"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Equity Project and $125,000 Salaries: the Talent Myth of McKinsey & Co.

     What do you do after getting your Yale degree, spending a few years in TFA,  and starting your own MBA test-prep company? 
     If you're Zeke M. Vanderhoek, you start up a new charter, The Equity Project, with "all-star" teachers making $125,000 a year (with additional bonuses possible: call it merit-pay on steroids).  Send out lots of publicity to attract future students, secure a school building, and capitalize on the idea that all we need is better teachers.  
     The PE teacher, this theory goes, will be wildly successful because he trained Kobe Bryant ("Developed Kobe from 185 lbs. to 225 lbs. of pure muscle over eight years," reads the PE teacher's resume).  Billed as the "American Idol" for teaching, The Equity Project believes that a "dream team" of teachers is all that is required for a better education.  
     This project wreaks of the McKinsey & Co philosophy outlined by author Malcolm Gladwell in an article from 2002.  Here is a brief snippet, but the entire document is certainly worth your time:

Five years ago, several executives at McKinsey & Company, America's largest and most prestigious management-consulting firm, launched what they called the War for Talent. Thousands of questionnaires were sent to managers across the country. Eighteen companies were singled out for special attention, and the consultants spent up to three days at each firm, interviewing everyone from the C.E.O. down to the human-resources staff. McKinsey wanted to document how the top-performing companies in America differed from other firms in the way they handle matters like hiring and promotion. But, as the consultants sifted through the piles of reports and questionnaires and interview transcripts, they grew convinced that the difference between winners and losers was more profound than they had realized. "We looked at one another and suddenly the light bulb blinked on," the three consultants who headed the project--Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones, and Beth Axelrod--write in their new book, also called "The War for Talent." The very best companies, they concluded, had leaders who were obsessed with the talent issue. They recruited ceaselessly, finding and hiring as many top performers as possible. They singled out and segregated their stars, rewarding them disproportionately, and pushing them into ever more senior positions. "Bet on the natural athletes, the ones with the strongest intrinsic skills," the authors approvingly quote one senior General Electric executive as saying. "Don't be afraid to promote stars without specifically relevant experience, seemingly over their heads." Success in the modern economy, according to Michaels, Handfield-Jones, and Axelrod, requires "the talent mind-set": the "deep-seated belief that having better talent at all levels is how you outperform your competitors."

This "talent mind-set" is the new orthodoxy of American management. It is the intellectual justification for why such a high premium is placed on degrees from first-tier business schools, and why the compensation packages for top executives have become so lavish. In the modern corporation, the system is considered only as strong as its stars, and, in the past few years, this message has been preached by consultants and management gurus all over the world. None, however, have spread the word quite so ardently as McKinsey, and, of all its clients, one firm took the talent mind-set closest to heart. It was a company where McKinsey conducted twenty separate projects, where McKinsey's billings topped ten million dollars a year, where a McKinsey director regularly attended board meetings, and where the C.E.O. himself was a former McKinsey partner. The company, of course, was Enron.


The broader failing of McKinsey and its acolytes at Enron is their assumption that an organization's intelligence is simply a function of the intelligence of its employees. They believe in stars, because they don't believe in systems. In a way, that's understandable, because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don't write great novels, and a committee didn't come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don't just create; they execute and compete and coordinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.

     The Equity Project's board of trustees includes another Yale graduate by the name of David Coleman, a former McKinsey & Co employee who worked in the company's education pro bono sector before going on to start the Grow Network (purchased by McGraw-Hill in 2005).
     Teachers at the school are required to work longer hours, can be fired immediately, and take on the roles of support staff - a twist on the KIPP model that chews up and spits out "educators" on their quest for wealth (so THAT'S what we're in teaching for!).
     Forgive me for mistrusting - and seriously doubting - the reform efforts paraded by former TFAers and corporate hacks.  This school will certainly be followed closely by the education world - particularly those arguing for a principal's ability to hire and fire at will; short-term teaching assignments with absurdly high salaries; and those arguing that all public education needs is "better" teachers (and more testing).  
     Introduction from yesterday's New York Times:
Next Test: Value of $125,000-a-Year Teachers

So what kind of teachers could a school get if it paid them $125,000 a year?

An accomplished violist who infuses her music lessons with the neuroscience of why one needs to practice, and creatively worded instructions like, “Pass the melody gently, as if it were a bowl of Jell-O!”

A self-described “explorer” from Arizona who spent three decades honing her craft at public, private, urban and rural schools.

Two with Ivy League degrees. And Joe Carbone, a phys ed teacher, who has the most unusual résumé of the bunch, having worked as Kobe Bryant’s personal trainer.

“Developed Kobe from 185 lbs. to 225 lbs. of pure muscle over eight years,” it reads.

They are members of an eight-teacher dream team, lured to an innovative charter school that will open in Washington Heights in September with salaries that would make most teachers drop their chalk and swoon; $125,000 is nearly twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, and about two and a half times as much as the national average for teacher salaries. They also will be eligible for bonuses, based on schoolwide performance, of up to $25,000 in the second year.

The school, called the Equity Project, is premised on the theory that excellent teachers — and not revolutionary technology, talented principals or small class size — are the critical ingredient for success. Experts hope it could offer a window into some of the most pressing and elusive questions in education: Is a collection of superb teachers enough to make a great school? Are six-figure salaries the way to get them? And just what makes a teacher great?

Read the rest of the NY Times story here.

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