Sunday, January 3, 2016

AV#111 - Schools, Baseball, and Turnarounds - From Worst to First

March 26, 2014

Schools, Baseball, and Turnarounds  -  From Worst to First

The baseball season begins.  A Boston Red Sox fan (yes, we will be insufferable this year!) proudly boasts that – one year after finishing in LAST PLACE in 2012, WE ARE NOW AND WILL BE FOR AT LEAST THE NEXT SIX MONTHS BASEBALL’S WORLD CHAMPIONS.  (Take that, Yankee fans!)

Proof that a new manager and key new players can help a ball club go from last to first.

“The grind of a 162-game season played in a 182-day window, followed by the wilds of postseason play, would test even Lewis and Clark. But among baseball’s 109 world champions there has never been a story of resilience quite like this one. No team—not the 1969 Mets, not the ’91 Twins—has won the World Series in the year after being as bad as the Red Sox were in 2012 (.426 winning percentage).” Tom Verducci  -
A team can turn around.               
Can a school?
Can the principal and several new teachers help a school turn around?  Rise from low-performing to high- performing?

Any common ingredients?  Similar challenges?  Lessons to pass along—from one underdog to another?

OK, neither the principal nor the teachers are paid $3.4 million year, the average pay in major league baseball these days.

But in both cases they look at the scoreboard and have to say: We’ve got to do better.


Meeting the Turnaround Challenge
Why aren’t traditional … approaches to turnaround effective?
Don’t address the underlying conditions and systems… that undercut the impact of even well-conceived reforms.
Authority Over People
Hiring and Placement – Teachers should be selected to fit the distinct culture of the school, by mutual consent of principal and teachers; no forced placement.
Exit – Opportunities for voluntary transfer out … for teachers who are not fully bought-in to the model and process. ..
Approaches to People
Having complete autonomy at the school level is a challenge to acquire. But experience shows it is often crucial to changing culture and moving forward with transformational reform.
    from Mass Insight Education & Research Institute, Spring 2009
I have been reading the Unified Improvement Plan from several low-performing schools.  It is good to find honest self-critiques, where a school community does more than articulate plans to implement a more cohesive curriculum that matches the standards, to commit more resources to professional development, blah blah blah, and instead speaks of the school’s culture, its low expectations, and of deteriorating values—such as a lack of trust.  But in my experience, such a confession, such honest self-examination, is rare. (AV#109—Jan. 2014 pointed out this failure in the 2012-13 UIP from Aurora Central High School.)

Even when schools admit to what the UIP calls “root causes” for their chronic low performance, I find their Major Improvement Strategies and Action Steps often drift far from the heart of the matter: the school’s purpose and mission; its culture and its values; its leadership.  In short, the essentials—which so often need a dramatic transformation.

It stinks to find your school placed on a Turnaround Plan three years in a row.  The principal and faculty must feel under the gun, stressed—as if the crowds are out there booing every day.  No wonder it can lead to a downward spiral, a decline in morale, with a few jumping ship (Let me go play for a winner!). 

And yet, in a few cases, quite the opposite takes place.  A new willingness to face the facts.  An affirmation that the school can and must change.  The emergence of a positive culture.  Hope.

Phoenix, rising from the ashes

In 2012, 40 Colorado schools were given the bottom rating on the State Performance Framework:  Turnaround.  The 2013 SPF shows that, a year later, several of these 40 schools had closed, about half continued in the Turnaround category, and a number improved one category—to Priority Improvement

The good news, though (as miraculous and magical as the Red Sox rise from the ashes last year!), is that five Colorado schools jumped all the way from the bottom to the top rating—Performance—in 2013.

It can happen.

State Performance Framework
1.        Performance
2.        Improvement
3.        Priority Improvement
4.        Turnaround

5 schools leap from state’s lowest rating to highest in one year; some double in points earned
Points Earned
Points Earned
Gilcrest Elementary
Weld County RE 1
Las Animas Jr. High
Las Animas RE 1
Lone Star Elementary
Lone Star 101
Maybell School
Moffat County
Smith Renaissance
Denver Public Schools

Boston Red Sox

69 wins –
93 losses
97 wins –
65 losses

Colorado Rockies—after two straight years in the cellar

I don’t know if Colorado Rockies’ manager Walt Weiss can lead his team to post-season play in 2013—or even to reach .500.  I do know I like his honesty.  None of the denial or excuses we sometimes hear.  No appeals to the Colorado Department of Education for being labeled a low-performing school or district. In talking with The Denver Post over the past year, Weiss doesn’t shy from the truth.
“They finished 74-88 in 2013, in last place in the National League West for the second consecutive year. Weiss doesn’t need to be reminded of those ugly numbers…. He hasn’t experienced back-to-back losing records since the 1993 and 1994 season, when he played with the Marlins and Rockies…. Weiss will be directly responsible for turning the Rockies around.”

He didn’t sign up for 74 wins in his first season, but “the bottom line is that we finished in last place.”

“It’s my job to put our guys in a position to win, to create a culture that perpetuates winning. That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what we’re trying to do as an organization.  It’d probably surprise a lot of people (if the Rockies reached the playoffs), but not me. It’s tough. It can be done.  We’re going to have to go from worst to first, and it’s been done before.”

Hopeful, but honest about the challenge ahead.  Few outside the team predict much change.  There’s talk of “a three-peat this season—that is, a third consecutive last-place finish in the National League West.”  A recent headline read:

“Against the odds – Predictions of another last-place finish put chip on Rockies’ shoulders”

Weiss hears it.

“I’ve talked about the fact that we’ve finished last the last two years. That’s real. That’s there. So we have to deal with that too. But I like the mentality of the club, and if there’s chip on their shoulder, that’s great….

“The most positive thing is that I feel like the mentality of the club is heading in the right direction.  There’s an expectation around here now, I can sense. Guys are expected to compete at a certain way and at a certain level.”

Team leaders have bought into their manager’s message. National League batting champ Michael Cuddyer passed out a t-shirt; on the front it read, “Get Ready. It’s a new day.”  Veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins pitched in: “I want a team that plays the same on Day 1 as on Day 162.  I feel some responsibility to make sure his message doesn’t get lost. Everybody has the same goal this time of year. But tough times don’t last; tough teams do. We have to be tough.”

Low-performing schools - culture, trust, loyalty

Twenty years ago I am visiting a high school 40 miles north of Denver. Our foundation is supporting the school’s restructuring around nine principles, one of which is:

The tone of the school should explicitly and self-consciously stress the values of trust (until abused) and of decency (the values of fairness, generosity and tolerance).

I meet with the principal.  He is worried.  The effort is not going well. He says this year the focus will be on that principle of trust. Naively I ask, “Issues with the teacher and students?”

“No,” he answers, “it’s within the faculty.”  

Dissension among teachers and staff?  Ballplayers call it “cancer in the clubhouse”

In baseball when a negative attitude spreads, initiated by a few key players, it is called “a cancer in the clubhouse.”  It was all-too-evident in Boston during that miserable summer of 2012, as the team plunged into last place.  The Red Sox took action: Josh Beckett and several other stars were “traded” (read: shipped) to Los Angeles. Soon after manager Bobby Valentine was gone, replaced by John Farrell.

Well before the 2013 season opened, it was clear that the new manager meant to address a more fundamental issue than merely tinker with the lineup and improve the pitching.

Nov. 9, 2012                   Boston Red Sox: 5 Changes to Team Culture Coming in 2013 
Feb 13, 2013                           Red Sox begin chemistry experiment  -

Will Boston's improved clubhouse culture translate to on-field success?

For the core guys, this team's struggles since September 2011 have been strange and unpleasant. These players are not used to losing this way. There's a genuine feeling that losing will not be accepted anymore. No more placing blame on anyone else other than themselves if things don't improve in 2013….

Team chemistry is a point of emphasis for Farrell this season. He explained he believes in creating a successful atmosphere within the clubhouse, and the mental part of the game is important, too…. “Particularly in this sport when you've got seven and a half straight months of being with one another every day. That doesn't mean guys have to go out to dinner with one another every night, but there's an atmosphere that's created inside that clubhouse that's one of tolerance, one of encouragement, one of holding one another accountable and I think if you're sincere and respect one another, and you're sincere about your work and how you go about it, those are the attributes that lead to chemistry. I think it goes a long way.”

A long way indeed—all the way to a World Championship.

Over and over again one read of the new camaraderie and team-first spirit. “The positive clubhouse culture was frequently cited as a major reason for Boston's success last year.” (

“Farrell’s greatest accomplishment … eliminating the dysfunction that did as much to destroy last year’s team as anything else.  ‘He needs the guys who allow him to create the cohesive unity we’re all looking for and ultimately we’re all looking for,’ General Manager Ben Cherrington said.”

Oct. 20, 2013          Red Sox emergence from worst-to-first result of culture change in clubhouse
Nov. 4, 2013           Organizational Culture Lessons From The Boston Red Sox 

Farrell asked his players to be relentless from day one, resulting in them showing up to work hours ahead of schedule and helping build a strong culture. Leadership experts agree that the stronger the culture, the more impact it can have on employee commitment and performance.  A weak culture tends to be seen as arbitrary, and may evoke compliance but less commitment.
Farrell overcame the stigma once associated with former pitching coaches-turned-managers to become the first such skipper to reach the World Series stage. Additionally, he exceeded ownership expectations and managed his team to a third championship this century.
 Nabeel Jaitapker

Yes, “my team”—by birth, is Boston.  But in the National League, I’m a Rockies fan—where I am glad to cheer for the underdog.  Just as I have been trying, in my newsletters, to cheer for “the underdogs” in our education system: students in our lowest performing schools.  I have not tackled here the complex question of whether it is wiser to try to transform and redesign such schools, or to open “new” schools—even if in the same old building.  Whatever the choice, I offer this reminder of what we all know. The fundamentals matter: a school’s purpose; its culture and its values; and its leadership.  

No comments:

Post a Comment