Thursday, February 19, 2009

Life Without Teaching and An Experimental School Model

I just finished reading Company, the newest novel by Max Barry (author of the equally good Jennifer Government). In the novel, an eager but naive business school graduate named Jones joins Zephyr Holdings, who's purpose is--well, nobody knows, and nobody has the guts to ask. Unsatisfied that no one can give him a straight answer, Jones decides to go right to the top, and discovers [SPOILER ALERT] that Zephyr doesn't really exist. It's a phony company with real employees, used as a test bed for management techniques that the real company puts into a series of best-selling business books (think Six Sigma). Jones is offered a chance to become a leader in the real company, but struggles with the ethics of treating employees like lab rats instead of people.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and it inspired me to start two distinct thought experiments:

1. Working 9 to 5... Or, Life Without Teaching
I've never had experience in a real office environment--I've been a teacher since graduating from college. My vision of what a 9-5 job would really be like is pieced together from fictional media creations, business magazines, and anecdotes from friends and family. In my imagination, I would have a difficult time adjusting to this, because compared to what I do every day, it sounds downright boring.

Sure, I'm constantly frustrated for any number of reasons, the pay is lousy and I take a lot of work home. It would be nice to truly leave my work at work and come home and not worry about it. I'm convinced that my teaching career would make it nearly impossible for me to be stressed out about TPS reports or pretty much anything else they could throw at me. I'm well trained in the areas of pointless meetings and redundant paperwork, so that wouldn't be an issue. While money has never been the biggest issue for me, I wouldn't refuse a paycheck that would make paying the bills a little easier.

On the other hand, the joy I get from actually teaching, from inspiring confident, hardworking young people and from the challenge of creating new lessons and materials to help them learn would be difficult to replicate. I'm busy with something at work the entire day, and I know that when I have too much free time, I tend to go stir crazy very quickly.

Most importantly, if I stopped teaching, I feel like it would spell the end of I Want to Teach Forever. What would I write about? I wouldn't have any authority to speak on education issues anymore. When I created this site, my tag line was"Inspiration, information and ideas to help keep teachers in the classroom." I'd feel like a hypocrite, even if plenty of retired teachers share their insights everyday. Writing and participating in conversations through this blog is usually the highlight of my day, and I would miss it dearly.

2. Creating Zephyr Academy, The School That Doesn't Exist
As usual, I can't separate teaching from everything else I do, so while reading Company, I couldn't help but think about the possibility of creating a school that existed as a controlled experiment. Schools and universities develop and test new curricula and classroom management techniques all the time, but the ways they can observe the results is limited.

In schools I've worked in, when the administration or district implemented exciting new strategies to improve test scores, the strategies themselves were given most of the credit when the scores went up that year. The fact that good teachers were retained, that these teachers kept striving to improve their instruction, or that scores were already on a clear upward trend from K-12, weren't as important as the very expensive technology purchased or the tutoring and benchmark testing that took students out of classes constantly. No one usually bothered to ask the students or teachers why they thought scores had been improving consistently.

Any classroom teacher can tell you that there's so many intangibles, or little things that are quantifiable but usually ignored, that contribute to the success or failure of their classes in just about every category. This is where a "Zephyr Academy" could be helpful.

In the book, there are cameras and microphones everywhere. Every bit of data, from sales figures to water cooler chatter is recorded and studied. Every employee has a file with detailed data and notes (one character's file says "Do not promote under any circumstances," for example). Agents are placed in every department, performing a normal job function while monitoring everything. Various special projects, some big and some small, are implemented and studied. The entire company is constantly being tweaked for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

Let's put aside some of the thornier ethics questions for a moment and imagine what this might look like in a school setting. Classrooms, hallways, and common areas would be monitored and recorded. A steering committee of sorts would decide on experiments large and small, outside the day-to-day administration of the school. Ideally, this test bed could yield concrete results that could be replicated in schools across the country.

Now, many schools have leadership committees, but these groups are sometimes unrepresentative of their respective departments. My current school has a steering committee which is made up of volunteers, which is more diverse and effective. Neither group has the power to make the kind of changes that would called upon in this experimental school. It would be a totally new structure.

Now, back to the ethics questions I avoided earlier. There are two central problems at the heart of both Company and this thought experiment:
  1. Privacy and legal concerns would make this nearly impossible. If you could make everyone (staff and students alike) aware that this school was an experimental school and would be attempting many radical new ideas, and have them sign off on it, it could work. I just have a hard time imagining enough people agreeing to this (which is something employees never did in the book) for it to work.
  2. Even if it's legal, is it right? Again, even if it was legal, I think most Americans wouldn't stand for students (or teachers) being treated like lab rats. They would see it as gambling with the education and futures of each young person involved. I'd have a hard time disagreeing with them, but I ask you to think about one thing: In the schools you've taught in, the ones you attended, or those that your children attend, how many failed experiments have you seen come and go? How many failed initiatives are still going on, some indefinitely? I just wonder if that's really any different.
Perhaps the only thing you could actually use anywhere is the collection and proper use of data to improve instruction and administration. Schools are collecting more data than ever, but how are they using it? I mentioned the use of improved test scores to justify anything and everything a school does to try to get them there, with little to no scrutiny or reflection.

Education Innovation, one of my favorite blogs, wrote an interesting take on the use of data in a post entitled Getting Stuck on 'The New Stupid'. Read it and think about it!

Share your thoughts on either of my thoughts (or the book) in the comments. I look forward to the discussion.