Monday, January 14, 2013

Public K-12 Schools: Organizational Relic or Holy Grail?

A Different Perspective

The vessel traversed our solar system at a modest but unimagined fraction of the speed of light, encountering only but protected from solar radiation and variations in magnetic flux at its boundary, propulsion technology those on the barely visible blue planet may discover in the 22nd century, if climate change has not regressed present societies and even civilization.   The vessel’s occupants, whatever they are, have been in space for centuries, periodically reconstituted, or remanufactured, or if biologic carbon-based versus synthetic, cloned, or just in control of the telomeres that regulate cell apoptosis.  This was the second proximate visit to the vicinity of the planet in one of its centuries.

In the planet earth’s calendar time, the first visit was 1920, where intelligence in the same vessel had visited earth, though not in the naïve sense of hokey anthropomorphic images of tiny bodies, with big heads and oversized eyes.  Rather by virtue of quantum mechanics and a far more complex version of what we have labeled a hologram, an image of a human with apparent substance is placed on earth, able to roam freely and change locations virtually at the speed of light, and be invisible when required (an effect now being achieved by US scientists in a primitive fashion by bending light).  The science in this case was capable of projecting reality but also sensing and forwarding all information back to its creators for a brief period before distance defeated the technology.

As the photons and related information are absorbed by that alien intelligence the changes on one of our planet’s continents between 1920 and 2010 are noted with at least curiosity:  From the 1920’s still primitive but raucous society, emergence of massive physical transport technologies; societal-, power-, and hate-driven conflicts using larger and less discriminating weapons that had devastated nations and millions of the species; cynical or unthinking destruction of myriad non-human species; discovery of nuclear reactions and the questionable controllability and yin and yang of that capability; the cleverness to send a human to its moon, a “Voyager” to the edge of deep space, and sophisticated mechanical crawlers as explorers to a planet they call Mars, but also leaving 19,000 pieces of space junk greater than 5 cm in earth orbit.

The mining algorithm continued to register change:  Discovery and primitive manipulation of organic DNA by relative brute force; emergence of silicon-based computing capability that appears to double every 18 months or so; explosion of ubiquitous and chaotic electronic-based communication capacities that appear to have abandoned historical morality and totally warped many societies’ cognitive and emotional expression, propagandizing or dumbing-down large segments of societies’ mature residents; growth of cost-effective robotics and AI eliminating human jobs at an accelerated pace; and the hint of discovery of the practical implications of elemental particles, and even the promise of a range of quantum effects and computing, that along with eventually using atoms and even one’s DNA as the basis for all computing, would irrevocably change societal interactions and cognitive events.

And sensing quickly picked up the material change in the parts per million of CO2 and even more problematic methane in the earth’s atmosphere, plus the change in temperatures of that protective blanket, the temperatures and acidity of its oceans, and with computing capability that makes earth climate change modeling appear analogous to code in a hand-held 1960’s calculator, noted the major ablation of ice at its poles and increasing short term severe weather aberrations produced by all related accumulative changes.

As data mining proceeded, comparing 1920’s records to 2010, a tiny concomitant event was revealed, a piece of man-made earth infrastructure and anthropology that seemed amazingly consistent, but in a microsecond was logged as the negative social constraint it is; except for some materials science changes, and some superficiality earth’s natives called architecture or style, the assemblies of beings and organizations were instantly recognizable between the first and second visits.  The data mining and anthropological cataloguing algorithms registered momentarily what might have passed on earth as alarm bells.  For those assemblies, dubbed public schools, had aggressively sequestered the earth’s young – reading between lines and the genre’s body language, the anthropology algorithm projected their stewards, dubbed educators, were change resistant, captives of tradition, and paranoid about publicly revealing what they were dispensing as knowledge in those places, and how, tying self-worth to some perceived entitlement rather than performance – but were apparently failing in creating the society’s needed learning.

Straight and Brief

Long but revealing way around to the key point, but many presentations in the last few years have already asserted that a reanimated 1920’s American would recognize little of 2013’s skylines and invention, from Google Glasses, to a space shuttle, to a Large Hadron Collider, to the number of women in positions of power, but its K-12 public schools would be immediately familiar.  The obvious implication is that those schools, their sociology, and their methods may represent an obsolete organizational model for the entrusted mission.

Some may take offense at the notion that K-12 classroom performance assessment is needed, but that monolithic reasoning is precisely the argument being unanimously used to justify the present corporate reform tactics, standardized testing in extremis, simplistic VAM assessments, and the ubiquitous use of “accountability” applied specifically to teachers.

Paralleling the accountability argument, but at a different pole, our public K-12 schools overall have wimped out in their own defense, while simultaneously failing miserably to offer an alternative model of K-12 performance that annunciates and justifies high order or long term learning versus the present test-induced effects.

Lastly, the present reform version of teacher accountability is analogous to holding an auto assembly technician accountable for a string of vehicle defects produced by one of its robots because a plant manager accepted a flawed assembly model and software.   Public K-12 accountability, as articulated by every knowledgeable management tome, starts with leadership, in this case from a superintendent and principals – it will be argued that presently many are closer to being deployed as, respectively, K-12 “plant managers” and “foremen” rather than needed learning strategists.

Organization Redux

The above, still just a fraction of the factors impacting current school performance, all lead to the organizational design(s) that foots present K-12 performance issues.  The next few posts will explore the nature of organization designs applicable to US K-12 public schools, or even privatized K-12 programs.  The for-profit motive prompting charters intersects organizational design, but not to the extent that many believe if the mission of an educational system is properly specified.

In turn, the organizational boxes designated superintendent and principal aren’t even in the mix until the right organizational processes and structure are matched to the mission of a K-12 system.  The key point is, that an organizational design is not merely the usual graphic of boxes connected by solid or dotted lines, or what is termed a table of organization, but the arrangement of various processes that connect and bind human resources in designated roles, along with a gestalt that is the resultant of creating an organization.  In the latter sense, the organization becomes a system that can learn, function in ways that may not have been intended by a designer, and survive its designers and operators.  The present K-12 school models may, age aside, actually still be optimal for needed future learning; they may also be hopelessly obsolete.  If the latter, beating on public K-12 schools with corporate reform, testing, and VAM, may result in less performance than having left them alone.
The Managers

Before leaving the alleged peak coordinators of a school model, some positioning.

Our public schools did not spring into existence with superintendents and principals, but with, first, school administration by local committees, then by state lay boards, finally by local lay boards, a product of the oversight of education in the US Constitution.  The first local superintendents were created in a few cities by 1837, in more by 1870, reaching a high water mark in 1960 when there were more than 35,000 superintendents.  Nor was superintendent existence and positioning prescribed by statue, but only by convention.

The challenge in assessing this leadership form for K-12 by five authors writing on superintendency in this century was synthesized as: 

“The superintendent of schools is a position of wide influence but one that is narrowly understood. This, in part, stems from its history. Rarely has a position of such centrality grown in such a tangled way. Consequently, there has not been much written or studied about the superintendency, and to this day, not much is known about how it functions and why some people do it well and others do not. Further, because of the tremendous pressure on public education in the twenty-first century, the superintendent's role is changing and moving toward an uncertain future.”

A reasonable proposition given the last decades’ marginal performance of US collegiate schools of education, and their isolation from other disciplines, is that few superintendents and principals educated in only that venue came out with the interdisciplinary and managerial awareness for school organization and leadership presently demanded.  They may even have been exceptional classroom teachers, but in the same spirit as observed in higher education, that classroom excellence may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for organization leadership; some of the best collegiate professors regularly become the least effective deans.

One perspective on the future of that public K-12 leadership by the same authors as above is likely pretty close to the challenge:

“…the uncertain political climate that now surrounds schools will require the superintendent to be proficient in politics and the art of persuasion. Much of the work will revolve around the ability to create and maintain relationships. The modern superintendent will not be a superintendent of schools whose job is to oversee and manage – he or she will be a superintendent of learning who will have to navigate an uncertain terrain with skill and finesse.”

A last glaring managerial inconsistency, with systems populated by weak or sycophant school boards, public school superintendents may effectively report to no one; explicably Lord Acton's "dictum" may kick in.  Conversely, there are enough anecdotes about K-12 school peak leadership that has been highly ethical and successful to suggest there are criteria to be identified.  Unfortunately, the reform movement has been so intent on using billions of dollars and questionable research to attack the classroom teacher that there has been little empirical research to guide selection of best public K-12 normative leadership models.

Designing the Organization

This is the beginning of a journey.   It starts with the premise that US public K-12 education left the blinds down for most of a century, assuming that K-12 education and schools were unique, not subject to more general theories of human behavior and structural change to achieve their work. 

A K-12 school system is in the abstract simply de facto an organization, that was either designed with awareness of the criteria for its strategic and tactical organizational performance, or just evolved by successive functions and feedbacks.  It is an organization (existing within some specific environment that may or not be fully recognized and assessed) that usually starts with a mission – though many public K-12 schools have only belatedly discovered the need for that definition – then refined by specification of more complex values and goals, and takes on operational character by roles and how human resources are engaged.

Management futurist and author Gary Hamel in his 2007 book, The Future of Management, highlighted our future challenges.  Paraphrasing his observations for education:

“…your [organization] will be challenged to change in a way for which it has no precedent.  What’s even more worrisome, he argues, is that decades of orthodox management decision-making practices, organizational designs, and approaches to employee relations provide no real hope that [organizations] will be able to avoid faltering and suffering painful restructurings.

I’ve often felt as if I were trying to teach a dog to walk on his hind legs. Sure, if you get the right people in the room, create the right incentives, and eliminate the distractions, you can spur a lot of innovation. But the moment you turn your back, the dog is on all fours again because it has quadruped DNA, not biped DNA.

Now there’s a new set of challenges on the horizon. How do you build organizations that are as nimble as change itself? How do you mobilize and monetize the imagination of every employee, every day? How do you create organizations that are highly engaging places to work in? And these challenges simply can’t be met without reinventing our 100-year-old management model.”

In a related context, New York Times op-ed writer and author, Tom Friedman this Sunday underscored the major significance of collaborating in achieving organizational (or national) performance, a theme that has been repeated for the last couple of decades by those critiquing American management.  For perspective, given the consistency and evidence of highly successful performance in US sectors that actually practice it, how does the present K-12 corporate reform movement metaphorically stack up to that goal in its crude advocacy of last post’s “groups of apes hurling rocks at each other to see who survives?”

Assumptions Rooting Beliefs

The last part of the problem statement is the set of core assumptions or beliefs about a formal K-12 learning process that root the entire school venue.  A start on those entry conditions includes assessing beliefs:

That K-12 education must be formal, in groups defined by age, structured by extant disciplines, successfully guided by generalized rubrics, and delivered by some dyadic or group interpersonal exchange versus amenable to programmable learning delivery?

That the “classes or grades” in K-12 are actually meaningful ways of partitioning students for imparting knowledge and creating learning; addresses the variance of current performance; reflects awareness of the effect of prior learning, cognitive readiness, and social efficacy of that mode of segmentation?  Where rapidly expanding MOOC (massive online open courses) fit into any level of K-12?

That traditional teaching and teachers are actually the relevant or at least universal contexts for visualizing how learning occurs across highly evolving personal capacities in child development?

How learning actually happens, and how it is translated into the capacity to do work, and create, given the distinctions regularly unfolding between education’s deductive models of learning, some a century old, versus the cognitive processes being explained by current and likely future neural biological and field empirical research?

Whether there is such a thing as a meaningful “common core” as presently being marketed, and whether that is hubris and instead of actually conveying knowledge, has become a form of social and values indoctrination?  Is that core a contradiction of genuine knowledge of phenomena and processes as developed and catalogued by legitimate specialists and scientists in substantive disciplines?

What happens when benchmarking and contemporary assessments of productivity are applied against the allocations of resource spending in public K-12 systems?

How do we actually, with validity and reliability, model how learning occurs longitudinally, with what mix of causal factors, and how longitudinally does that tactical learning translate into maturing professional and social practice by its recipient?

What K-12 management styles, coupled with what environments create durable and high performance systems, and coupled to what classroom performance styles, produce the greatest learning change with the least internal variance across learners?

The list probably goes on; what a growing list suggests is that public K-12 a century ago did not discover the holy grail of defining the work of learning, and has for a century failed to do its own critical home work on structural issues of what works, vis propagating traditional classroom rubrics.  Given that American society seems quite short on holy grails, or even finding fiscal responsibility measured in 2 or 3 x 10 to the 12th dollars, the premise is public K-12 design still has a way to go.

Design Factors

While the school organizational model simply supplies the footers and defines infrastructure for its functions and interrelationships, it is where subsequent performance starts. 

Presently ignored in the proposed modeling is a whole universe of attributes of the human players in the K-12 game.  At issue is whether an organization is designed around individuals and personalities, or whether the design precedes the actors?  Both scenarios are embedded in the history of education, and especially outside of education, where there may be a sharper top-down role for personal leadership/entrepreneurship in the private sector, and there are many successful examples of the latter.  Premised on the view that the public K-12 system has to survive the entry and exit of any of its performers over time, yet stay stable, the view for the moment is that such organization supersedes design based on personalities.

Below are two sets of the criteria that will be used over the next posts to assess and propose alternative models for achieving the public K-12 school mission, juxtaposed against various general models of organization you may have encountered in a first management course, e.g., centralized/flat, line and staff, matrix, etc.   The proposition is, that triangulating alternative models of organization, criteria sought in design, and the processes that are enabled or are a design’s bête noire, can be used to assess organizational options to seek a best fit to the school’s specific environments and raison d'etre.

The first set encompasses generic criteria sought in any organization’s design.  The second set proposes, that more important than traditional names in organizational boxes, are the processes that any organization design must support to deliver on its mission.

Possible organizational criteria are:

Create learning measurement that goes beyond present standardized tests.

Make the system a force in shaping its own reform strategies.

Drive the organization toward student/parent focus.

Reduce the hierarchy to enhance freedom to act.

Allow flexibility for changes in student/parent/community requirements.

Enhance partnerships with parents, vendors, unions and communities.

Cut the time required to make decisions.

Maximize capacity for organizational learning.

Simplify work and reduce bureaucracy.

Support individual and team accountability for results.

Support fundamental process improvement and redesign.

Minimize organizational boundaries.

Achieve deep change throughout the organization.

Reduce the cost structure and/or change factor productivity.

Make the public organization the K-12 supplier of choice.


The next list takes a swipe at identifying the intrinsic processes or flows that are ever present in an organization’s execution of planning and operations, whether by design or simply because they are endogenous to human player interaction and function in the organization.  Key is that they be recognized and understood at minimum, and be subject to mediation where they become causal factors for school performance.

Processes and flows intrinsic to organizations:

Tasks, teaching, administrative, or support assigned to the unit or subunit.

Within the unit or subunit, whether the tasks are interdependent with each other and whether they are intensively interdependent, i.e., whether their performance is governed by feedback for achievement.

Task interdependence across the boundaries of subunits and reciprocal  interdependence that puts the greatest stress on organization decision-making.

Task variability, task difficulty and task impingement, i.e., task interdependence with core function or technology in the firm.

Task function based on local knowledge or driven only by RRPP (rules, regulations, policies, procedures).

How people groupings are required to facilitate task achievement.

Knowledge accumulated or disbursed from any given segment of the organization.

Knowledge categorized by type – discipline, community, financial, personnel, technological, student, parent, school values, school goals, competitive view of charters, school status in a state, etc.

Information flows of all types, within any subset of the organization.

Information flows between lateral units or subunits of the organization.

Information flows, bilateral, vertically between layers of the organization.

Properties of the information flows, i.e., periodicity, variability, turbulence, predictability, digital, formats.

Capacities to analyze, decide, act, override, cause review, redirect a flow, in methods to be allowed, variance in teacher performance allowed, where and when to change methods or curricula, when and where to hire, when and where to start or curtail task performance.

Capacity to determine speed of choice or action.

Intrapreneurship permitted, i.e., units permitted that are disengaged from others for specific purposes like innovative development.

Degree to which self-interest is encouraged, permitted.

Authority dispersed, only downward.

Informal authority, from knowledge or charisma, and acceptance.

Whether unit or sub unit has operative authority, i.e., right to carry out
responsibility and right to determine within reason how it will be executed.

Clique formation laterally, defensive or offensive.

Inherent conflicts in either operating goals or authority positions created within or between units and sub units.

Capacity to rotate assignments.

Whether there are formal boundary spanning roles, e.g., between school and union, school and the private sector, school and state authority.

All of the above without more school context are quite abstract, but become regular events or perturbations in any ongoing organization.  When clothed in the fabric of actual practices within a school (or any other organization) they become dynamics that are either managed or become sources of irritation or conflict, and capable of effecting the organization’s composite performance.


The above are not prescriptive, unquestionably exploratory, not ready for PowerPoint or framing.  But except for this blog’s penchant for diving into topics where there is education currency plus controversial positions to be plumbed, it was always intended to be an experimental laboratory and creative platform for ideas, the more diverse the better.

Next post will attempt to look at the functional contents of a K-12 school system in the context of the above abstractions and conceptual design factors.  Where that process will carry the analysis is an unknown, but it has a lot of theoretical company and has served over time as a platform for assessing real organizations. Come back for the next session.

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