For some weeks now, I have tired of repetition of stories about the rigidities of school bureaucracies, and have been hankering to explore what I think are promising avenues to combat and reform the power structure. To do so, I’m going to begin in familiar pages.
Those who have read these pages more than a couple of times will recognize that I find inspiration frequently in the pages of the “Atlantic” magazine, and this time is another instance. James Fallows, a senior editor of the magazine, writes often of technology and society, in particular computers and society, and then even more specifically about his experiences as a journalist managing his professional life with technology, together with implications for the broader culture. In the November Atlantic (“Hacked!”), he relates his and his wife’s adventures when her computer is hacked and a significant amount of her data lost, at least initially. In his address to Google, both his and his wife’s email carrier, he descends into the proverbial belly of the beast in order to challenge Google’s initial assertion that, well, they were able to retrieve some data, but a substantial part was just gone, sorry. Fallows’ instincts prove apt, and timely, because lo and behold, Google was in the end able to retrieve his wife’s missing data due to a recently developed capacity within the Google system.
At this point his story, he makes an exciting observation, and I quote, “In companies like Google, relatively few innovations are the result of top-down orders from executives. More evolve bottom-up, as engineers and product managers become sold on the need to add a new product or feature to the company’s offerings.” Serendipitous to the Fallows’ misfortune, “sometime last year, the Gmail engineers became sold on the value of a recovery system for maliciously deleted e-mail,” and so it was their luck that “hit the debugging cycle just when it did.”
While I am happy that the Fallows found technological justice and institutional good fortune, as an inhabitant of a school bureaucracy I am astounded that “in a company like Google, relatively few innovations are the result of top-down orders.” In the school system I inhabit, virtually no innovations originate from the rank and file; virtually all innovations, some of them good ones, are incubated at administrative levels, virtually never with teacher level involvement, and are commanded in a top-down fashion, even if there is some show of collaboration in the roll out.
It goes without saying that Google is a more successful organization than virtually all school systems, at what it does.
Which of course begs the question, what is it that schools systems can learn from the Googles of the world to invigorate creativity at non administrative levels?
What worldview of leaders/founders in these innovative companies stimulates upward movement of ideas? Are they somehow more democratic? Are they more swash-buckling, and as startup innovators, they have less to lose than the holders of the reins in more established organizations? Is it their relative youth and imbuement with the ethics of the open net, a kind of electronic frontier libertarianism? Do successful charter schools mimic this kind of philosophy somehow?
It is true that the Googles of the world are relatively flush with cash, and even rank and file engineers and programmers are well paid (at least I surmise), and so in effect empowered to act with initiative. Stock options also serve as financial incentives for rank and file to act in a way so as to better the company. Money is nice, no question. Risk taking and creative thinking can reap huge financial rewards for cutting edge companies, and hence their employees, for tilling previously fallow fields. By contrast, there are numerous downward pressures on teacher rank and file salaries that don’t exist in a successful technology sector.
Sidebar: School systems have been around a long time; whereas new technology organizations build from the bottom up, older organizations have to shift gears from the old as well as innovate with the new. Inertia can be a terrible thing. Microsoft, once a vibrant startup, now seems to struggle with innovative relevance, despite continuing success as a profitable corporation. And despite lots of money.
Numerous experiments exist across the country, charter schools and otherwise, that are run in a private market, for profit context with the same mixed results as many other public sector attempts to innovate. Such initiatives are a favorite in conservative, free market circles. I have long tried in my own mind to follow market principles through the patterns of what I know about schools. While some market mechanisms, or at least incentive systems borrowed from market precepts, seem to apply in the microcosm, I consistently run across limitations as I follow what I think are market applications into the broad strokes of school organization and success. David Brooks offered some useful thoughts in a February 2011 column that I will explore at a later point.
One intriguing template to work from is offered by a private health care company out of California, once again profiled in the pages of the November “Atlantic”, “The Quiet Health Care Revolution”. The company, CareMore, which works largely with elderly Medicare patients, has based its work on a principle long known to be true – that is, preventive care is cheaper than downstream emergency, crisis, and hospital care. The company has saved substantial money on late stream hospital care by setting up systems that intervene with their clientele when warning signs first emerge, and currently turn a healthy profit. They seem to be doing what the federal health care overhaul aims at doing, which is to prioritize not expensive procedures, but the managing of health. The Medicare reimbursement system rewards them for it.
Could school systems be set up in such a manner? In other words, what would happen if resources were heavily loaded into the pre-school and elementary years, where poor health habits, poor nutrition, and lack of appropriate early learning experiences cripple students who by high school lack academic luster and who are prone to failure? Sure, the devil will be in the details, but this one veteran will enjoy the speculation.
Besides various market based incentive systems, there are other promising means to enliven bureaucratic deadwood —
— In other posts I will explore the ability of technology, in the form of wikis and on-line chat systems to flatten bureaucratic patterns
— Why haven’t quality circles and their attendant philosophy not sprouted in schools? Toyota based a good deal of its iconic reputation for quality on American Edward Deming’s ideas about such worker input to corporate improvement. It is ironic that the Japanese corporate world, a maker of money, should respect the thinking of their workers and support that thinking more so than do American schools. Probably because, as with Google, it is good business.
— Could some kind of ombudsman system, or even whistle blower protection, encourage ideas to rise in the hierarchy?
— By what means can an increased professional identity on the parts of teachers create upward pressures so teachers are heard rather than suppressed? How can this be done without injecting more money and bolstering teacher salaries?
— Finally, at least for now, have we experimented thoroughly enough with small schools with flattened structures, including their autonomy from the larger structure supporting them, and which empower the principal and staff to collaborate? I would bet that when and if we find the formula that will work in this culture, it will rely on such models, as necessary but not sufficient to a broad based incline in school improvement.