Just Pay up and Shut up
Dr. Charles Ormsby, N. Andover
Public schools are a monopoly
within a monopoly. They have a monopoly on public money
for education and the teachers union has a monopoly
on the labor supply that can be employed. Teachers with a
few years of employment are in the catbird seat. Short of
committing an illegal act, they have a good job with
lifetime benefits and a guaranteed retirement.
With such ironclad job security, it is understandable
that customer service and product quality may suffer. It
is only because most teachers are saints that things are
not worse than they are. But even teachers are human.
Poorly conceived rules, incompetent administrators,
aggressive parents, and unruly children, not to mention
the common stresses of everyday life, wear them down.
In the real world meaning the nasty private sector
similar stresses haunt employees, but competition
and fear of job loss forces everyone to focus on product
quality and customer service.
Even with competitive pressures in the private sector,
and with the attendant risk of job loss, not all
employees perform adequately. Nevertheless, customers are
still protected. Since organizations exposed to
competition are made up of many individuals from
the board of directors and senior managers down to
entry-level personnel all of whom have a stake in
the companys success, they are constantly seeking
ways to improve.
Occasionally that means eliminating employees that are
performing poorly or who are no longer needed. But, more
importantly, it means constantly re-inventing the
organization to be more efficient, to provide better
products, and to make the lives of its customers better.
All because of competition.
An interesting social experiment would be to take a
highly competitive industry that is efficiently evolving
its products to meet customers needs and take away
that competition. Create a state-controlled monopoly and
watch what happens.
Of course, this has been done in Eastern Europe, in Cuba,
in North Korea and in other socialist/communist states.
It invariably results in poor quality, less variety,
horrendous customer service, cost increases, and product
The underlying problem is, of course, that employees and
managers in the new, state-run, state-protected
organization dont care any longer whether the
customer is adequately served. Their focus shifts to
something else. It could be satisfying a government
bureaucrat, or focusing on protecting their positions, or
lobbying for shorter hours or increased compensation.
Ultimately, everything is focused on making their job
less stressful, more entrenched, or more financially
rewarding. The customers interests are no longer
the focus of the organization.
What would happen if someone from another planet, someone
who only cared about improving performance and serving
the organizations customers, were dropped down into
the management structure of such a monopoly organization?
Well, of course, he would be recognized immediately as a
threat to nearly everyone in the organization. Since the
organization had consistently made decisions to only
serve its internal interests and had not based them on
the best interests of its customers, nearly every
process, procedure, and organizational value would be
This interloper would immediately question all of these
decisions. Every time he suggested improvements in
many cases significant changes someones
comfortable situation would be threatened. The
organization would unite to isolate and marginalize him.
He would be considered an intruder.
Eventually, he might even realize the futility of trying
to reform an organization without the motivating force of
external competition. If he suggested that competition be
introduced and after the ghastly screams died down
he would be branded Public Enemy Number One.
Of course, I am describing my own situation in the midst
of the North Andover public school system. While some
improvements have resulted from or been prompted by my
reform suggestions (e.g., a doubling of AP enrollment at
our high school and a replacement of a failed math
program in our elementary schools), the system has dug
its heels in on most suggested changes.
Recent attempts to address two concerns provide a good
example of resistance to change that only monopoly
institutions can engage in with impunity.
Over the last several months I have tried to address our
middle schools rampant grade/honor roll inflation.
Also, I have suggested we review our policy that has our
teachers, who are paid to teach five classes a day, only
teach four classes a day.
The grade inflation issue has two aspects. First is the
tendency to give out nearly all As and Bs
in our case, 85% As and Bs resulting
in two-thirds of our students on the honor roll! But the
second aspect really presents a more important issue. By
giving out nearly all As and Bs, parents and
students are lulled into a false sense of accomplishment.
The end result is that the motivation of students to work
harder is lost, students achieve less, and their lives
While I would prefer to fix both problems, I would be
happy to ignore grade statistics and put 100 percent of
our students on the honor roll if we could just ensure
that parents get an accurate picture of where their
students really stand academically. A simple listing of
grade statistics placed in each report card would
suffice. It is an easy fix. It merely tells parents the
truth about their students accomplishments. It
shouldnt be controversial
but it is!
At a recent School Committee meeting to discuss these two
issues, middle school administrators dismissed grade and
honor roll inflation with one, nearly content-free,
chart. Their one relevant claim was that communication
with parents was already strong. If this were true,
revealing grade statistics in a report card should not be
The second issue is remarkable when you consider the
financial strains caused by the collision of our rapidly
rising labor costs due to an overly generous union
contract and escalating healthcare costs and
budget constraints imposed by Proposition 2 ½. With
years of cutbacks that have resulted in crowded
classrooms and loss of services (e.g., art and music
classes), how is it possible that our middle school has
organized its schedule to have teachers teach only four
classes per day when we are paying them to teach five?
At the very same meeting described earlier, this
reduction in class load was justified by the schools
team teaching concept. With team teaching,
students are shared by a team of four teachers, and the
extra period the one not taught is used
to discuss our shared students and also plan
together during our team planning period.
Now, I dont know anyone in his right mind that
thinks the value of this discussion could possibly
outweigh a 25 percent increase from 4 to 5 classes
a day in academic instruction to our students. The
extra 25 percent could be used for additional instruction
in subjects that a student is struggling with, or used to
cover more advanced topics for high-achieving students,
or directed to art, music, foreign language, and physical
Note that this increase in instruction is worth the
equivalent of nine teachers. At $50,000 per teacher, this
amounts to $450,000.
When I asked the middle school administration whether
such a tradeoff could be investigated, the fireworks
erupted. Answer: No, we werent asked to do
Well, could you? No, we cant pursue that
Well, can we meet to look into this
we wont meet with you to discuss it.
But, I think we should
By the way, people
with your views are not welcome here.
But that doesnt seem right
Why are you
asking these questions? Didnt you know that tonights
meeting was a celebration of the Middle School?
No, I thought it was a School Committee meeting. When was
it changed to a celebration?
Why dont you
ever have anything nice to say about our monopoly?
But I do. Would you like to see the tape?
At this point, discussion was gaveled to a close. I asked
when we might meet to actually discuss these vital issues
we never had a chance to discuss grade inflation
and an audience member protested that these issues
were already dealt with and we should go on to more
important matters. Presumably, this means what we love
doing the most, discussing how to get more money from the
You see, monopolies dont want their boards to
discuss how to reform their operations or improve
service. Why bother? They have no competition.
The school monopoly only wants to discuss how to generate
more money, a lot more money. For public schools, it is
always time for another tax increase.
So, citizens of North Andover: Just pay up and shut up.
Dont ask for reforms or higher standards. Dont
ask for improved service for the children. Dont
bother them at all
theyre busy celebrating!
They know that the children will still show up next
September no matter what.
What else can the children do? They have no other choice!
Dr. Ormsby is a member of the North Andover
School Committee. He is a graduate of Cornell and has a
doctorate from MIT. If you have any questions or
comments, you can contact Dr. Ormsby via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Send your questions comments to ValleyPatriot@aol.com
The MAY 2007 Edition of
the Valley Patriot
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