Sunday, December 17, 2006

...tis the season...

There is general consensus that Thanksgiving, a holiday, marks the beginning of "the holidays." Between then and the end of that season, there are both official and unofficial holidays. Christmas Eve is a holiday. So, of course, is Christmas. Then there is New Year's Eve, ushering in a holiday atmosphere all over the world. New Year's Day is a holiday. There is the holiday known as Quanzaa. And there are the days of Hanukkah. Holidays, all. There are other celebrations I may be forgetting. Do Druids still celebrate the winter solstice as a holiday? I hope so. And there are all the football bowl games. Of course they are unofficial holidays, but the jubilant atmosphere often seems to produce a holiday mood, and fans of Ohio State will call it a holiday a whole week after New Year's Day. Florida fans may be less jubilant.

What I am pointing out is that there are many days between Thanksgiving and the BCS Championship Bowl game which are, or seem to be, holidays for many of our good citizens. In the spirit, then, of this "holiday season," may I quote the greeting cards that came to our house years ago when I was a boy?

So many Christmas cards in those long ago days said, "Season's Greetings." And so to you, seasons greetings, and let's work for a happier 2007!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

schools like factories? then why not factories like schools?

There is a large segment of society that seems to think of American schools as factories. Those people see students as raw material to be shaped, polished, and graded, so that all know the same “basic” facts and skills, and all are able to prove their identical knowledge by passing the same “standardized” tests. Teachers are simply factory workers.

Converting the perception of schools to factory-like institutions is a movement that causes more problems than it solves. To illustrate, let’s look at the school-as-factory notion from the other side of the window. For a fictional and, it is hoped, satirical minute, consider a factory that might copy its operational procedures and philosophy from an education model.

So, “Once upon a time,” as all good fairy tales begin, a furniture factory decided to hire as its CEO an experienced educator and former school superintendent. The new CEO was given unlimited power to make the factory productive and the products competitive in the ever-changing world of furniture making in the Twenty-first Century.

The superintendent/CEO initiated sweeping changes. First, a “Strategic planning” session was held to determine what basic design might be best for the factory’s product. Members of the committee included four other CEOs from other types of businesses in the area, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, a representative from the local chapter of the National Organization of Women, a clergyman from the community, the CEO’s personal secretary, and, representing the workers, a retired lathe operator from the factory itself.

Early in the first meeting, the retired lathe operator asked what the difference was between “planning” and “strategic planning.” The new CEO said that “planning” was what one did to lay out the steps for accomplishing a goal or set of goals. And “strategic planning” was developing a list of strategies for accomplishing a goal or set of goals. He emphasized the word, “strategies.”

The lathe operator saw the two as the same, but the other committee members nodded at the CEO and glared at the lathe operator; so, he thought he must have missed a distinction between “laying out the steps” for accomplishing a goal and “developing a list of strategies” for accomplishing it. He kept quiet throughout the rest of the meeting.

The local newspaper, which had not been represented at the meeting, reported that a representative ten-member committee had engaged in strategic planning to keep the local factory competitive in the changing world of the Twenty-first Century. The retired lathe operator thought the article sounded as if the CEO had written it. But, again, he kept quiet.

Then the new CEO announced that the factory was non-discriminatory and would accept shipments of lumber of every type. He proclaimed far and wide that the factory motto would be, “No wood left behind.” Suppliers were soon including balsa wood, oak, pine, cedar, spruce, redwood, cottonwood, birch, and even plywood, among others, in their shipments.

The CEO mandated that all shipments be treated equally, that the timbers all be put through the same saw, the same planer, in fact, through all the same procedures, and be cut and shaped exactly according to his recommendations, which he claimed were based on both strategic planning and the best available research.

The wood, therefore, was cut into three-foot lengths of two-inch square posts or into six-inch wide planks one inch thick and four feet long. The posts were to be legs, and the planks would be fashioned into tabletops.

Some of the scrap lengths were cut into one-inch square “support” posts exactly fourteen inches long. They would serve as braces, fastened at an angle from the tabletops to the legs to provide rigidity, or what the new CEO called, “rigor.”

Factory workers were upset. There was no need for designers or lathe operators, as the factory would be using no variations of product design. Cabinetmakers left for other jobs or took early retirement.

Supervisors were hired to oversee one-product production, with each piece passing inspection to make sure it was the same as every other piece. Those who stayed on became demoralized, but needed the work; so, they complied with the new plan and did not deviate from it, knowing they would still be working after the current administration had moved on.

A committee was formed to write plan manuals for every step in the table making process. One old-time factory worker was appointed to the committee. He was a foreman, nearing retirement. No other factory workers could be spared from their workstations to serve on the plan writing committee. Other members were mostly from the community at large: a banker, a travel agent, a representative from the Board of Directors, a member of the stockholders’ association, plus two of the newly hired supervisors, and the CEO’s personal secretary, who took all ideas from the committee back to the office. It was she who typed up the manuals.

The new supervisors conducted in-service training with the manuals as the curriculum, and workers were given copies. Copies were also given to factory stockholders and to the media. A newspaper account praised the process going on at the factory in an article written by the CEO and his secretary. It was printed as submitted.

Assembly of the new product began. All pieces for the tables were given the same amount of sanding. And at first, as mandated, all were coated with the same varnish. But inspection revealed that various woods responded to varnish with differing results! Varnish seemed to sink into the balsa wood leaving little color. Conversely, the varnish brought out varied patterns in the grain of several other woods. It had little effect on some woods and a brilliant effect on others. Varnish failed to penetrate the hardest woods and smeared when touched for several days after application. The workers snickered behind their hands.

The CEO thought about how to achieve equal appearing results with the varieties of lumber and not leave some wood behind. And so it was that all tables with their same sized tops and identically shaped four legs of randomly selected woods were able to pass the test, to look alike, and to display equal shaping and finishing. They were all given thick coats of enamel. Non-glossy, white enamel!

Announcements from the CEO were made to the media and at public gatherings about the new product and how efficient and effective the factory now was. All tables were said to pass the same tests!

There were one or two exceptions, at first. Occasionally a table with legs, chosen at random so as to avoid charges of favoritism or discrimination, came out with two or even three balsa wood or cottonwood legs. Painted, they appeared the same as the oak and redwood legs randomly placed on other tables. But the softer woods did not bear as much weight for long periods.

Remediation was sought. A special department was created within the factory to add supplementary support to the weaker woods. Thin strips of harder woods were glued to the sides of the balsa wood legs, after first shaving them a bit so that the added woods would not affect the leg’s dimensions. That process meant another manual needed to be written, another supervisor hired.

The same problem was found with the occasional tabletops of balsa or cottonwood. The surface was so soft that it was easily marred and nicked. Again, remedial carpentry was employed to give the softer woods a veneer of hardwood. When the tables were covered with white enamel, no potential buyer could tell the difference, a goal spelled out in the new manual.

And so it was that the factory turned out thousands more tables than it had ever manufactured in any year before. Publicity and claims of quality made them sell well for a time.

But soon members of the public tired of the sameness. An owner here and there stripped the white from the table to refinish it according to his or her own tastes and needs, and it was discovered that the tables were built of a conglomeration of woods, some suited for the furniture and some not.

The factory warehouse soon held hundreds, then thousands of tables, all with the same look, which were not viable in the marketplace. A protest movement began, slowly at first. The factory shareholders demanded that a committee investigate and report. At first the CEO stood by his philosophy and methods.

Critics pointed to articles in furniture manufacturing journals suggesting that factories should be diverse, employ more than one designer, product, method, and produce a wide variety of furniture suited to the various woods.

The evidence was presented, and the CEO relented. He allowed a committee to be formed. Again, no actual workers were consulted or appointed to the committee. Those appointed, quite naturally, then, blamed the factory workers for the faulty products. The newspaper printed the finding under banner headlines.

The committee members also recommended hiring a new CEO, a visionary, perhaps, with a new organizational strategy and a strategic plan for professional development of the factory workers, enabling them to produce an improved product line. The final recommendations included a call for employing highly trained designers and better-trained carpenters to fashion diverse furniture items, each suited to the variety of woods available at any one time.

“No wood left behind” gave way to “All woods shaped to take advantages of individual qualities.” A two-inch article on page ten of the local paper announced the new goal statement.

The CEO was fired and given a ten million dollar contract buy-out plus medical benefits for life. A search committee was formed to find the next CEO.

In fact, that committee is conducting interviews at this time among leaders of various businesses and industries around the country. The leading contender seems to be the head of a company that developed the Reading First program, which was created soon after the federal No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002.

The old retired lathe operator was also asked to be a member of the nine-member search committee, and his only contribution to the discussions, so far, was a response to a Reading First publicity statement read at the first search committee meeting which states, “Reading First is built on years of scientific research showing that students who develop strong reading skills at an early age are most likely to remain in school.” The lathe operator said, “Well, DUH!” The other committee members glared at him.

In addition to company literature, the Reading First executive also sent a statement of his leadership intent should he be named the new head of the furniture factory. It says, in part, “If selected, my approach would include building on a solid foundation of research, with a program designed to select, implement, and provide professional development for factory workers using scientifically-based carpentry programs and to ensure accountability through ongoing screening and factory-based assessment.”

The committee voted almost unanimously, the lathe operator dissenting, to ask the man to come for an interview.

The candidate is named Neil Bush.

And no one lives happily ever after.

~ ~

Author’s note: Though this is a fairy tale, there really is a Neil Bush, a first brother, formerly of the Savings and Loan Association failures of a few years ago. The Neil Bush whose wife divorced him when it was learned that he had been serving as a “consultant” in China, where prostitutes were sent to his door in the evenings, and he did nothing for China but talk to officials... and provide a link to his brother. The Neil Bush who is now an executive of Reading First, a federally supported software company developing materials for, among other things, “helping students to pass competency tests as part of No Child Left Behind.” The Neil Bush whose mother, Barbara, contributed money to Hurricane Katrina relief with the stipulation that it be used to purchase Reading First materials for New Orleans schools. That Neil Bush. And he is all too real. All other characters and the furniture factory are fictional. According to many, so is the author.
--Dana Wall