One of the recent educational controversies that has bled over into public awareness seems to center on whether schools would be more successful (whatever that means) if they borrowed more “real world” business practices. Some focus on what they assume is a lack of accountability in the performance of individual teachers or the lack of clear goals for achievement. The other side argues that education is different because the goals are different and the inputs to the process cannot be controlled.
I raise this issue as backgound to the following comments. I have been reading Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg’s book “How Google Works”. I did not purchase the book because I thought it would provide insights into educational practice. I bought the book because I have broad interests and a fascination with successful tech companies. As the title suggests, the book as about the authors’ analysis of how Google works and the lessons learned as they as managers came into and learned about the company. It seems their management practices were more shaped by the culture of Google than they were responsible for shaping the culture. Of course, adaptability and insight are important characteristics of effective managers. There is always the possibility that what you read is intended as much to create a positive image as it is to offer lessons learned, but the story here seems consistent with several other accounts I have read.
With the caveats I have identified in place, I return to the initial focus on learning from “real world” companies. There are all kinds of business models available just as there are all kinds of ways to run educational institutions. There is another book I have read titled “What would Google do?” In this case, how might educational institutions borrow practices from Google? I did begin to think about educational institutions as I read. The authors list occupations to which certain management principles might apply and education was listed, but no effort was made to draw parallels. This is mostly my attempt to draw parallels.
The relevance of certain key ideas should be considered before any effort is made to generalize principles that are identified. The most important idea is probably whether the work of educators should best be performed by “smart creatives”. Are individuals who deserve this title likely to be most successful as educators and are educational institutions willing to hire and offer the incentives such individuals will find appealing? A second key idea is captured in the phrase “ask the engineers”? Google had an early history of being dominated by engineers and only took on employees with other skills after the direction of the company was established. Even when “adults” were brought in those who were successful honored those who actually did the work. My son is a producer and uses the term “the talent” to refer to those individuals in front of the camera. I have always liked this way of thinking. By analogy, the teachers and not their administrators are “the talent”.
So, if teachers need to be “smart creatives” and are understood to be “the talent”, what does administration looks like?
The authors suggest that creating the culture of the institution is paramount. Operationalizing culture is difficult. You can spot when it changes – I have watched school districts deflate like a balloon with a slow leak when the administration changes. Of course at Google and many other tech companies there is the tendency to equate culture with free coffee, free food and video game machines, but of course there is more. A core value in “asking the engineers” involves respecting the competence of those doing the work and helping them identify issues and potential solutions.
Many of the values I describe (I hope accurately) may seem quite attractive. With great freedom comes great responsibility. A problem is everyone’s problem. There is no – that issue is no concern of mine. There is also the assumed responsibility for getting a job done. The mantra “I have a life” is not used as an excuse. One final issue I remember is that individuals are valued for their contributions and not their seniority. I take this to be a rejection of constructs such as tenure, but also a focus on accomplishments and not talk.
Anyway, I understand books I read (hopefully at a deep level whatever that means) as pretty much like a Rorchach test. I project my own ideas on what the authors say. Hence, take this as recommended reading rather than a book report.