. It’s more like a gauntlet thrown down against the entire education reform agenda—the broad centrist policy movement that seeks to bring merit pay, metrics, pink slips for underperformance, and other business school concepts to the American schoolhouse. Indeed, one of the main sticking points in the dispute is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s desire to tie a substantial part of teachers’ professional evaluations—as much as 40 percent—to their students’ performance on standardized tests.
The debate between education reformers and their opponents is often painted as a battle between hard-headed proponents of business rationality on one side, and entrenched, complacent, soft-headed teachers on the other. Much of the discussion of the strike has followed this pattern. “They don’t have the sword of Damocles hanging over them,” wrote David Brooks in his New York Times column about the striking teachers, comparing them to businesspeople honed by accountability mechanisms and competition. “Rigorous teacher evaluations will give reformers a profound measuring tool.”
In reality, though, it’s important to realize that the education reform agenda represents one particular school of business management thinking—one that, even on its own productivity-oriented terms, has a dubious track record. Indeed, some of the highest-performing firms in modern history have espoused a management philosophy that is diametrically opposed to the carrot-and-stick approach being pushed onto the education system. What’s more, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that this alternate management approach—which emphasizes collaboration, information-sharing, and the use of metrics as diagnostic tools instead of accountability cudgels—also lies behind some of the highest performing schools in America.
To understand the divergence between these two schools of management thinking, it helps to begin by looking back, of all places, to Progressive-era America. In the early days of the 20th century, an engineer by the name of Frederick Winslow Taylor revolutionized the world of industrial work in the United States—beginning from a standpoint of distrusting workers. “Hardly a competent workman can be found,” Taylor said, “who does not devote a considerable amount of time to studying just how slowly he can work and still convince his employer that he is going at a good pace.”
Taylor's approach to fixing this problem relied heavily on metrics—by way of a stopwatch and a slide rule—as a means to evaluate the performance of workers and to precisely define for them how they should best do their job. His system of “scientific management” focused on making each employee function as efficiently as possible in performing repetitive tasks, in part by tying pay to individual productivity.
For his efforts, Taylor was revered by the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and ranked alongside Darwin and Freud as a father of modernity by business guru Peter Drucker. He played a major role in the invention of both the modern business school and the profession of management consulting. He is also regarded by many as something of a fraud.
Decades later, another American consultant—a plainspoken Iowan named W. Edwards Deming—made his way to Japan after World War II to help rebuild the country’s industrial base. He became every bit as influential in that country’s business sector as Taylor was in the United States, but his message was wildly different. Deming argued that long-term business success required constant incremental progress, the kind that could only occur when workers and management were deeply engaged in sharing information and ideas with each other. Many traditional organizational structures, Deming argued, tend to narrowly define each worker’s responsibilities according to decisions handed down through layers of management, an arrangement that discourages communication, reinforces inertia, and allows ineffective practices to continue indefinitely.
So Deming focused heavily on strategies that enhanced social capital and trust. As a statistician, Deming also believed strongly in metrics, but he concentrated on systemic rather than individual results, looking for ways to use data to inform course corrections. And he abhorred the tactic of tying pay to competitive performance evaluations, feeling that the practice isolated workers from each other and from management, instilled fear, and undercut collaboration.
While he came to be treated as a national treasure in Japan, Deming remained relatively unknown in the United States—until, that is, Japanese manufacturers began out-competing their American counterparts. Soon Deming’s phone began to ring with calls from Fortune 500 companies, and he had plenty to say. In Deming’s view, American manufacturing systems rooted in Taylor’s principles of scientific management explained much of the country’s productivity declines in the 1970s and 1980s.
Deming’s critique of U.S. corporate managers described their failure to adapt in the context of increasingly intense competition from abroad. The threat of bankruptcy wasn’t sufficient to push those executives to make their companies more efficient—because they had no idea how to make productivity improvements happen.
Deming died at age 93 in 1993 with an impressive track record. Among his early students were the founders of Toyota and Sony. In the ‘80s, Ford Motors adopted his philosophy of “total quality management.” More recently, Southwest Airlines and Kaiser Permanente are among the firms that have largely adopted Deming’s management approach. Meanwhile, some of the contemporary exemplars of Taylor’s management style include most bill collection firms, customer service and call centers, national retail chains, some websites, and any number of other low-productivity, low-margin institutions that equate the quality of individual workers with the volume of closings, sales, or clicks he or she produces.
Unfortunately, the advocates who have been driving the national political debate for years over school reform are testament that Taylorism is still very much in vogue. Their critiques of public schools are built on the premise that administrators, teachers, and their unions are overly complacent. Inducing them to produce better results requires threats of job loss, public embarrassment, stigmatization, de-unionization, losing students to competing schools, school closings, and other analogues to private market forces associated with bankruptcies and firings. The current hobby-horse of linking each teacher’s pay to the improvement in the test scores of his or her students, which the Obama administration has endorsed, also rests on a market-inspired belief in the power of carrots and sticks.
The assumption is that offering higher pay to teachers whose students improve the most based on test scores will induce all teachers to work harder and thereby elevate the performance of students and schools as a whole. The phrase “race to the top,” which the Obama administration has embraced in a variety of contexts beyond education as well, underscores the emphasis on creating competition to generate better overall outcomes.
But the evidence is abundantly clear that incentives in the absence of concrete, proven mechanisms that enable teachers to work more effectively is much more likely to induce ulcers than improve student test scores. Competitive pressures won’t generate progress in the absence of evidence-based systems for promoting ongoing learning and social capital creation within organizations, including schools. And a growing body of evidence suggests that the highest performing schools, even in poor socioeconomic settings, are precisely the ones that have been striving to create such systems.
The National Center for Educational Achievement, affiliated with the non-profit company that sponsors the ACT college admissions test, conducted an extensive examination of high-performing public schools serving large numbers of low-income students in California, Michigan, Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts. After a careful screening process to identify unusually effective high-poverty schools, the study found a few major similarities among those successful schools: they provided mentoring support for new teachers and mechanisms for promoting ongoing collaboration among teachers, and used tests as diagnostic (as opposed to evaluative) tools to monitor the progress of teachers and students, allowing them to quickly respond to problems.
Similarly, an unusually deep data trove collected by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, extending over the course of more than a decade, enabled it to distinguish characteristics of elementary schools that improved over time from those that failed to show significant performance gains.
That analysis led the researchers to conclude that five organizational features of schools are essential to advancing student achievement: 1) a coherent instructional guidance system; 2) an effective approach to building professional capacity; 3) strong parent-community ties; 4) a student-centered learning climate; and 5) an interplay of instructional and “inclusive-facilitative” leadership. The authors identified building relational trust as a central concern of leaders in the more successful schools.
The urban school district that best demonstrates the payoffs to collaboration is Cincinnati, which has a long history of pursuing innovations built on teamwork among teachers and administrators. That includes its meticulous approach to evaluating teachers, which entails four sets of classroom observations per school year, three of which are conducted by a peer evaluator external to the school and once by a local school administrator. Those evaluations are carried out for every new teacher, those up for tenure, and then every five years thereafter.
Another team-based initiative was Superintendent Mary Ronan’s intensively collaborative effort beginning in 2009 to revitalize the district’s 16 worst performing elementary schools, some of which had been struggling for more than a quarter century. The test scores in almost all of those schools have improved substantially, and overall Cincinnati became the first large urban school district to receive “effective” ratings on the Ohio District Report Card, significantly outperforming the state’s other cities. Since 2003, proficiency levels on a range of state tests, graduation rates, and college enrollments have soared, and gaps on those measures between African-American and white students have dramatically narrowed—even as the city’s demographic composition became more economically disadvantaged.
Promoting collaboration is hard work in the fractious environment of today’s schools. But it eventually produces results.
As it happens, Deming himself thought that the American school system was in need of fundamental change along these lines—a notion of reform that runs in the opposite direction from the one proposed by the likes of Rahm Emanuel, former D.C. Schools Commissioner Michelle Rhee, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan (though Duncan has been emphasizing collaboration more recently). To Deming, school teachers in the United States already had too much in common with factory-line widget makers. He wrote, “We will never transform the prevailing system of management without transforming our prevailing system of education. They are the same system.” Under the education reform agenda, they are only becoming more so.