Saturday, March 26, 2011

The School, The Church, The Society as a Business....

Which would you rather work for:

1) a company where managers assess your skills by giving you a "benchmark" - a set number of items to sell, or cases to process, or things to build, or money to make;

2) a company where managers look at the total group of workers and develop a company plan based on its workers' strengths, allowing for those workers to voice concerns?

For me, it'd be the second.  That model seems much more to respect me as a person with dignity and worth.  The first has the advantage of being easier, but also seems more arbitrary, clearly less concerned about me than about reaching a certain kind of "output" for which the workers, rather than the managers (and certainly not the CEOs) can be blamed.

I was thinking about this because, as many of you know, Philosophy PhD Husband is going back to school to get a degree in accounting, and one of his (rather awesome, in my opinion) business school profs was discussing the differences between many contemporary CEOs in American corporations and the so-called Toyota Way - especially Principle 4, 'Level out the workload.  Work like the tortoise, not the hare".  I do not claim Toyota is perfect - last year's recall is an example of that.  And it remains to be seen how well the company will pull out of the earthquake and residual crises.   His professor, among many other business guys at his school, think very little these days of CEOs making hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not way, way more) while not according dignity to their workers.  (To say nothing of the fact that if workers' pay had risen the way CEOs' pay had, on average, workers ought to be paid $50 per hour. Ahem.)

And yet, at least as a starting point and on paper, Toyota seems to respect its workers' intelligence, and the general ethos is that a company is not there for itself alone, but that to help workers is to help the whole.  By contrast, many American corporations work from a top-down, micromanagement sensibility - one that kills peoples' thinking and doesn't respect their free will.

The prevailing tendency in nearly every place of work these days is to assume a "business model."  After all, say people I've worked with on church committees, businesses are known for efficiency and getting things done while still turning a profit.  Surely those are things that schools and churches can learn from? 

I admit to be adverse to considering the church or the school or the public library as fundamentally "businesses" because human society is not for the purpose of efficiency and turning profits - but as a thought experiment, I'm willing to run with this analogy for a bit and consider that if we are going to see places where we work as "businesses" perhaps there are better and worse ways of understanding "business"?

Guess which way also functions in many school districts, churches and other groups that are part of American communities?  We do not go "like the tortoise", but expect schools and churches to show improvement within three years.  If that doesn't work, fire the lot and put in a new philosophy designed to help the students, or change out the pastor, or get more marketing techniques in to reach the seekers.  It's too fast - it doesn't respect that human life requires a bit of time to process, to fine tune, to think and reflect and, dare I say it, learn from our mistakes. 

Let me take the time to focus a bit more closely on schools, though I think I could write similarly about churches here. A friend of mine was a librarian in a school that was closed and completely "restarted" because of its lack of performance over three years.  Since she was fired along with all the others, she had to find another job in the school district, but all the librarian jobs were taken, as were all the jobs where she felt she had experience and qualifications.  So she took a job as a third grade teacher.  That meant she was the "new kid" at the school; the other third grade classroom teacher knew all the students (and in fact had taught most of them the year before as second graders in her dual 2nd/3rd grade), and so made a claim on all the kids who did not have ADHD or learning disabilities, who were not from impoverished families where a kid might not have breakfast in the morning, who were generally high performing test takers.  At the end of the year, both classrooms were assessed the same way, and my friend was deemed to be the "worse" teacher though she had all sorts of knocks against her to begin with.  She felt she was lucky to have helped the kids improve their reading and  math skills in any way at all, since she spent most of her time doing behavior reviews and separating kids who were being dangers to the other students.

My friend's case is not an isolated case.  The school district lacks the ability to think creatively about where to place an experienced librarian.  The school district itself is at the mercy of politicians, who want the US to be "like" other countries in terms of success at math and science and who simultaneously see teachers as the enemy because of their unions and their high cost wages.  The problem is, politicians aren't in the thick of things and can't really *know* how to fix the mistakes teachers themselves see.  School administrators, who are closer to the ground than the folks in the capitol, can often barely see the individual problems because they're looking at a different set of problems. 

That's why I like the Catholic social teaching principle of subsidiarity - the idea that accords respect to every one by recognizing that everybody's got some gifts others don't. When it comes to society, each level of society can deal with certain problems that other levels of society do not need to be part of.  The local soccer team should not be a matter for the President of the United States to deal with.  I think when it comes to the question of unions, and states, and schools, subsidiarty has been run over roughshod.

The proverb suggests you can't win the race by being a hare.  We've been trying to be hares - we've been trying to fix "problems" that did not develop overnight, by too quickly aiming for the institution and trying to fix it, top down. But study after study suggests that all sorts of things might be causing problems for our children today that have little to do with good or bad teachers: diet, video games, lack of parental involvement, parents' divorce at an early age, entitlement, helicopter parents, societal values that do not value children or that value them too much, et cetera. 

If I were going for a business model, I'd rather aim for one that had a "hare" approach.  A model that focuses on workers' dignity and ability to contribute in relation to their specific skills (even if those skills are put to creative uses) is better for society than one that ignores the unique capabilities of people in favor of "outputs" and assessment, regardless of the person.

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