Friday, October 25, 2013

Institutionalizing Wisdom: uses of delay and obfuscation

We appreciate frankness from those who like us. Frankness from others is called insolence. -- Andre Maurois
One of the most popular myths of our democratic culture, The Frankness Rule, is that communication is almost invariably improved in a face-to-face encounter by frank, plain-speaking people. Such "transparency," such direct talk is supposed to avoid misunderstanding and therefore unnecessary conflict.

Given as an example justifying this belief in frankness is the hotline telephone conversation that occurred in October 1962 between President Kennedy and Premier Krushchev that brought about a resolution to the confrontation between US and Russian forces during the very scary Cuban missile crisis. What was overlooked was by all of us democracy-loving free-society afficionados was that this reconciliation was not presented for review to the general, diverse American public; or, even the Congress of the US. Nor did Kruschev ask the Russian people -- nor, I suspect, the general membership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- for their "input."

(I remember the situation -- the little we knew of it -- well. I was a junior in college at the time and expected, as did most of my classmates, that that our nuclear incineration was imminent. We planned the most amazing good-bye party and were not completely ecstatic, although very relieved, to hear shortly later that the crisis had been resolved.)

What is overlooked by our happy harbingers of frankness is that direct confrontation can just as well exacerbate a deteriorating situation, unless a good deal of wisdom is brought to it.

It is a forlorn hope to expect that, as a commonplace, a good deal of wisdom will be exhibited in everyday life. So it is that organizational shields separate powerful decision makers from others like them in rival organizations. This not only protects the in-house leaders from exterior aggression, but buffers them from their own inadvertent, or rash missteps.

I was once hired as a headmaster of a private school whose board of directors, although publicly hail-fellows-well-met, were not infrequently in disagreement. This was not very serious, since they seemed to be only peripherally interested in the school; but, it was important enough for them not to publically display mutual animosity: they were mostly all neighbors living in the same community.

Their solution was to try to recruit the headmaster (me, as well as my predecessor) as a go-between or intermediary decision-maker with a bias toward their own individual desires, so as to present the fellow with whom they were in conflict with a winning fait-accompli, as it were.

I announced this perception at a board meeting -- being at the time an adherent of the Frankness Rule --, remarking that they should approach each other directly since I was not going to bear the pressure of trying, at the same time, to surreptitiously prosecute and defend every board member’s personal agenda. I suspect this comment substantially reduced, in their eyes, the expected length of my tenure.

Wise action often requires preparation time for careful thought. This helps avoid rash decision we may well end up regretting. In smaller, intimate contexts, social niceties and etiquette enable us to temporize. We may, for example, at a family party meet relatives we would rather not maintain extensive contact with. So, we say, “It’s been nice talking with you again. We should try to get to see each other more often.” But, disregarding The Frankness Rule, we do not say, “O.K. let’s just say some nice words to keep the rest of the family happy. But we’re really out of here. Don’t call.”

Organizations institutionalize barriers to use of The Frankness Rule by setting up structures that cause delays and obscurities in communication. Personnel, e.g. secretaries, public-relations people, lawyers, are hired to formalize and to assist in what would otherwise be just another social strategem.

The last thing President Obama wants to have is an easily publicized, face-to-face conversation with President Angela Merkel about the NSA tapping of her private phones. Just as the last thing you want to have is a frank conversation with your significant other about a past ephemeral, yet very stupid thing he or she has done.

Being a decision-maker is often hard enough, and risky. Openness and speed of reply to one’s actions does not help persuade one to accept the burdens of such a role.

To examine these issues further, see Buffering: Enhancing Moral Hazard in Decision-Making?

--- EGR

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Whiskey for a Broken Back: State aid to Philadelphia schools

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/9/13, p. B5 reports that William R. Hite, Jr., Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, has expressed disappointment that so many Philadelphia public schools were judged by the Pennsylvania State Department of Education to be inadequate and subject to possible closure.

More than half of Pennsylvania’s 92 “worst-performing” schools are in Philadelphia. Thirteen of the 47 Philadelphia schools on the DOE’s list have been closed based on low enrollment, maintenance needs, and chronic academic problems. (No specific statistics were mentioned on the relative rankings of these three faults. But mentioning chronic academic problems last in the list tends to draw our attention to it.)

Hite pointed out that it was important to take into account that the school district is the largest in Pennsylvania (11th largest in the US in 2008 at 178,241 pupils according to the USDOE), and it has the most low-income children and students with special needs.

These are important mitigating factors, indeed, one would think, which should forestall a rash condemnation of poor school performance and the consequent penalties, for example, being handed over to charter school operators to be “turned around.”

Do such "handovers" promise improvement? Of the five charter schools operating in Philadelphia, one, Hope, in the Germantown section, agreed to close in June for being a “low performer.” (See Charter School Scandal? Again? You Can Bet On It…)

We might wonder what kind of thinking is going on here when Dr. Hite adds what he seems to think is needed to remediate the situation in Philadelphia:
This is a further call to action around the need to dramatically improve instructional practices in our schools.
(See Killing the Messengers? Disregarding School Reform Critics)

What happened to the issues of the school district’s monstrous size, long known to be an impediment to its effective governance? And even more immediate, what about the extensive poverty mentioned and the great number of special-needs kids? Why would Dr. Hite mention any of these things if he really believes that instructional practices are so primary? (See Destroying Schools to Improve Them?)

Well, if you’ve got a broken back, and no money or access to a doctor, a half-a-bottle of whiskey might offer some short-term relief. Perhaps what Hite is scratching for is help from the Pennsylvania State Department of Education, always abstemious for being underfunded and animadversive to most things Philadelphian. What is pedagogically anti-scientific is often popularly acceptable and politically astute. (See Top School Leadership: fooled or fools?)

Carolyn Dumaresq, states the Inquirer, the Pennsylvania’s acting Secretary of Education, will send DOE representatives, “academic recovery liaisons,” to “work with” principals to help the targeted schools. (See Pathologies of Enthusiasm: cheerleading is not engineering)

Hocus pocus! You’ve got a broken back and the State Health Department sends a liquor salesman to talk with your local pharmacist?! (See Technician, or Magician: Can You Tell the Difference?)

Think for a minute:

1. write down the possible links in a imaginable chain of connections between
A) academic recovery liaisons working with principals and, say,
X) student academics showing improvement.
choosing such intermediate links as will NOT be affected by the size of the school district (thus, of the school and of class sizes),or of the poverty of the students or of their special needs.
2. Find research evidence to support your linkages.
If you have succeeded with 1 and 2 above, you will have the ammunition to lead yet another reform movement in the more than a century-old crusades to “improve” public schools.

If not, you should loudly advertise the failure of your efforts. Otherwise, someone more ruthless and clever will appropriate your results and go ahead, anyhow, like their predecessors, leading their own seventy-six trombones in another open raid on the public coffers.

To examine these issues and related issues further, see The School Failure Mythology

See, also,Politics, Promises and School Improvement

--- EGR

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Consistently Successful Educator: A Will-o’-the-Wisp?

... one way of looking at success patterns ... is that that people who are in high positions have never been in one place long enough for their problems to catch up with them. They outrun their mistakes. -- Robert Jackall (1988) Moral Mazes. The world of corporate managers. New York: Oxford. p. 90
As headmaster of a private school and, later, as a professor of education, I was privy to negative comments and rather scandulous informational items about private and parochial schools that I had never heard in my previous 25+ years as a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia.

Nor did I read or hear about such things in the media. Papers, pundits and politicians seemed only to focus on the ills of public schools. Private and parochial schools -- and, more recently, charter schools -- were presumed to be good, despite what investigators might have discovered if only they had bothered to examine them carefully or think about what they were supposed to accomplish. (See, for example, Cookson. & Persell (1985) Preparing for Power. America's Elite Boarding Schools. See also, The Teacher as Technician.)

This narrow focus away from the private and religious sectors of education can probably be understood partly by entrepreneurial interests in diverting to themselves a portion of the vast and seemingly discretionary public school funds. Normally, private and parochial schools have tight budgets. More importantly, however, is that control of public school budgets is accessible by the clientele of papers, pundits and politicians. (See Control in the School: Illusions and Realities)

So it has come to be that “School Reform” in this USofA does not mean making private or parochial schools better. Public schools, as some Americans have been griping for 120 years, are the ones that need reform. So “reformers” even go abroad to look for cures for presumed public school ills, to find that philosopher’s stone that will turn base public metal into private gold. (See School “Success”: hoping for miracles. )

But why go to other countries? Why not just import the practices and methods used in private and parochial schools to transmute the failures of public education into the presumed superiority of private/parochial schools? Why not sacrifice what may be crucial to public education to the holy grail of excellence -- whatever “excellence” is supposed to mean? (See What Works in Schooling: the “Newfanglers” versus the “Oldfashioned.”)

The ideal of the public school, as a kind of factory with clear goals efficiently pursued, by which public schools are judged by a religiously and socio-economically diverse public results in a misperception of public school failure. This is because there is little practical consensus among papers, pundits, politicians and their clientele as to means and ends the public schools should be pursuing.

The ills of public schools, to the extent they are not imaginative fabrications, are not generally school generated. Rather, they are brought about by hasty practical compromises on broad public controversies over culture, law or economy; for example, over sex education, access to sports and the need for arts/music education. However, private and parochial schools are not public business. Thus, if they are mediocre or worse, they are left to their own devices. (See The School Failure Mythology .)

Practitioners and administrators in public education lack sufficient power to determine what is to be put into practice as an effective method, scientific knowledge or no. Political and economic concerns tend to override technical pedagogy.

In private and parochial education consensus issues are generally kept “in house”. But consensus issues are so important in public education that a language of vague slogans that celebrate as they obfuscate, has been invented to control discourse and decision-making. (See Slogans in Education)

Large amounts of public funds are at stake. This is a real power struggle. (See Power in Schooling Practice: 
The Educational Dilemmas)

To examine these issues further, see Increasing Teaching Efficiency


--- EGR