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Had a really stimulating discussion with @ToughLoveforX on Twitter yesterday about the Rhode Island situation where teachers have been threatened with dismissal for not agreeing to management measures.

This sort of issue automatically produces a management/workers argument and like most arguments, it's pretty hard to make it black or white.

It would be interesting to explore this further as @ToughLoveforX suggested, so I'm posting this in the hope of widening the debate. This is clearly a topic where we are not going to get a consensus, but smacking the ball back and forwards a bit might help for both sides to gain an insight.

I'd really like to hear people's views (and I'm off to get my tin helmet!)


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Thank you for creating a context to continue what I also found as a productive conversation. To stake out my position in the interests of clarity.

The responsibility for failure , at the school level, sits first with the principal in K -12. While it is true that directives from school boards and admins at higher levels make the job more difficult, a professional experienced principal needs to know how to manage appropriate change successfully.

The complexity of the public discourse, at least in the States, is that teachers are responsible. While it's true that teachers are responsible in any given classroom, at the level of the school teachers have no real power. By framing the issue as we need "to improve teaching" to make schools better, it merely obfuscates instead of clarifies the reality of the political economy of education.

It shouldn't be a surprise. Almost every enterprise I've been associated has a blind spot for the errors and bad judgments they make. The easiest thing to do is to blame whoever has less power than they do. Instead of all the politico blah blah about "saving education". it would behoove them to look at their very bad, ill informed decisions that create the unintended consequences that got us where we are in the first place.

To be clear, if a school fails it's the principal's fault. If there is endemic failure in a school system it's the Supt fault. If a classroom isn't working, it's the teacher's fault. I'm not suggesting that replacement is the first option. Merely that all options have to remain on the table.

I think this can be clarified if we focus on accountability instead of blame..

Your analogy to a large corporation is apt. As we've seen during the recent fiscal crisis, changing top management can make a huge difference. The talk on Wall Street for many years was the the President of GM was making very bad decisions that would hurt the company in the long run. But the Board of Directors couldn't bring themselves to fire him. It took the company going bankrupt and the government stepping in to replace the Board of Directors. From everything I can see they are now on a path to viability.

The job, compensation, power and thus the accountability rest with a leader who has the very, very difficult job of managing a complex system. This needs training, experience and sometimes nerves of steel. It's a very hard job. But that is the job.

You say "Schools more than any other institution in society, are a reflection of said society." I would argue that every large institution - a global corporation, the health system, the government are equally reflections of said society. Leadership and success in any of these enterprises is very hard. But when a particular person can not do that job, they need to find another one.
I see a big difference between changing the CEO of a large company and changing the Principal of a school. Usually the workers will adopt the new practices ordered by a new CEO. This is far from certain in a school, because the Principal has very little ability to affect what happens in the classroom (if the teachers refuses to play along). Equally, the time elapsed before the problem becomes critical is often long.

If the Principal has no lever over the teaching staff, then it's very difficult to push through unwanted change.
To be clear, I don't believe that anyone or anything can "rule education." Living systems are not ruled they are managed. I think we agree that an education enterprise can be framed as a Living sytem.

As you say time will tell on the GM question. But, I'm not sure what you mean by "a markedly transactional fashion " The way it seems to me is that every job in the auto industry means 9 jobs that supply the auto industry. The government could have decided to let GM go through a long disorderly bankruptcy. I'm glad they didn't because of the huge cost to everyone else through no fault of their own.

You didn't mention the health industry or the government itself as a reflection of society. I think seeing the education sector has somehow being uniquely involved with society isn't quite right.

We agree about transformational change. We probably agree on where we want to get to. I'm pretty sure we agree about the nature of real education. Our disagreement is about how to get from here to there.

One should recognize that this transformation affects different parts of the education industry differently. My opinion, is that the overwhelming majority of schools do a pretty good job. While improvement is always needed, for the most part it works enough so that sustainable innovation is the way to go.

The problem is exemplified by the 15% of American High Schools that produce 50% of the dropouts. it means that every day this remains broken another cohort of kids, for no reasons of their own, are put on the path to prison and dead end careers. The only way to get to that, in my view, is with clear accountability and transparency on outcomes. If the school can do it, that's best. But if the situation has been festering for years and years and someone else has to step in , it's not optimal but it is necessary to deal with a situation that I think can be fairly framed as life or death for the kids affected.
We agree on:
"I don't beleive scapegoating any individual is the answer."

But we disagree on
"schools are driven by society's demand for socially well-adjusted and productive citizens."

For many of us on the ground that is why we're involved. But the reality is that everything I've seen tells me there is a "political economy" of schooling. Political in the sense of different people using power to make their lives easier. And "economy" in the sense of exchange or hoarding of resources and honor.

We agree:
" it will take a community (multi-faceted approach)to fix a school."

But to get from here to there, we very much need a mindset that takes a clear look at the realities of that village to be able to get from here to there. And a "MUST have" are leaders who are fearless about uncovering the inconvenient truths. Without a leader, it is natural that what we have are wonderful hard working people who burn out after giving it their all.
Let me try to clarify. You say " Schools should be driven" The crux of the issue is "should". If they were we would have much smaller problems. The best schools are, but the broken ones are not. To be clear, that is still the agenda. But after all these years since Dewey got it pretty right, why has it not been widely adopted?

The facts of the matter (2me) is that without very focused leaders, broken schools are not driven at all. Decisions are made with a very short term goal of minimizing risk and inconvenience for the admins.

The words used to describe these decisions vary by what works in what setting. It's natural and does not in any way mean I blame anyone. Nor does it imply that people don't believe the words they are using. It's just a statement of the situation I have seen again and again in broken schools.

In the many non profit and education institutions I've worked with, the "coin" of the realm is prestige and control of space and resources. Many are afraid of looking silly. Those with the key to the copier or the overhead projector have more "power" than those who don't. In the States, I have seen Assistant Principals use that power to squelch great efforts by teachers with a raised eyebrow. After a while, no one tries anything because they lose the energy for an argument.

If this still doesn't make sense please let me know. Whether it's a useful way to look at it is a different question. Trying to get as precise as possible this context is very helpful to me in clarifying my own thinking of what to do next in different specific contexts.
Me too re the convo. And congratulations! You sound like you are in a human and humane environment with a good leader.

Unfortunately for the kids who have the bad luck to be poor in the States, it's not "perhaps" . It's for sure. As for head in the clouds. Quite the contrary, it sounds to me like you are on terra firma. It's those in drop out factories who have their heads in the wrong place.
Hiya MichaelJ!

I'm enjoying this conversation a great deal, it is providing a lot of food for thought.

It sounds like we all agree change is necessary, and as Daniel Pink said in a recent webinar, it is through conversations that change begins.

For the purpose of furthering my understanding, I'd appreciate any reference you might have to 50% of the dropouts coming from 15% of the schools. I've not read that, but have recently been observing the HS dropout issue being a topic of discussion in areas all across N. America. If the problem is that widespread, I would have assumed the dropout distribution to be broader.


I'd be interested in that statistic too. It sounds credible to me.
In doing a bit of snooping about the web this afternoon, I found a report titled Cities in Crisis: Closing the Graduation Gap prepared by by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center (part of the publishers of Education Week), here, which suggests a dropout rate of close to 50% in the 50 largest schools in the U.S.. It looks to me this supports the original claim I was asking about, as it states: Cities in Crisis 2009 finds that only about half (53%) of all young people in the nation’s 50 largest cities are graduating from high school on time.

The above report is from the spring of 2009.

Additionally, I found another document that provides some detailed statistics on dropout rates prepared by Northeastern University last spring.

I found this a powerful statistic: "In 2007, an astounding 16.0% of persons between 16 and 24 years of age (nearly 6.2 million people) were high school dropouts" (p.2)

I've not taken the time to review these reports in any depth, but they are there for anyone interested in investigating dropout rates in more detail.


Here's the tweet:
2009-10-31 11:59:50
ToughLoveforX: "15% of American high schools produce more than 50% of
#HSdropouts." Dailybeast

And a snippet:
Bad schools translate into high dropout rates. And those rates lead to depressed lifelong incomes. The Daily Beast crunches the numbers to determine the 10 cities that have lowest-percentages of high-school graduates. Plus, read more on Giving Beast, our new philanthropy site.

Fifteen percent of American high schools, known as “dropout factories,” produce more than half of American dropouts. Research shows these schools are clustered in California, the Southwest, and the Old South. Now a new Census analysis by The Daily Beast demonstrates that regions with poor schools are lifelong magnets for high-school dropouts, and suffer from stagnant economies and rock-bottom salaries.

The under appreciated reality is pointed out in Gladwell's the Tipping Point. With epidemics whether of crime, disease or dropouts it's typical that there is hot spot of malignancy. He argues, I agree that the best way to stop an epidemic is to focus maximum resources on that hot spot first.
I guess I would have to know a good deal more about this crisis. As we like to imagine schools are teams then all team members bear some degree of responsibility for a breakdown.



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