How to achieve productivity

Denver’s new school superintendent, Michael Bennet, formerly the mayor’s chief of staff is “incredibly smart” with “strong community relationships, but no K-12 experience, and not much background in the education wars,” writes Rocky Mountain News columnist Linda Seebach in an e-mail. Bennet says his first priority will be hiring a chief academic officer to develop education policy. Seebach asks: How should he go about filling this critical position?

I’d recommend consulting with the folks at Education Trust, which has a no-nonsense attitude toward raising the achievement of disadvantaged students.

He also should consult Zig Engelmann, of Direct Instruction fame, or, at least, readi Engelmann’s response to a column by Alan Bersin, outgoing superintendent in San Diego. Bersin, an attorney who also came in with little education experience, argued in a column that a superintendent must change the paradign to make productivity the top priority.

Bersin “talks about focus on productivity, but nothing he says gives the slightest clue that he knows much about achieving it,” Engelmann writes.

Let’s look at a different way. Let’s say we have a superintendent of a large school district, like San Diego, that believes all of the above and that wants to make a change for the students who are victims of the unshifted paradigm. What would this sensitive superintendent do-given his strong commitment to productivity, data, and students?

He would check the records to see if anything had been done in that district earlier that produced positive results.

He would find out which teachers or supervisors are effective with lower performers, starting with those who are or have been in his district.

He would conduct controlled experiments to determine whether any approaches identified are “authentic” and disseminable.

He would get facts about specifically what is needed to train teachers to be effective.

He would then expand those approaches that consistently lead to higher achievement to all schools in need.

Good advice.

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Comments

  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    He might even pray a little – in private, of course.

  2. Mike in Texas says:

    He should say, “Gee, only a bunch of idiots would make someone with no teaching experience the supt of a huge school district. I should quit now before the #$#@ really hits the fan”

  3. Mike in Texas says:

    As for Engelmann I noticed further down in the article he claims problems could be fixed if only Denver schools would use his Direct Instruction program, which he just happens to sell if you can believe that. He should’ve also told Bennet to be sure to tell the teachers of Denver he doesn’t give a damn about what they think, like he himself says about teachers who voice concerns about his Direct Instruction program.

  4. Mike in Texas wrote:

    Gee, only a bunch of idiots would make someone with no teaching experience the supt of a huge school district.

    Now that bunch of idiots would be the school board, right? And the school board, at least legally, represents the voters. Of course, those voters are just anyone and not necessarily expert on the subject of education. That might explain why they’d elect a bunch of idiots, right? But the question is, what to do?

    Oh, I know!

    How about only allowing teachers to vote in school board elections? That would be grand, would it not?

    But are just any teachers up to the task of electing a school board? Possibly not. Perhaps the bar should be set a bit higher. How about only public school teachers with tenure?

    Now those’d be some folks who know something about education by gosh! They wouldn’t elect a school board that would do something as stupid as hiring a superintendent who’s the mayor’s former chief of staff.

    Nope. They’d hire someone with lots of experience in education like, say, the president of the local NEA affiliate.

    As for Engelmann I noticed further down in the article he claims problems could be fixed if only Denver schools would use his Direct Instruction program, which he just happens to sell if you can believe that.

    Which, at worst, makes him just another purveyor of educrap. However, the recommendation embodied in your dismissal suggests otherwise.

    He should’ve also told Bennet to be sure to tell the teachers of Denver he doesn’t give a damn about what they think

    Which would make him virtually indistinguishable from every other district superintendent in the country whether they have a teaching background or not.

  5. Wow, what a concept – hiring someone who knows more about education to assist you so that you can tackle the management problems that face a big district like Denver. Sounds like he’s on the right track to me!

    Before I clicked on the comments I knew that there would be at least one post from Mike, and I knew what he was going to say. When will you ever get off your high horse and realize that schools need to be managed as well, and who better to manage them than a businessman?

    I guess I speak from experience. The district (in Texas) where I teach was a little one horse town about 20 years ago, but it is becoming a bustling suburb now. Fifteen years ago the school board hired a man with experience in business to come in as the principal of the high school. The high school at the time was a joke – no discipline and no school pride. The first year he came in and forced discipline on the teachers and made the students and teachers clean up trash around the school, because “no one can have pride in a messy school.” He hired an academic principal to oversee the academic programs while he took care of the managerial programs, and within 15 years our school was selected as a model school by a national educational organization. There are now 3 high schools in our one horse town, but people wouldn’t be moving to our area in droves if it weren’t for the groundwork laid by our principal.

    So you see, Mike, businessmen CAN effectively run schools, if they know their limitations. This new guy in Denver seems to be on the right track.

  6. Mike in Texas says:

    Jill,

    Its great he made improvements. However, he had to waste taxpayer money hiring the academic expertise to come in. Your school could’ve been improved by hiring a strong prinicipal without having to hire another administrator. I don’t know how it it is in your Texas district but in mine administrators usually draw twice what the average teacher makes.

    Knowing how small town Texas politics works, what kind of connections did this businessman have?

  7. Mike in Texas says:

    Allen wrote:

    educrap

    I really like that term, Allen. Do you mind if I use it? I will be sure to give you credit.

  8. St. Louis brought in an outside management firm and the city ate the poor guy alive. He made the hard decisions an insider couldn’t — things like closing schools and trimming staff — but of course once you close schools, you throw the neighborhood gangs together and the violence went through the roof.

    I’m just a teacher, not a businessperson, but it seems to me that an excellent school begins with an excellent principal who makes sure his or her teachers are excellent at what they do. It has nothing to do with imposed and pricey curriculums. Good teachers know what they’re doing and how and when to use a variety of teaching methods. The principal’s job is to make sure that he a) has talented teachers b) supports them. A super really has very little to do with the daily classroom. Mine is in the building quite a bit, and he always seems to drop by when I’m doing something a little goofy, but my principal runs the building. My principals are all in my room all the time, too, whether for formal or informal observations, looking for kids, etc. They know exactly what I do. I always have the children of school board and staff members in my classes. I have no secrets. And that’s great.

    BTW, we mostly develop our own curriculum, but when we want to do something different that we feel we need training in, we request it. New methods come from the teachers in the classroom; they are not imposed from the top down, and they are not imposed by somebody with no teaching experience. Talk about bad leadership.

    My advice to this guy is evaluate his principals very carefully, fire and hire as needed to have the best available, and give them three or four years to do their job with whatever practical support they need.

  9. Mike –

    It wasn’t a waste of taxpayer money to hire the academic principal – the job for this school was too big for one man. We also have 5 associate principals; the academic principal acts as an associate principal, too with those duties, but also handles the AP program and other academic-related issues.

    The reason this man got the job was not because of connections (you tend to think everything is a conspiracy, don’t you, Mike?), he got the job because he was in a district before ours and performed the same wonderful changes. (He was in business before that.)

  10. RCC wrote:

    I’m just a teacher, not a businessperson, but it seems to me that an excellent school begins with an excellent principal who makes sure his or her teachers are excellent at what they do.

    An excellent school also ends with an excellent principal.

    There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason why a larger administrative framework is needed if all you’re interested in is education. But the district is the funding source for the schools and, holding the purse-strings, calls the tune.

    But the district makes decisions based on a wider range of concerns then just those strictly related to the quality of the education the district can manage. Therein lies the problem.

    Mike in Texas wrote:

    I really like that term, Allen. Do you mind if I use it? I will be sure to give you credit.

    Well, you can try but I don’t think you should. As a purveyor of educrap you probably don’t want to do anything to draw attention to yourself.

    The public seems to be slowly waking up to the fact that putting your unquestioning faith in experts is a good way to get a batch of well-payed experts but not much else. Better to provide fewer foci for the public’s dawning anger then more.

    I’d suggest a low profile and the fervent hopes that public apathy reasserts itself.

  11. Mike in Texas says:

    Allen wrote:

    As a purveyor of educrap you probably don’t want to do anything to draw attention to yourself

    That’s me Allen, I develop multi-million dollar reading programs and sell them to the schools, with a nice little kickback to ensure teachers don’t use anything but my system. I copied that idea from Open Court and Direct Instruction.

    Jill, which is it? He had education experience or didn’t? If I were a teacher at that school I would’ve been asking why, with 6 asst principals the school was so filthy and discipline so lacking??

    What exactly were those 6 administrators doing??

  12. Actually, Allen, most schools — especially the large ones so in vogue these days — need an administrative team to back up the principal. Who does all the scheduling? Who handles student discipline for a couple thousand teenagers? Who runs special programs? Who coordinates all that testing? Who schedules field trips? Who is the liason for the busing company? Who observes the 100+ teachers in a building 3 – 5 times per year to determine teacher quality? Who schedules the dozens of groups that use the building when school is not in session? Who goes to every single athletic event? There’s a lot that goes on in a building that people don’t realize. One certainly doesn’t need a bloated administrative team, but you need the proper number of good people in place for everything to run smoothly — not unlike a business. You don’t cure excess by running to the other extreme.

  13. RCC wrote:

    Actually, Allen, most schools — especially the large ones so in vogue these days — need an administrative team to back up the principal.

    “Need” is kind of a slippery word in this context. It encompasses a large number of unspoken, and usually unquestioned, assumptions.

    First, what’s the right size for a high school? An elementry school? If the school is too big then the size becomes a justification for administrative overhead that deals with nothing but the size of the school.

    You can see the “bigger is better” assumption play out in the consolidation of school districts that’s always preceeded by assurances that the resultant efficiencies will pay for the costs of consolidation and more. Yet the promised savings never appear as evidenced by the uninterrupted budget increases.

    One certainly doesn’t need a bloated administrative team, but you need the proper number of good people in place for everything to run smoothly — not unlike a business.

    But unlike business, where a bloated administrative team inevitably leads to the dissolution of the organization, in public education a bloated administrative team leads to demands for expanded funding. And, also unlike business where any administrative overhead is seen clearly as a drag, albiet a necessary drag one hopes, on the organization in public education the percentage of budget that goes to pay for administration is a largely invisible number. Once the size of that percentage starts to appear out of the fog that surrounds public education the reason for maintaining the low profile becomes understandable.

    In business cutting administrative expenses is an on-going process and a valued skill. Could the same be said of the public education system?

    You don’t cure excess by running to the other extreme.

    Would that we could run to the other extreme but I’m afraid it’s just not politically feasible. We do seem to be ambling to the other extreme which is gratifying. And, I believe that the right combination and availability of technology might precipitate some running to the other extreme. But my crystal ball is clouded on the details so I’ll just have to plug along on faith for a while.

    Mike in Texas wrote:

    That’s me Allen, I develop multi-million dollar reading programs and sell them to the schools, with a nice little kickback to ensure teachers don’t use anything but my system.

    Hey, if you’re going to use my term you’re going to use it properly.

    Educrap is the umbrella term for all the here-today-gone-tomorrow fads, all the rationalizations, all the circumlocutions, all the dreary, insulting, meaningless excuses for why education can’t be accomplished.

    Parents don’t read enough to their kids. Their kids watch too much television. The parents are poor. The parents are rich. The kids are on drugs. The kids aren’t on drugs. The kids are absorbing higher-order thinking skills in a nurturing, child-centered, non-judgemental learning environment. Students internalize scientific ways of knowing through active participation in knowledge construction strategies.

    Educrap.

  14. In my opinion, Allen, I think smaller schools work better for the children and staff for many reasons. Consolodation and larger schools are the trend right now, though. Like I said, I don’t think bloated administrations are good, but I do want the backup I need as a classroom teacher. In short, I want things done right. I’m not that interested in ideologies. When I say “need,” I’m not dealing in “unquestioned assumptions.” I gave you specific examples of specific jobs that need to be done in any American high school. When you trim administrative costs, you start with what needs to be done. If you have some guy hanging around doing something not needed, you eliminate that job. But if you eliminate the job of the guy that is necessary for smooth operation of the business, you’re jeopardizing your business.

    In my experience, technology tends to increase budgets, not decrease them. Thirty years ago, how many schools needed to pay for computer labs (new every few years), wiring (now obsolete), T1 connections, lab staff, and system administrators?

  15. RCC wrote
    In my experience, technology tends to increase budgets, not decrease them. Thirty years ago, how many schools needed to pay for computer labs (new every few years), wiring (now obsolete), T1 connections, lab staff, and system administrators?

    I think Allen was speaking of efficiency increases in administration. It doesn’t cost much to set up and maintain a small network. The required equipment is cheap: some old P3 systems, wireless routers, copies of Win2K & Office and you’re set. I can see one sysadmin being able to handle the whole thing. You don’t even need internet access.

  16. RCC wrote:

    In my opinion, Allen, I think smaller schools work better for the children and staff for many reasons.

    I agree but given the district-based structure that the vast majority of public schools operate under, the preferences, needs, desires, prejudices and opinions of the district administrative personnel take precedence. And those district administrative personnel are, unsuprisingly, not too likely to find themselves to be superfluous.

    I gave you specific examples of specific jobs that need to be done in any American high school.

    Sorry. I should have given you the short answer: shut ’em down.

    An improperly sized school, like an improperly sized organization of any kind is a constant headache, inefficient and can’t be fixed. The size alone results in widening ripples of problems who’s solution kicks off more problems. It’s a well-understood problem in business but there are still oversized monuments to egos being erected all the time and it’s only the ruthless discipline of the marketplace that ultimately puts an end to these mistakes.

    Where’s the analogous displine in public education? What puts an end to misguided monuments to stupendous egos? What determines when a school is so big that it’s unmanageable? And in the unlikely event such a determination is made, what’s done about it?

    You know the answer. No school is ever too big. It just doesn’t have a large enough maintenance, security and administrative staff. And since no school is ever too big, there’s no need to consider what needs to be done about that over-sized school.

    In my experience, technology tends to increase budgets, not decrease them.

    Keep in mind that you’re coming at this from the prespective of public school teacher.

    In business the money’s spent if there’s a clear likelihood of enhanced profitability or reduced costs. In public education the spending of money is contigent on its availability not the likelihood of reduced costs or whatever’s comparable to increased profits. You spend the money because you can, not because some clearly defined goal will be achieved.

    andyo wrote:

    It doesn’t cost much to set up and maintain a small network.

    Right you are but don’t assume the cost of the hardware, and even the cost of the technical expertise required to install/configure/run the a system, is in any way related to the project budget. That’s strictly a function of funding availability and the project can be stretched or shrunk to fit the grant size without any consideration given to the effect on educational efficacy.

  17. Actually, most school districts around here use a program called SIS to automate things like attendance, grades, discipline records, scheduling, state-mandated reports, etc. Of course we all know how to use Office and Email. For heaven’s sake. This is 2005. We post all our homework assignments on the web. Our library has a computerized card catalog and subscribes to multiple databases. All my assignment sheets and scoring guides are downloadable by parents and the software I use to do my grades will generate any number of reports on individuals that I can shoot to a parent in an email or print and mail. (I can also generate reports to track just about anything I’m interested in looking at; last year it was reading comprehension in response to some new methods I was trying.)

  18. Actually, I have a degree in MIT (Management of Information Systems) and a former career in IT. You shouldn’t assume I don’t know the cost benefit analysis of technology.

  19. Since you made mention of the use of technology in the education area, not administration, I assumed that was what you were referring too:

    Thirty years ago, how many schools needed to pay for computer labs…

    My observation is that, in the administrative area, especially at the district level, the use of technology has made significant inroads although much later then in industry.

    In the educational area, I stand by my observation about the treatment of technology. That it’s less about improving educational efficacy then it is about grabbing available grant money. That sort of action precludes cost/benefit analysis since the benefit’s the grant and the only question is whether it can be bagged.

  20. Well, sure, that’s how the game works. If you just ask for $30,000 to install a lab, the district is going to tell you that there’s no money. OR you have to wait a couple of years while they decide on a bond issue, then the bond issue goes to vote, etc. So if somebody finds some money, you grab it and figure out what to do with it later. We had a grant come in last year to replace every machine in the building, and none too soon, cuz if I had to deal with the vintage crash-o-matic (1999) on my desk one more year, I was going to lose my mind (or more likely just bring in my own laptop and configure it myself).

    Oh, the examples were actually a mix of administration and education. Labs are education, but things like attendance reporting are mostly administrative. Probably should have been more focused.

    One of the really amusing things about the difference between teaching and business is that in business, they worry about people stealing office supplies from the office and bringing them home, but in teaching, you bring your supplies from home into the “office.” 🙂

  21. RCC wrote
    Actually, I have a degree in MIT (Management of Information Systems) and a former career in IT. You shouldn’t assume I don’t know the cost benefit analysis of technology.

    Well, you didn’t say that.:-) That’s more than I have. Keep in mind, though, this isn’t a computer site; you, of all people, should know that when you’re not among nerds technology invariably needs to be explained.:-)

  22. You’re right… that’s how I started in teaching… teaching undergraduate and adult computer classes :). It’s a slippery slope, I’m warning you! First you’re innocently explaining a network, next thing you know you’re standing in a small room in charge of 30 16-year-olds.