Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Fix" for education

by Ed Latham

In all professional sports, teamwork is vital to a successful year. Each team has an owner and a head coach. Most have an offensive coach and a defensive coach. Additionally there may be other specialist that work with different positions so I will call them positional coaches. All of the coaches must have a philosophy and means to get every team member on the same page in order to build a culture of success. For the sake of discussion, lets compare these vital structures to the educational team and talk about educational “success”.

The owner of the team basically is responsible for the money. This equates to the school board and both parties want to see some measure of success for the investment.

The head coach is the heart and soul of the team and ultimately directs the leadership in which direction the school is headed in, what aspects need highest attention and even some possible ways to accomplish those goals. This is our school superintendents. They take the charge of the school board and works with the administrators and public to set up the organization of people to make it happen.

The offensive and defensive coaches can be thought of as managers of squads of players with specific foci. These are our principals, elementary school and middle/high school, that work day to day with the staff to help accomplish goals specific to their grade level learners. The principal will also have to pick up some of the public relations with parents (similar to the media in sports) who are always interested in why things are the way they are. In sports, the head coach has that responsibility. In education, our superintendents and principals share that role of trying to educate and sometimes, placate, the public that has some investment in that team.

Finally we have the players. Our teachers and our grant people working on literacy and numeracy and technology all fill these rolls.

Now that we have our team assembled with their team responsibilities outlined so that every team should now be successful, right? Much press has been out in the last decade about failing schools followed by “Why?” questions that to this day everyone still questions. From a sports perspective I offer the following reason why.

Education does not have ANY form of free agency. In professional football (American, not soccer), considered by most to be the most popular televised sport in the world right now, there has been a free agency system that has created not only successful teams, but a successful system of organizations that produce most of their goals, (entertain, create interest, generate money …). In case you are not familiar with this system let me offer a short summary. Each professional player in the league has an agent and is represented by a league wide players union. The player’s union(teachers union) works with the owners (school board) to ensure just rules and regulations for both parties exist. The agents for each player are charged with finding the organization (school) in which each player’s strengths and weaknesses best fit with the team they are hired to work at. The coaches on that team (admin staff) have an evaluation period of training camp (first two years of teacher contract) in which to work with each player to find out how well that player fits “the system”. When cuts come up, the coaches (admin staff) contact all the other teams with notes and suggestions about which of their cut players (teachers) may be better suited for the desires of other coaching staffs. In this system, a player that does not “fit” is not discarded, rather the system encourages directions the player can go to find a better fit. When that system works, the teams are highly successful.

Schools have much of the free agency system foundation in place. We are missing agents for teachers and any sort of system in which administrators can move staff to systems in which the teacher’s skills can best be used. In effect, every administrator is “stuck” with the staff they have. Granted, the diverse skills and attitudes can be a great boon in some ways, but the lack of cohesion and attitude prevent true teamwork. Again, back to the sports world, there are teams in most sports that throw money at talent and assemble the greatest collection of talent (on paper) for a year and that team almost always bombs horribly. Almost any collection of superstars, all individuals with great talent, fails if those individuals do not buy into some team philosophy or direction. No matter how talented the individuals are, no staff with diverse personal agendas, philosophies and goals can be as successful as a cohesive team of lesser talented individuals all believing and working in the same system.

Lets look at this “new” system for success. I am a new administrator to a system. I get in with my staff and work with them for two years. During that time I am evaluating my players (teachers) to see their strengths and personal goals to see how that fits with my administrative goals. Meanwhile both the teachers and the admins above me are looking at my fit in the system. If any group feels there is a mismatch, there is a system to resolve. I, as an administrator have an agent. This agent may represent other admins around the state, around the region, or even a whole country. My agent gets paid by taking a slight percentage of whatever wages are negotiated in each school she gets a teacher or admin hired at. Therefore, my agent has a vested interest in helping me find a system that best fits my skills and directions and she gains from my success and longevity. If there are difficulties in my placement in my new school, my agent is getting all this feedback. She processes that and helps to hit up the other schools that may better fit based on the feedback she receives. After my two year try out, I know I either fit the system or my agent has a short list of places I can land and some constructive feedback for me to better my next placement.

The same works for teachers and their agents. The admin comes up and shares a direction and some methods the system wishes the staff to adopt. I don’t successfully adopt either by ability or attitude and my agent is getting all this feedback to best determine where I might be successful as a teacher. After my two years, if I fit, I am in a system that not only fits my abilities, but my attitudes and goals are at least in a similar line.

By now union people are screaming at this idea, but let me remind you that the teachers union, the admin union, and heck even the school boards could have a union all work together to help create and maintain a fair workplace for all. After all, our current union structure’s main focus is on the group, not the individual. It is impossible for any one union to best represent each individual’s need. For that you need a personal representative, an agent.

Educators all want success and many are feeling there is much lacking in terms of success nationally and locally. I suggest we can all find our educational home in a free agent system as described in professional sports. Sports that are highly successful in accomplishing individual team (school) goals and the entire organization like the National Football League (NFL) to prosper just like we wish to see Education prosper. The salvation of education lies in getting the right players connected with the right leaders to create teams all accomplishing their goals rather than forcing reformation that has annual circularity.


Nancy said...

"The head coach [superintendent] is the heart and soul of the team" - good grief, Ed, where did this come from? In my 14 years of union work, I believe I met only one superintendent who even came close to that description. Most of them were much more concerned with finances and politics than education or reform.

Beyond that, Maine teachers are not permitted by Maine law to negotiate anything about topics like curriculum, hiring practices, lunch, textbooks, transfers, class sizes, etc. So to say that "unions" should work with administrators and school boards/committees on such matters is naive. Even if they did, a school board/committee could (and often does) change its mind a few years later and there's not much of anything teachers could do about it.

Ed Latham said...

Nancy I know the write up I did is not a practical replacement for the existing system as I wrote it. I don't think I was clear on my intent.

In working with many staffs around the state, there is many variances in how each administrative team tries to work to meet all the laws, mandates and communities goals. Teachers, likewise, have preferences and personal goals that may vary widely within each staff unit.

I look at how professional sports teams deal with the variances within their required mandates and how their organizational system is set up to allow for flexible staffing protocols that allow for each unit to focus more directly on the team's ideals. In the NFL specifically, I see an organizational system in their league that has allowed measurable success at all levels of the sport in many different areas. Both the teams and individuals are experiencing unprecedented successes. Just to clarify I am talking more of meeting goals rather than specifics like points scored or other player or team stats.

My post was more of a "What if" situation to stir up debate and devil's advocates to such a system moving into public education. I appreciate your insight, especially on the union end of things, because I know I am ignorant of many of inner workings outside the classroom that currently drive education.

So with the givens that all schools have legal responsibilities, they have federal and state mandates to meet, social pressures abound, and they may frequently change locally could there be a system in which it was easier for the teaching staffs and the different administrations to find more cohesive alignments of philosophies, methods, or goals such that each school may have stronger teams. Teachers that feel strongly that X practice or X set of philosophies drive her passion for teaching could then easily end up on a staff that, at the least, supports X. Right now it seems that most staffing is "work with who is there" and there is almost always some wide variances in philosophy, direction, and instructional practice in each staff.

One might argue that the same flexibility I mention in flexible staffing options would necessitate displacing teachers and their families vastly and possibly frequently until a match is found. I know that is not favorable or even desirable and yet, professional athletes are moving around the country as they get traded or signed with different teams. Maybe the vast amount of money they get makes that transition easier? Maybe the way teachers get compensated would need to change in any such free agent system like this?

Ed Latham said...

Please don't take these flights of fancy as attacking existing systems. The systems are what they are for a reason and there is much history as to how we got to where we are. Rather take this post as a comparison of how other "successful" organizations deal with similar issues and what would happen if their system were put into the education system. What would that look like? How would it work or what would have to change to make it work? What is missing from the discussion? These questions are more what I was aiming at with my original post.

You have already clarified that the law prohibits unions from involvement in the many areas you cited. I am guessing those laws were to safe guard the rights of local communities to set those regulations up. In the NFL, owners get together annually to set the core set of rules and regulations up, but then they have a set of variances at their local levels with their teams. Would that translate at all to schoolboards meeting (probably digitally) working to set up education policy (maybe instead of government) regulations while leaving enough diversity for each school to be run with enough variance to satisfy local demands?

I thank any who wish to play with this idea and help fill in angles for differences between how professional sports organizations find success and how education currently is operating. I am hopeful we can find aspects that could be adopted that would improve anything, but I realize any such change would take much time and energy. Still, it can not hurt to play with the idea :)

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Anonymous said...

Maybe you could just hire pre-programmed robots with a few cheerleaders on the side to keep the sports atmosphere. After all, there is no talent or creativity in teaching. Seems anyone can teach if you give them a sports background. After all, teaching someone how to make a home run is just like teaching them how to read. We could even adopt the sports paradigm of giving every child a trophy for standing in the field. Just think - every kid could pass every class just because they're on the team. Oh wait - we already have that paradigm in colleges. Maybe we could use the business paradigm, where the folks at the top who don't contribute much get all the goodies. Oh wait - we already have that going on too.
How is it that all the people in business and sports think they have all the answers for education? And do they ever roll up their sleeves and do it, or do they just complain and criticize?

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