02 December 2010

Delusional Thursday: Partnerships

A couple of days back, Chary and I got into this rather public debate over an issue I admit I know nothing about. She questioned the rather controversial appointment of a professional manager as the chancellor of the New York public school system, and predicted a grim future for the 1.1 million kids who come under the system. Chary had a point- how can someone who's experience is limited to running magazine businesses head an education system?

As a professional manager who had been brought into an organization to set up systems, and who ultimately quit in disgust because of the resistance she had to face at every stage, I naturally questioned the question she raised. You don't need to know anything about education to manage an education system- you need to know about managing businesses, and you need to be willing to listen to the experts so you can build your systems around the real needs. The way I see it, the best person to manage any system is a professional manager, and the more diverse their prior experience, the better for the cross-pollination they bring to the job.

Our views are mutually incompatible, you may say. But I disagree.

Chary is an outstanding teacher, and any system that has people like her can consider itself blessed. And when I say she is outstanding, I am not talking about her qualifications (which are brilliant). I am taking about her compassion, her generosity, and her drive to ensure the best for every single one of her students, all of which shines through in every interaction you have with her. She is the kind of teacher every mother wishes was teaching her children, and who every student remembers long after they graduate from her class. In the classroom (and in the staffroom preparing and grading lessons), you cannot have anyone better than a Chary.

But does that mean Chary (or someone like her) is the best person to manage an education system? I would think not. Managing an enterprise requires a box of tools which years of teaching doesn't give you. Managing an enterprise means motivating everyone to give their best. Managing an enterprise means optimizing the utility of every dollar. Managing an enterprise means prioritizing expenditure, so funds are available for running the core business the way they should be run. Managing an enterprise is best left to someone like me who has done nothing else for 15 years- someone who has known so many enterprises, she can intuitively "get" what needs to be changed and how.

In an ideal world, Chary and I would be partners in running the NY public schools system. She is the teacher who knows what is needed in the classroom. She is the person who knows exactly how the rewards and recognition system should work, so teachers are inspired and incentivized to put in their best effort. I am the manager who knows how to recognize and cut dead wood. I am the person who can take inputs from Chary and put in place a system which rewards teachers for the effort they put into teaching and mentoring. In an ideal world, Chary and I both realise that together we can put in place a system that provides quality education to 1.1 million children and youth.

The world, however, is far from ideal.

In the real world, Chary doubts my intentions. She is convinced that I am going to cut salaries and render her redundant. She thinks I am going to divert money meant for blackboard chalk into renovating my office. She resents having me as her 'boss' when she knows she is a much better teacher than I can ever be.

The distrust and antagonism is not just from Chary's side. In the real world, I do not behave as a manager; I preen around as the 'BOSS'. Instead of addressing the concerns of the people in the system, I publicly garner support from high-profile individuals who have no stake in the system. In the real world, I treat the appointment, not as an opportunity to make a system paid for by the public deliver on its promise, but as a personal recognition of my worth.

In the real world, Chary and I fight, and when we fight, the ones who suffer are the various stakeholders in the system.

Chary and I are friends. We have our differences, but we sort them out as adults, and don't let that come in the way either of our friendship or our mutual respect. If Chary and I are asked to work together, we would be able to work to each of our strengths, and create something strong and lasting.

And it is not just the NY public school system. In every almost every area of human activity you see petty egos at work. You see people competing when they should be collaborating. You see mutual distrust where there should be respect. You see people trying to do a job they have no aptitude for only because they feel that the other job is more 'prestigious' than the one they can excel in.

If only people started working together and listening to each other, how much better the world would be.

I like to think I am Realistic- after all, doesn't everyone want the best?.
My friends tell me I am being Idealistic- people are people, and you cannot change them.
But sometimes, just sometimes, I wonder if I am not actually being Delusional. But then I was born on a Thursday, I cannot help being Delusional.


LTM said...

well, not knowing Chary as well as you, I hesitated to say what you just spelled out here. As a former teacher and state association employee, I've seen new leaders come in and "reform" (aka, start cutting everything in site).

But as a small business owner, I also know the last thing you want to do if you're trying to make your business succeed is cut your most vital assets...

It's a tough situation, but I think the appointment of the deputy in this case sounds like a step in the right direction.

I hope the best for these guys. You know, the kids being our future and all~ :o) <3

Danette said...

I wish that you were right and that everyone just wanted the best... but there are many people that want to profit off of the school systems here and they don't mind destroying them in the process. The school systems here in Denver are being driven into the ground by the business minds. They aren't interested in the kids or in education they are only interested in making a profit. You cannot run a school system like a business no matter how big it is. I am afraid Chary is right about that.

You have a good heart and you would not do what I see done here in the states by business people who get involved in the school systems but YOU are an exception and exceptions only prove the rule.

Tina said...

As a former teacher, I totally see both sides of this. What you suggest of a partnership seems the ideal solution to this issue. But I think the bottom line comes when we look at the heart character of the person in charge. You can be the most brilliant of people and very successful at what you do, but if you don't CARE about the people you are managing, you will not be successful. People who feel valued, cared for, trusted for input, and a part of the solution WILL work harder and accomplish more than the ones who are forced to fall into line behind the latest "brilliant" business model. This I know from first-hand experience.

Hart Johnson said...

I completely agree that a trained MANAGER would be best in charge, but not a BUSINESS manager. Education has too many outcomes in the form of intangibles. Let me give you a concrete example.

In Detroit there are maybe 20 high school. The 'Best' is Cass Tech, a high school that graduates upward of 90% of its students and most go on to college.

Poor Murrey Wright, in the same neighborhood, has a graduation rate around 40%.

The sleight of hand though, is this. Cass only accepts students who test high enough to get in, and if your GPA drops below a 2.5, a student is invited to LEAVE. That's right... if you are struggling, they don't want you anymore. So OF COURSE they can function at top efficiency--they only have driven students who are doing all their work.

Public school systems broadly aren't allowed to do that. They CAN'T 'get rid of' the failing students, yet by and large 'objective criteria' hold TEACHERS accountable. What is REALLY MISSING is a system of social workers, stable homes, employment training for the parents of those kids, health clinics... all the stuff that would give those students the stable environment in their LIVES so they had the leisure to THINK about school.

A good teacher can change a kid's WHOLE LIFE--I remember the one who did mine--who finally convinced me I was smart. But that can't happen in a classroom of 40. Yet a business person has to play the odds... they are looking at success in percentages--not one kids at a time, as kids need to be taught.

There is also a side agenda of conservatives of the US who would like ALL education privatized--they WANT the schools to fail. I don't know enough to know if Mayor Blumeberg or this woman are of that view, but they belong to the political party that makes it a possiblity.

Hart Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sue said...

Fantastic response Rayna, and there are many times I visit similar Realistic/Idealistic/Delusional worlds.

For me the crux of the matter is finding someone who would be as open as you: "you need to be willing to listen to the experts so you can build your systems around the real needs...cross polination...collaboration...respect..." all these are desperately needed by those in power in our (Victoria TAFE) education systems. Unfortunately many of us have learnt by experience that these ideals get trampled in the rush to fulfill performance targets. Our concerns are dismissed without discussion or investigation as being typical of bleeding heart teachers who aren't willing to embrace change.

I want to believe the best of those in power here, but from our most recent experience of 'change for the better', (which they're now scrambling to fix) I know I'm being delusional.

CA Heaven said...

I partly agree with both Chary and you. I think a good professional manager can head a bout anything because:
1. A good manager will make sure (s)he gets an administration with the business knowledge (s)he lacks.
2. A good professional manager will put main emphasis and resources into the core of the business, which in Chary's case is education.
A bad manager can make a big mess in any organisation, even if (s)he has the proper educational background.

Cold As Heaven

Unknown said...


I understand the perspective of the manager. I'm happy that in this case (chancellor and her deputy), that the deputy has expertise in education and the chancellor's specialty is business. It would be a wonderful mesh if these two are able to work collaboratively and respect one another's professionalism.

However, working with the Department of Ed for 14 years now, I have seen none of this. I fear that it will come down to graduation rates, credit accumulation, performance statistics, budget cuts, layoffs, etc.

I know that redundancies need to be eliminated. There should not be four secretaries in a school that could function well with two. We shouldn't pay principals so much overtime that there isn't enough to provide paper for the students to write on (Many of my students are from the lower portion of the socioeconomic scale).

For the record, I think you and I would be a hell of a team and actually make a big difference where it counts. We may not agree on everything but we're both willing to compromise with the students' best interests in mind.

Unknown said...


Hi, nice to meet you. I love hearing all comments whether they don't agree, agree or somewhat agree with my own. I really appreciate honesty and hearing the point of view of others. It puts into perspective flaws that my point of view may have. And even if I don't agree, I respect the opinions of others.

So next time, don't hesitate. Just give it to me. :D

Natasha said...

@ Leigh- I would think teachers are the last thing anyone in the school system would think of cutting.
And I too hope the appointment works out for the best.

@ Danette- you know what, I never even thought about that- that people don't necessarily want the system to survive as long as they make money off it. Shows how Delusional I actually am :-(

@ Tina- I take good intentions for granted. I presume everyone who enters the education system does it because they care for the kids. I have been talking of a case where people want the best for the kids, but can't get along. If even that is not there, I see little hope.

@ Hart- that is such a sad situation, but one I am not unfamiliar with. The b-school I went to never saw failures, but that is because they only took 0.2% of the people who applied, and spent the first semester forcing the laggards to drop out. If you survived that, you can survive anything. But we never claimed to be anything if not elitist.

But even in case of schools, you can put different success measures - an overall improvement in grades, attendance percentage, percentage of people who go for higher studies- most things can be reduced to numbers, even if the numbers still do not tell the whole story. If a system is measured by parameters like these, investments would be made in things like social workers to keep kids in school.
And making money off public schools is just so sad :-(

@ sue- after reading your comments, I am convinced that I am in fact Delusional. I firmly believe that everyone wants universal good, but that seems a very questionable assumption.
Maybe it is my initial training as a consultant, but I am convinced all the answers lie within the organization itself- you only have to dig a bit to get it.

@ Cold As Heaven- I quite agree with you- education has nothing to do with being a good manager. The key to being a good manager is to be able to listen, take the best, and ensure it gets implemented.

@ Chary- graduation rates should matter (though I would think attendance and improvement in grade matter more), but what do the other things have to do with an education system. It is sad when a school system is reduced to money. And four secretaries when there is no paper is seriously insane.