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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

There’s Nothing Especially Educational About Factory-Style Management

By Rick Hess — April 09, 2014 4 min read
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Reform critics dismiss efforts to rethink leadership practice, recruitment, and training as an effort to import “business” thinking into K-12. Meanwhile, it’s easy for reformers to sound as if they’re just saying we need “better” school and system leaders. In reality, today’s leaders struggle with professional norms, training, and circumstances that aren’t of their making--and which offer precious little calculated to help forge great schools and systems.

In the early 1900s, influenced by education psychologist Edward Thorndike and scientific management guru Frederick Taylor, proponents of progressive education worked to bring the same standardization and routine to education that they admired in industry and business. The problem, explained Ellwood Cubberley, dean of the School of Education at Stanford University from 1917-1933 and, in many ways, the father of modern school administration, had been that, before 1900, schools had been like “a manufacturing establishment running at a low grade of efficiency.”

In short, progressives worked hard to import the best practices of private industry to American education. (This is why the familiar school model bears such an uncanny resemblance to the early-twentieth-century factory.) That model made some sense at the time, helping to manage a massive expansion of schooling in a world lacking modern data tools and communications technology.

Since that era, though, K-12’s routines and rules have been largely preserved, as if in amber. Intrusive regulation, petty bureaucracy, and balky decision making have bizarrely come to be treated as part of the schoolhouse culture.

In the private sector, meanwhile, old giants like Univac, TWA, and Xerox have given way to Google, JetBlue, and Apple. These new ventures had the freedom to build brand new cultures, staffing models, evaluation systems, and delivery models that took full advantage of evolving talent, tools, and technology.

In schooling, this passing of the baton is absent. Instead, leaders inherit long-standing schools or school systems. As successive generations of entrepreneurs and thinkers in other sectors have revisited basic assumptions and built wholly new organizations, educational leadership preparation has clung to aged norms. Indeed, those championing more flexible, creative, and quality- and cost-conscious leadership have been pilloried for pursuing “corporate-style school reform” or labeled “enemies” of public education. As I noted in The Same Thing Over and Over, “The debate over the sanctity of ‘schoolhouse leadership,’ then, is really a debate between the defenders of early-twentieth-century management practices and those championing the management practices [favored] by leading public and private organizations in recent decades.”

The stale party line leaves leaders ill-equipped to negotiate a profoundly changed world of schooling--where changes in our expectations, the labor market, and the state of tools and technology create new challenges and vast new opportunities to answer them. Indeed, there’s little reason to expect that century-old assumptions about how to organize and deliver schooling are necessarily the smartest way forward. It’s time to swap out factory-style, early-twentieth-century management for more dynamic, creative, and agile leadership.

Yet, today, few school or system leaders have much experience outside the confines of K-12 or exposure to other ways of thinking about how to best use talent, tools, time, and money. Educational leaders typically start as teachers and receive all of their leadership training in schools of education. More than 99 percent of superintendents have been teachers; as the American Association of School Administrators has noted, the traditional career path for superintendents “involves moving through organizational hierarchy of a public school district.” Half of all superintendents obtained their first administrative position before age thirty, meaning they’ve never had even a brief chance to venture outside of K-12. It’s good that our school systems are led by committed, veteran educators. It means, though, that most leaders have little opportunity to see how budgeting, accountability, personnel evaluation, or compensation are tackled in other, more dynamic sectors.

What to do about all this? It requires rethinking recruitment, preparation, team-building, job descriptions, and the norms of leadership. That means it’s both about policy and practice. And, while there’s always the temptation to pursue some new policy, I think the critical work right now is finding ways to do this stuff. For models of where folks are wrestling with the rubber-meets-road side of all of this, some programs worth checking out include The Broad Residency and The Broad Superintendents Academy, Education Pioneers, Harvard’s EDLD program, UPenn’s Mid-Career PhD in ed leadership, Rice University’s Educational Entrepreneurship Program (REEP), the Leadership Institute of Nevada, and Georgetown’s brand-new Education Leadership and Management program (Full disclosure: Given that this area is a longtime passion of mine, it’s probably no surprise that I’m intimately involved in most of these). Interested readers will find all this addressed much more fully in Cage-Busting Leadership.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.