Thursday, May 19, 2011

Optimally Crazy in Education

Last week I wrote about the potential benefits of signaling crazy outcomes during a negotiation.  If a credible signal is sent it can shift the power of the negotiation in favor of the side willing to do crazy things, like walk away from a lucrative deal or blow up the world.  Negotiating in this manner may be effective but it creates an adversarial environment where compromise is difficult to achieve, both sides cannot truly trust each other and brinksmanship pushes each side to extreme positions they would not necessarily adopt in more flexible situations. Think about the Cold War or the current right-left political climate where extreme positions are regularly adopted and celebrated.
This type of negotiation also exists in the education arena.  Negotiation is an enormous part of education policy and contributes a great deal to the rancor that exists in much of the debate. 

There are many issues in education that many people don’t agree on.  I’m going to oversimplify things to a huge degree here so bear with me.  What much of the conflict boils down to is a labor vs management relationship…with a whole bunch of other stuff added on.  And it defines the debates we have.  It pushes people to extremes they don’t normally occupy.  Think about the major issues in play in education reform today.  There are concerns that charter schools and school vouchers will lead to the privatization of public schools.  There are concerns about pay scales, last in first out, pay for performance, teacher evaluation, standardized tests; all are at their heart labor issues, negotiated in contracts and legislated with serious backing from both union lobbies and anti-union lobbies. 

This conflict played out on a micro level around the DC teacher contract.  A negotiation famous for its length, stage and personality.  A microcosm for the bigger battle occurring, as evidenced by the national union taking over negotiations from the local union.  That act alone was an extreme move, sending a clear signal that regardless of local context the union could not compromise.  The DC Public Schools administration originally pushed for a contract in which teachers would be able to choose tenure or performance bonuses (the poorly named red and green tracks). This seems…reasonable.  Giving grown-ups a choice.  But in negotiation rarely is it a good idea to start with your compromise.  The union shut it down because it did weaken tenure and therefore collective bargaining and the union in general.  The plan never went to a vote.  The union staked out a fairly extreme position that actually gave less freedom to their own members because the union’s job is to protect what they have and ask for more.  The administration responded by essentially saying they were going to do what they wanted with or without the union.  This was a very strong message, a credible signal, that if the union didn’t give a little they would be crushed.  Stalemate ensued, with both parties moving further apart, adopting more extreme positions, where early on it seemed they would reach agreement. 

On the vast majority of issues both sides agreed.  They both wanted more money for teachers, more resources, better professional development, some form of collaboration on the school level, interventions for students falling behind.  All those things are written into the contract.  Yet it took multiple years to work out the contract, to negotiate every line, to even let the teachers vote.  Because on the issues where they disagreed neither could compromise and instead of coming together they moved apart, both adopting tactics to ensure they’d get more of what they wanted.  Both sides needed to prove that they were crazy enough to not give in so they could get what they were actually after. 

On a more macro level we can see some of the results.  Optimal strategy, after all, is not just about taking an extreme position to negotiate from a position of power.  When two sides are taking extreme positions it can change where the middle ground is.  This is why extremists can be useful.  The fringe can move the center.  In DC we see a battle without compromise, an education reform movement pushing the envelope harder than anywhere else, pushing the edge of the debate further in one direction than it has in the past.  The perfect tool for Arne Duncan to use to work a middle ground that just a couple years earlier was hopelessly radical.  Arne Duncan praised the New Haven contract, a much more palatable agreement for the majority to swallow, not the DC contract.  Arne Duncan championed Race to the Top, a truly radical approach in the world of education, an approach that is quite threatening to many traditional viewpoints on education but he did with the credibility of someone who compromises.  He didn’t have to stake out an extreme position to get to the compromise he wanted because someone else already had.

But it is important to remember that as we progress through this debate we need to get beyond the negotiation.  It is limiting, it prevents the type of flexible thinking that can lead to innovative solutions.  It places more value on ideology than depth of thought.  Ultimately it is Arne Duncan’s approach that will likely net the most long term gains, taking advantage of both extremes and a shifting center to push his vision.  Look what he did with Race to the Top.  Just by proposing it he seriously altered the behavior of most states.  Of course, to do that he needs someone else to do some of his dirty work.

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