Women to Remember

Written by Michael Heathfield

Only a fool would look to the future without serious regard for the past.  So while I look forward to my reinvented future at HWC, it is impossible to not look back. Especially as I am teaching courses this semester I will not teach again as social work and youth work programs close at HWC in the spring.  I work hard in my classes to get students to make diverse connections and pull past narratives into their futures. We public educators don’t have to reach too far back for narratives to be informative.

The stories of two women keep resonating in my head and my heart is continuously trying to learn from both. The first is Mary Parker-Follet (1868-1933) who was very much an innovator and management guru way ahead of her time.  Indeed, many of today’s famous male stars of management theory owe a debt to the writing, theories and principles originating from Parker-Follet.  Peter Drucker acknowledged her important contributions to business administration that is ethical and grounded in the human interactions and connections that bind us together.

She was a social worker who studied at Radcliffe and spent a year at Cambridge University. She established community centers in Boston and wrote about how important community interactions and relationships were for success.  She was an innovator in establishing group work as an important method for social change. In her 1924 essay “Power” she differentiated between coercive power and coactive power.  Power “over” was very clearly about control, manipulation and setting up win/lose dynamics.  Power “with” provided mutual growth and opportunities that would now be framed as win/win. She was very clear which kind of power contributed to community and democracy. One of my favorite quotes from her body of work is, “life and education must never be separated”.  Democracy was about something we do together.

She was an early advocate for opening up schools as community resources, extending them from their traditional schooling roles and functions in the communities that they serve.  She was a very early advocate of youth work and of conflict resolution strategies in which all parties could participate in negotiated settlements in which “reframing” the dispute was the means to helping all parties move forward to successful outcomes.  She also wrote persuasively about what we now call “life-long learning” and how the world of work should always be connected to learning.

The second woman was more recently lauded as an education innovator and looked upon by politicians, from both parties, as someone who would be a game changer for public education.  Her name is Michelle Rhee, who for a very brief time (2007-2010) was the Chancellor of the D.C. public school system.  She was a bold political choice who was proud of her lack of experience in any public education system and she rapidly surrounded herself with friends and colleagues who also lacked both experience and expertise in public education.  Her oft-repeated mantra was that she was driven solely by the vital needs of D.C. school children.  She was appointed because of her connections to clout-heavy politicians and billionaires. She got to sit on Oprah’s couch.

Her one driving goal, above all else, was to lift up the test scores of D.C. school children.  In her very short tenure she created a culture of fear and retribution within both schools and their administration.  She presented a public persona unafraid of taking difficult decisions. One of the most demeaning examples of this was the firing of a public school principal in front of television cameras.

She received inordinate levels of publicity as the new face of school reform but abruptly left D.C. public schools surrounded by evidence of test score cheating on a systemic scale.  She continued her education reform goals through leading her own advocacy organization “StudentsFirst” which was publically committed to raising a billion dollars to support the election of political candidates equally committed to the kind of reforms she espoused.

StudentsFirst high profile tool is the “State Policy Score Card” that judges a state’s progress made against the group’s education reform goals.  The reality of StudentsFirst is that it has repeatedly missed its funding targets and has begun withdrawing paid staff from a number of states.  It has distributed a mere $5.3 million to political campaigns and has significantly underperformed on its own targets.  Rhee, a declared Democrat, has now stepped down from leading this organization too. She has recently been appointed to the board of Scotts Miracle Grow Company and has dedicated herself to supporting her husband’s career and her own children.

A belief in the central role of teachers in the education process was the hallmark of one of these memorable women.  The other clearly identified them as the enemy to be dismissed and disrespected at every opportunity.  I hope our ever-growing business and management students get to study both women and think critically about their contributions to education, management and leadership.

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