Education Opinion

Changing the System, Root and Branch

By Ray Marshall & Marc Tucker — September 16, 1992 4 min read

According to the logic of a new book on education’s role in the economy, productivity is stagnant in the United States largely because policymakers are stuck in a time warp. Like “Taylorized’’ factories, outdated school practices have produced an imbalance in workforce needs and the resources available to meet them, say the authors of Thinking for a Living.

The corrective offered by Ray Marshall, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor, and Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, is an aggressive education policy that demands high levels of performance and ties the work of schools to that of communities, families, and businesses. As seen in the excerpt below, their blueprint for rejuvenating the business of learning has some industrial correlates:

The large, multinational American firms that have survived and prospered in the 1980’s have done so by restructuring their operations from top to bottom, using highly skilled, highly paid labor, and wholly different methods for managing and organizing the work of the organization than they had in the past. By doing so, they succeeded in raising productivity levels greatly, producing a much higher quality product, while actually reducing their costs. This is very similar to the challenge American education faces: to make an enormous improvement in educational achievement at a modest increase in cost. The lessons our best firms have learned, we believe, hold the key to great advances in our schools.

The basic formula followed by these and other firms is simple. They started by being very clear about what business they were in, by getting their goals straight. They communicated those goals to everyone in the organization, and made sure that everything top management did reinforced those goals, so that no one could forget them. They worked to find measures of progress against those goals that reflected what they wanted to achieve. They changed the incentive systems of the firm so that there were real rewards for performance and real penalties for nonperformance, and everyone had strong incentives to contribute to the company’s goals. They made major investments in new systems to give the workers the skills, time, and information they would need to function in the new environment. Then they pushed a lot of decisions that had been made by middle and top management down to the front line, to those people closest to the production process and the customer. And they held those on the front line accountable for the results of their work, having gotten rid of as much as possible of the bureaucracy that used to be there to tell the lower levels what to do and how to do it.

In a nutshell, what they did was to treat the people on the front line like professionals, whether they were white- or blue-collar workers. This required ... driving a fundamental change in the culture of the organization through the whole firm. These measures gave the people on the front line the discretion to figure out how to get the job done. But this discretion came at a price. Management made it clear that they expected the people on the front line, like professionals, to be fully accountable for the results of their work. This approach provided a mighty motivation to the workers, engaged their energy and commitment, and enabled the firm to dispense with much of their vast and expensive bureaucracy.

It has not been easy for American firms to accomplish this transition. It is hardly complete in most firms that have tried it, and most have not attempted it at all. It has entailed fundamental changes in management roles and responsibilities, even greater changes in the attitudes and methods of union leaders, and equally great changes in such matters as the way work is organized, how operations are staffed, how information flows through the organization, and how budgeting is done. The greatest changes probably have to do with the culture of the organization: people’s attitudes, values, and ways of relating to one another, things that are notoriously difficult to change. All of this has required enormous investments in training and continuing education for everyone in the firm.

What does all this have to do with schools?

Everything. As we have seen, schools in the United States have been organized on the old industrial pattern since the 1920’s, each successive layer seeing it as its task to tell the one below what to do and how to do it. It was assumed in the schools, as it was in industry, that those on the bottom did not have the skills or knowledge to act independently in the best interest of employer or client. As a monopoly provider of education services, the system has had little incentive to improve the quality of the service or the efficiency with which it is provided. Efficiencies would produce lower revenues. No one was rewarded for meeting the needs of students, nor were there any penalties for anyone if they were not met. Teachers and other lower and mid-level staff members were mainly rewarded for loyalty to the system in general and their supervisors in particular.

Nothing has changed in these respects since the 1930’s. It should surprise no one that such a system has produced rising real costs for decades but only modest improvement in student performance. This is an indictment not of the people who staff this system but of the system itself. The only way to get higher performance and greater efficiency is to change the system root and branch.

From Thinking for a Living: Education and the Wealth of Nations by Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker. Copyright 1992 by Basic Books. Reprinted with the permission of Basic Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Changing the System, Root and Branch