Monday, March 8, 2010

Central Falls Teachers: Lessons from Behavioral Science


by Richard W. Scholl, Ph.D.
Director & Professor

The attempts at transforming the educational system at Central Falls High School have now made national news. In order to qualify for federal grant money, the high school administrators had to select from among four improvement options. The options were school closure, charter school takeover, transformation, and turnaround. The final decision became a choice between the last two. Initially the transformation model was chosen, but when discussions between the superintendent and the union president broke down as to how to implement the transformation, the district adopted the turnaround model which requires termination of the entire high school staff with no more than 50% of the staff rehired.

As a response to the termination of the entire teaching staff, the union filed three unfair labor practice charges. Recently, representatives of the teachers' union presented a proposal that appears to have turned the discussion back to the transformational model. The legal issues regarding this case are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Now that the naming of heroes and courage award nominees has pasted, at least for the time being, I want to offer some thoughts from the perspective of a behavioral scientist. Let's pretend we are really interested in improving learning. What can we learn about organizational change from the experience of organizations that have implemented change successfully?

In teaching and doing research on organizational behavior, leadership, motivation, performance management and human resource strategies, I have uncovered a number of well established principles. My students in the master's program in Labor Relations and Human Resources are taught continually that the most effective organizations have human resource strategies that are both strategic and integrated. When human resource systems are aligned with an organization's strategies, our behavioral science knowledge is put to use in developing methods of employee selection, recruitment, performance management, compensation, employee development and conflict resolution that work to motivate and direct employee behavior towards building a strong competitive advantage. Integrated human resource systems exist when all of these functions work together in developing and maintaining an organizational culture that supports the mission of the organization.

Let's look at the Central Falls High School change effort from this perspective.

Models for Change

There are two things we know about all organizational changes. The first is that an organizational change is someone's solution to a perceived organizational problem. The second is that no matter how grandiose the change, it must manifest in the behavioral change of employees of the organization, that is, some people in the organization have to do some things differently. In the Central Falls case, the stated problems are low student test scores and low graduation rates. While there has been disagreement as to the cause of these problems, I have read of no disagreement that these are problems. The real issue here is what is the most effective way to change teacher and student behavior? While many organizations can use power and force to remove resistance to a proposed change, years of research and experience has taught us that when those required to make the most dramatic change in behavior participate in the problem solving process and eventual development of solutions, the result is generally not only a better solution, but one that is accepted rather than resisted. We all know of situations where employees actually impede the implementation of new methods that are forced on them, and situations where people commit themselves to the success of plans they have helped to develop.

While we have read about the four models of change, we do not know who developed these choices. Why is there only one method, the transformation method, which involves actual change in educational methods? Are the six conditions demanded by the superintendent1 the only way to improve learning in a school and is there any evidence that these methods work in all schools? While the superintendent did attempt to negotiate the implementation of transformational plan with its 6 demands, there did not appear to be any real participation on the part of teachers (not union officials) in the development of an improvement plan.

Change is rarely achieved through force, fiat, and fear

Negotiation and Bargaining

Throughout our master's program, our students learn about the differences between positional and interest-based bargaining (IBB). A related concept involves the difference between adversarial and cooperative labor relations strategies. In positional bargaining each party presents is position (alternative) and then attempts to get the other party to accept its position, generally through demonstrating its relative power. When one party does not have a decided power advantage, the parties generally move to a compromise. The compromise position lies on a continuum somewhere between the two positions. Interest-based bargaining uses a different framework. Rather than presenting positions, which are a party's means to one their goals, the parties identify their interests. Interests are the party's goals or outcomes they which to achieve through negotiation. In the CFHS case, we are told that negotiations2 broke down over an irresolvable conflict between paying teachers $30/hour or $90/hour for additional time spent implementing the six elements of the transformational model. This is a clear case of positional bargaining in an adversarial relationship. What are the actual interests of the two parties? Were the teachers only concerned about income or was there some disagreement about the ability of the six new actions to actually improve learning and resultant test scores. Asking someone to devote more time to an activity that will actually bring about improvement in something that you value for no additional pay is one, while asking the same for increased effort with little chance of success is quite another. What were the interests of the commissioner and superintendent? If improved learning is the primary interest, is there no other way it could be achieved? I cannot answer these specific questions, but I am confident that is this situation was approached in a collaborative, interest-based approach; the changes for school improvement would increase.

Human Resource Strategy

The successful management of human resources involves developing integrated approaches to recruiting, selecting, evaluating and developing skilled people. In addition, highly effective human resource strategies seek to develop and maintain high levels of commitment in employees rather than develop intricate external control systems. One of the recurring arguments made by those opposed to teachers' unions is that union hamstring administrators' ability to get rid of bad teacher and must use seniority as a basis for hiring. Additionally, one of the parts of the transformational model is that teachers must accept a more rigorous evaluation.

Here is a model for a successful human resource system. Selection processes are developed that discriminate between individuals in the job pool that have the ability and will to perform. These processes have proven ability to predict employee job performance based on data. Likewise performance evaluation methods are developed that are proven to measure actual job behavior and performance. They are based on behaviors and outcomes over which employees have control. The behaviors and outcomes expected of employees is clearly communicated to new recruits. Employees are evaluated on the performance dimensions of this system by collected information from multiple sources and this data is fed back to employees. An employee improvement plan is developed to improve areas of weakness. When these communication and development efforts fail and employees consistently are rating below acceptable levels, termination results.

At this point that all of the teachers at CFHS have been terminated and some might be asked to return in the fall. The superintendent has recently stated "But even in the "transformation model," every person there has to be rigorously evaluated, and an explicit decision has to be made about whether they come back or not." I am sure that there are teachers at CFHS that represent all points on a performance continuum from excellent teachers to poorly performing teachers.

While this sounds great in principle, how can a rigorous evaluation method that has yet to be developed, the elements of which have not been communicated to faculty members be used as a basis for deciding who will be asked back? What is going to be the real basis for the re-hiring decision? If the educational methods used at CFHS have not worked in the past, does it make sense to evaluate teachers on some failed educational model?

Most successful organizations have cultures that reinforce effective employee behavior. Organizational culture affects employee behavior through peer support and reinforcement, rather than through administrative structures. Cultures are the most effective when members value acceptance from other group members and there is a high level of cohesiveness among members. While culture and structure represent two different mechanisms to control group behavior, cultures work best when there is consistency between culture and structure, rather than conflict between satisfying peers and satisfying administrators. A strong culture of excellence can be a much more powerful force than any administrative control system a district can develop through incentives and evaluation.

Let's assume the administrators of CFHS follow through and bring a portion of the faculty back and hire a substantial number of new teachers. What do you think the relationship between the veterans and the replacements will be? Does anybody think they will form a cohesive and mutually reinforcing team of educators? We also have to consider the role of leadership in the development of strong culture. CFHS has had quite a few different principals over the last couple of years and we do not know if the current principal will return. Consistent and supportive leadership is a must for strong cultural development.

There has been a lot of rhetoric regarding the fact that students are, or should be, the most important stakeholder in this case which various stakeholders laying claim the group that values student learning the most. How can anyone disagree with that? However, it is one thing to say that your value learning and our kids and another thing to make this so. How will the current CFHS seniors benefit from the current approach? Do the proposed changes have any chance of improving learning? For example, will 20 minutes more a day of doing what has not worked improve learning? Is it learning we are after or is this all a way to winning grant money?

If one really cares about students and their futures, I don't see how advancing a political agenda furthers that. Find a way to involve those that work with students every day and have to actually implement any new system work collaboratively with leaders to create a way to improve learning at CFHS.
For my graduating master's students, here are some practice comprehensive examination questions.

Question 1: You are the superintendent or the principle of the CFHS. You are committed to improving learning and graduation rates in your school. What problem-solving and change approach would you use that has the greatest chance to develop a solution that works and that will be accepted by those who are required to implement it?

Question 2: How would you approach negotiation with the union leadership using an interest-based bargaining approach? Contrast the expected outcomes from a positional versus interest-based approach.

Question 3: Design a performance management system that has the high probability to creating a faculty of effective teachers.
1. The six conditions that teacher were told they must accept are: (1) school day increased by 25 minutes, (2) formalized tutoring schedule for before and after school assistance, (3) agree to eat lunch with students at least one a week, (4) Attend two week of professional development in the summer; (5) Stay after school once a week for 90 minutes to work with colleagues to analyze student work and test data, (6) accept more rigorous evaluations starting March 1st.
2. It is not clear what the nature of the discussions between the superintendent and the union president were. Since the contract was not expiring, they did not seem to contract talks. Was this a contract re-opener or just a discussion of the principles of the plan between two individuals? It is clear that the teachers did not vote on any proposal.


  1. The folly of firing the teachers and rehiring half back will, as you noted, make for the worst learning environment. What I'd like to know is now that the CF administration has further poisoned the learning environment with this ridiculous staffing plan and now that the CF administration has figured out a miraculous way to hire super teachers for jobs that pay below market average, with strained administrative support, and the most divise organizational culture...what will they do to fix the non-school environment that their students come from? CF has the one of the lowest, if not lowest, socio-economic status populations in the state, has a large English as a second language population, and has a large single parent population. Hiring super teachers cannot fix those problems, and those problems affect student learning as much, if not more, as bad teachers do. It seems to me that firing teachers to fix student test scores is like me scratching my right arm when my left leg itches. I cannot believe that anyone involved in this mess really cares about student learning. If they did care, they would have let this situation get so out of hand.

  2. Margaret O'DonnellMarch 15, 2010 at 4:59 PM

    It is not rational to have a policy that indiscriminently fires an entire staff. Like you said, how is that positive and likely to help in improving a tough situation? One culprit that is never singled out for abuse in these discussions of student performance is the overall cultural climate in the US. How are students supposed to value learning in a culture that heaps 'status' on moronic celebrities while refusing to carry on national discussions of sober policy matters with anything more than cliches that can be recited and understood in a one minute spot on the evening news. Meanwhile these same journalists will discuss ad nauseum the intricacies of Sarah Palin's daughters marriage/life whatever. In a functioning democracy, who would care? Acknowledging that the cultural climate is assymetric at best, why is it that Ms. Gallo has not fashioned a statement to the students and yes mayber their parents advising them that the call to excellence definitely extends to them and that much will be expected of them as well.