Monday, April 20, 2015

Managing Across the Moat

Several of my friends in the business world have told me that modern management is taught to keep its distance. "You are supposed to live at least fifty miles away from the facility," one told me. The idea is to not be influenced in decision making by any personal attachments to the people who work for you.

That gulf, that moat between management and the people and facilities which they manage is a common feature of corporate life, and it explains a lot about how large companies work (or don't). Managers never have to face the people whose lives they disrupt, and they are fine with that because human beings are a distraction-- it's profits and gains and stock prices that are the true measure of good management choices. They can make the Right Choices unhampered by empathy.

The management technique reminds me of Louis C K's Conan appearance in which he explains the dynamics of bullying. Kids will try out being mean, but if they have to do it to someone's face, they see the hurt, their empathy kicks in, and they decide that being mean to someone doesn't feel good. But bullying-by-text has no such feedback loop.

When you can't see the hurt, you don't feel the hurt.

When the Let's Run Schools Like a Business crowd (like Reed Hastings) complains about school boards, that is the essence of their complaint-- these elected board members live in the community and must face the people who are affected by their decisions, leading board members to make decisions for all sorts of terrible reasons when their eyes should stay focused on Return on Investment and Bottom Line and all the markers of success that too many business types value.

And so one way of understanding the modern wave of reformsterism is a slow steady process of trying dig a moat between the people who make the decisions about schools and the people who must are there in the schools.

Let's make sure that tests are devised by people who never meet the students and administered by teachers who must, by edict, behave as if the students are strangers to them, as if they aren't even in the same room. 

Let's dismantle school boards and replace them with appointed managers who can operate by spreadsheets and "data" and never have to actually face the teachers, students, parents and community members who have to live with the decisions.

Let's put school districts under the control of people who have never been in a classroom-- that way they will make the Right Choices without being swayed by too much empathy for teachers of students.

The application of this management technique in places like Newark, where "Superintendent" Cami Anderson's concerted effort to never mix with the stakeholders of the school district would be comical, were the costs not so high to the people the district is supposed to serve. Other super-managers like John King and John White and Merryl Tisch do their best to avoid ever looking school stakeholders in the eyes.

The modern charter has a similar management approach in which the people who run the school never have to actually deal with the people whose lives are wrapped up in the school. Someone like Eva Moskowitz, who appears to spend plenty of time in the Success Academy charters that she runs, is no exception to this technique. But where someone like Cami Anderson simply hides from the public, the Moskowitz approach is to send away everyone who doesn't see things her way. If SA fits you and your child, she's happy to see you-- if not, then you are the one who needs to get out and move on and join the rest of the invisible multitudes outside the school's walls.

This management by moat is also evident on the national level. Secretary of Education rarely mixes with ordinary parents or teachers, and any teachers that do come into his orbit are carefully vetted and screened so that they will be The Right Type. Finding Duncan in an ordinary public school without advance screening and a carefully prepared program would be more exceptional than finding a family of yetis on the beach at a Disney Caribbean resort.

Distance and separation builds callousness and short-circuits empathy.

Leaders and policymakers see lobbyists every day. They regularly hang out with thinky tank experts and corporate bigwigs. I have to wonder what it would be like if Duncan or some of the other policy bigwigs spent one or two days a week in an actual school-- an ordinary school, not hand picked or carefully chosen, but just a random ordinary school.

They don't know what it's like out here in the trenches, and some of them work very hard to make sure they don't learn. That disconnect, that difficult reach across the moat, hampers much of our policy choices and is one of the worst principles that we've tried to carry over from the world of business. But it's faulty. It's dysfunctional. It's wrong.

Imagine if I tried to teach my classes without ever appearing in the room-- just check some spreadsheets from my office in another city, sent instructions to an aide via text, never met my students or their parents face to face. I would be a terrible teacher (though uncomfortably close to vision of Master Teacher touted by some reformsters).

Education is a human service, and the means its foundation is relationships, and the first rule of relationships is that you have to show up (take it from a guy on his second marriage). To try to conjure up a management system that not only doesn't require you to show up, but actually requires that you don't-- that is a recipe for failure and toxicity. It's bad management and terrible education.

Fill in the moat and show up. Anything else is a waste.


  1. In some practical ways this has been the biggest change in the current wave of reform. We already had standards, tests, etc., but it wasn't as punitive in part because -- especially in a small state like Rhode Island -- people would still show up to see what was going on before just damning a school.

  2. The rephormsters know that their approach is wrong. That's why they'd never allow such a system for their own precious children.

  3. So that makes the rest of us peasants while they send edicts from their castles? We really are returning to the Middle Ages!