Editor's note: Robert Shaner begins his role as superintendent of Rochester Community Schools on March 1.
In his recently released book, American Turnaround, Ed Whitacre describes how, as the newly appointed chairman of General Motors, he helped change the focus and direction of the company by battling the status quo.
Throughout the book, I kept seeing parallels between GM and our local schools, and was left wondering if our new superintendent could do the same in Rochester.
Whitacre didn’t really set out to be a change agent, but once he arrived, he could see that the senior management at GM had simply grown too accustomed to their own bizarre way of doing things. Matrix management “allowed them escape accountability, and endless PowerPoint presentations misdirected attention and consumed precious time."
In a very similar way, our schools are structured so that nobody is really accountable for the end result; they are only responsible for “delivering instruction.” Schools grind kids through the mill the same way, year after year. And as far as PowerPoints … ever sit though a school board meeting?
Whitacre was able to see these things because he was an outsider. And as he repeatedly pointed out, this malaise had been going on for years, and was the direct result of the senior management, who, even after watching their stock price and market share plummet over a six year period, refused to accept that they had done anything wrong. For the most part they felt that “the economy got us”, and just could not accept the reality of the world in which they found themselves, and acknowledge that THEY were largely responsible for their own situation.
Our schools live in that same fantasy. They blame the state and incessantly complain about “inadequate” or “unstable” funding. They ridicule state assessments and benchmarks, denounce “cut scores” and grumble about graduation requirements. Any suggestion that they do things differently is framed as “an attack on teachers.” They refuse to accept that the world – and its financial resources, career requirements, and learning technologies – are evolving.
Whitacre saw plenty of talent at GM, stymied by the bureaucracy. We’ve got plenty of talented teachers in Rochester who are not fully achieving their potential because of an antiquated structure.
And GM was not particularly customer oriented, either with their dealers (who buy from GM), or the retail customer (that ultimately buys the car). Likewise, our schools have set up THEIR way of doing things, and both parents and students are expected to squeeze themselves into the school mold.
In the case of GM, the senior managers ignored the changes that were happening around them, and were subsequently driven – forcibly – into extinction. There was some unfortunate collateral damage along the way, but GM survived, and now appears to be thriving.
Public schools have for too long ignored the market forces swirling around them. They continue to follow a largely one-size-fits-all approach to education, with the primary emphasis being “butts in seats”. The teaching model they use is not much different than the one used 50 years ago, with a single teacher in front of X number of kids, who live in the same neighborhood, grouped by age. It too deserves to be driven – forcibly – into extinction.
Parents and students are realizing that education today can be so much more!
Imagine a school where together parents, teachers, and students could collaborate on an individual education plan that can appropriately mix classroom instruction, homework, and self-paced on-line learning. Students could progress based on their ability to learn, and not be limited to the speed of the classroom. Those that struggle would have access to more one-on-one time with our learning professionals. Education will be driven and measured by results, not by a time clock and “seat time”.
Just like GM, our public education system is destined to smack head-on into market forces. The world is moving fast, and parents realize our children need to be better prepared. Just like the old GM, the education bureaucracy is bristling, hoping that ignoring the market forces will just make them go away.
For GM, it took a bankruptcy, a bailout, and a new chairman to drive change.
What will it take for our public education system?
Governor Snyder recognizes the opportunity and potential, and has started planting the seeds. He commissioned the Oxford Foundation to generate ideas that will make Michigan a national leader in education. This threatens the monopoly the current bureaucracy holds over our children, and with the right leadership has the potential of driving significant and positive change – just like we saw with GM.
The question is … will our new superintendent lead us into a new future like Whitacre, or will he attempt to drive a stake in the ground, and keep defending the status quo?