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A Decline in Education Productivity or a Failure in Leadership?

Let's focus!

· Leadership

Our public officials and policy elites have failed us by buying into the businessification of education. For more than a century, the stated goal of the Department of Education has been: “To promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access”. Needless to say, education in America has some obvious shortcomings and a list of things even defenders of schools would like to change. But the problem is not incompetence or statis.

The problem is that those responsible for taking leadership in educational policy and implementation have not adapted to the complexity and scale of the changing demands of education. Instead of addressing the very severe teacher shortages and the inability to recruit enough teachers, our top-most educational leadership shirks responsibility onto schools and teachers and turns to business to pick up the slack.

Instead of leading by “thinking out of the box” about how to recruit enough teachers, our Education Secretary says teachers should just focus on doing the right thing for students, and solutions will follow (as if by magic?). Instead of streamlining the education budget in benefit of the education system, she proposes a $5-billion-a-year-tax credit to reimburse taxpayers and corporations for donations, thus effectively channeling tax dollars away from public schools.

Educational leadership: unprepared

Our educational leadership is woefully unprepared to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. While the average teacher today is better prepared than the average teacher in the past, educational leadership is not.

School spending is stagnant and an increasing number of schools are grappling with how to do more for their students with less money available. We’re still floundering with education equity and equal opportunity. Teacher training is stuck in the methods of yesteryear. Teachers spend much of their day filling out forms and teaching quasi-academic subjects mandated from above, instead of being allowed to take initiative to respond to the learning needs of the students so they can achieve educational outcomes. And many dedicated teachers are still reaching into their own pockets to buy basic school supplies.

Worst of all, government policy imposes rigid personnel rules, bureaucracy and regulations that respond to a mandate to use education to engineer social or political outcomes favorable to the needs of business. The right mandate is to focus on student achievement and ensure schools can successfully impart the skills, knowledge, and perspective that students need to live a satisfactory and productive life. Putting corporate (i.e. big) business needs ahead of general basic educational needs has resulted in a decline in quality, efficiency and access to basic education in what is supposed to be the most advanced democratic nation in the world.

Corporate leadership: narcissistic and overconfident

On the business side, the increasing narcissism and overconfidence in corporate leadership has spilled over into top educational leadership. As Chamorro-Premuzic points out in his recently published book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, most organizations are led by people, mostly men with a handful of destructive personality traits like narcissism and overconfidence, that reward arrogance and loudness rather than humility and wisdom.

A majority of corporate leaders tend to equate competence with confidence and so think they’re better at leading than they are. The tendency to overrate their abilities and be more confident than they should be has led to catastrophic mistakes, chief among them choosing more-incompetent men, who are deaf to negative feedback and blind to the needs of others. Because their “desire to understand reality is not as strong as [their] desire to think highly of themselves” and, by extension, their teams, too many corporate leaders have failed to invest in the development of the members of their team and their own and so are unable to turn their team’s potential into action. Instead of accepting responsibility for their failures and recasting that responsibility through change, it’s easier to play the blame game and pass the buck onto the “education system” and, more specifically, teachers.

“Consider that 80 percent of talent management budgets are typically devoted to learning, training, and development interventions, and the big bulk of that outlay is reserved for leaders” (Chamorro-Premuzic). Yet the estimated $360 billion spent each year on leadership development has failed to produce any reliable measures of change in performance. In fact, it has correlated negatively with people’s confidence in their leadership. As millions of dollars are squandered on corporate training that actually worsens leaders’ performance, investment in talent development of the workers that actually directly impact the bottom line suffers.

Business should focus on its business

Business managers say that education is vital for business to grow and perform competitively. But a majority doesn’t follow through with the needed budget dedication. Companies say that they offer development opportunities to frontline workers. But that is not enough. It is in the interest of the business to bridge the gap between intent as an employer and follow through. According to the Institute for Corporate Productivity (ic4cp), 89% of organizations offer opportunities to their frontline workers, but a whopping 73% don’t know how many actually take advantage of those opportunities.

Instead they spend two-thirds of their training dollars on formal programs for their college-educated men and women in professional, managerial, professional sales, technical, and supervisory jobs, while a third, or less, is spent on formal training for those who most affect the bottom line: machine operators, clerical workers, maintenance and repair people. The equation should be recalculated.

Two thirds of corporate dollars for training should be spent on the employees most likely to need training for specific business needs, but who today are least likely to receive it: young adults in their first job, minorities and people over 45. In-house training for them is a powerful motivator to continue learning on and off the job. And instead of just encouraging workers’ efforts to improve their own skills, companies should provide them with active support, such as providing paid release time.

This is not to say that we should revive the old “hands-off” relationship between education and business. School and work are inextricably entwined. But business should focus on changing what happens inside their companies rather than focusing with "enlightened interest" in “improving” public schools. Meanwhile, government should seek to facilitate partnerships and pathways that further the mission of education by putting the standard curriculum, the quality of teachers, school facilities, and equal opportunity to learn as the priorities, instead of first pursuing alignment with business needs.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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