Friday, April 11, 2014

Dead Wood & Tenure

Some people want to insist that schools can be run like businesses. We can get into all the reasons they are wrong another day; for today let's go ahead and say that there are things for Education Leaders to learn from businessmen.

W. Edwards Deming used to like to quote from his own mentor, Peter Scholtes, in talking about deadwood in an organization. The observation came out in many phrasings over the years, but the basic point was this:

So you're firing the deadwood in your organization. Was it dead when you hired it? Or did you hire a live tree and then kill it?

Gregg Stocker is a business guy who has worked primarily in the oil and gas biz. He wrote the book Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Identifying and Eliminating the Signs of Decline and contributed to The Lean Certification Handbook. He writes a blog about lean management entitled Lessons in Lean, and I have no idea what thoughts he has about public ed (he's a Demmings-style standardization guy, so we might disagree on several issues, actually). But he did write a blog post expanding on the deadwood problem that I find interesting in the context of current tenure debates.

Who is responsible for the poor performers in an organization? These are the people about whom leaders regularly complain and blame for many of the company’s problems. According to Jack Welch, they are the 10% of the workforce who need to improve or be fired.

Stocker talks about holding leaders responsible for the poor performance of team members.

I have found that, in many organizations, the responsibility to coach and develop talent is much lower on the list of priorities than documenting and replacing the poor performers. 

Compare this concept in management to the fake Vergara lawsuit. The Vergara lawsuit tries to hide behind Civil Rights rhetoric and claim that schools lack the managerial power to fire bad teachers. And yet there is no proof anywhere in sight that firing poor performers (even if we can agree on who they are, which is a huge if, but let's move on anyway) improves the organization. The Jack Welch model of firing your way to excellence has been widely discounted and abandoned in the business world; even Microsoft decided that stack ranking was bad for the business.

But as always, public education is where bad management theories go to die, so we are being told from Kansas to California to Pennsylvania that public school systems need to fire their way to excellence.

In her interview with Josh Edelson of Salon regarding the Vergara case, Linda Darling-Hammon hits this pretty clearly, both in terms of firing:

First of all, just to be clear: It is extremely easy to get rid of teachers. You can dismiss a teacher for no reason at all in the first two years of their employment. And so there is no reason for a district ever to tenure a “grossly ineffective” teacher — as the language of the lawsuit goes — because you know if a teacher is grossly ineffective pretty quickly, and it’s negligence on the part of the school district if they continue to employ somebody who falls into that classification when they have no barriers to [firing them]. And districts that are well-run, and have good teacher evaluation systems in place, can get rid of veteran teachers that don’t meet a standard and [don’t] improve after that point.

She's also crystal clear about the importance of teacher development:

But in fact, the ability to keep teachers and develop them into excellent teachers is the more important goal and strategy for getting a high-quality teaching force. Because if what you’re really running is a churn factory, where you’re just bringing people in and, you know, firing them, good people don’t want to work in a place like that. So it’s going to be hard for you to recruit. Second of all, you’re likely not paying enough attention to developing good teachers into great teachers, and reasonable teachers into good teachers.

Run Schools Like a Business fans should note that it is Darling-Hammond who is in tune with sound business theory. Stocker lists five steps that help good leadership keep the forest alive:

1) Make it difficult to fire someone for performance issues.

2) Recognize terminations as a failure of the system.

3) Establish systems and support for team member development.

4) Make it clear that developing team members is a responsibility of leadership.

5) Promote based on leadership abilities.

The first and second steps are the most striking of the lot. In the first one, his full meaning is that it should be easier to fix someone than simply fire them. The second is an invitation to examine your hiring practices-- if you keep hiring dead wood, that's a hiring problem. This is extra true in school districts where the interview process essentially extends over tow or three years of pre-tenure, during which we have ample time to spot the unfixables and send them packing.

Stocker wraps up with this thought:

Besides showing respect for people, placing a high priority on coaching and development will help the organization improve performance by reducing turnover, improving morale, and engaging more people in improvement efforts.

Imagine how different things would be playing out if the Vergara defendants were in court demanding that poor schools (you know-- the ones that none of the Vergara Nine actually attend) were given the support, training, and development programs needed to create highly excellent teaching staffs. Imagine if the argument were that schools were failing students by repeatedly firing teachers instead of keeping them and investing the time, resources and support in turning those teachers into exemplars, or if it were the hiring practices of the school district were on trial.

In other words, if we wanted to talk about bad teachers in public schools, we could consider some strategies that might actually help instead of the one that everybody is fairly certain will not help at all. We would still have a lot to talk about, and some of that conversation would be difficult and contentious. But it would be far more useful than this thin smokescreen being laid down simply to cover one more attempt to create a world where teachers are churned and burned so that schools can be cheap and staffs can be cowed and obedient.


  1. Montgomery County, MD has a great system - PAR - that even Arne Duncan praised once upon a time. PAR="Peer Assistance & Review." It was developed in conjunction with the teachers' association and has helped to strengthen lots of weaker teachers and led to the resignation of hundreds of others over the years. For more details: So why this system that Arne praised less than a decade ago is no longer good enough is beyond me. :-(

    BTW, it's "Deming," with one "m." :-)

  2. I would love to have a system in LA Unified that is similar to the Mont Co (MD) system. Not sure if the union would agree, but I think it could help significantly. However, unless they come up with a way to lower class sizes, it's not going to matter much. Even the best teachers have difficulty with the excessively large class sizes we're seeing in LAUSD. (My son's high school classes had 48 - students who were the last ones to arrive had to sit on tables or the floor.) No amount of coaching and training is going to help the average teacher improve with that many students.

  3. Great article, Peter, and I particularly like the W. Edwards Deming reference.