Now that Mr. Joel Klein (he is not Chancellor, legally) is changing the NYC public school administration for the third time in 5 years, the disaster of the Mayoral reign of Mike Bloomberg, Joel, and his sidekicks is becoming more obvious to everyone. The Jack Welch Leadership Academy is, we believe, the seed of the destruction.
Jack Welch is My Daddy
The Former CEO of General Electric Brings His Big Stick to the Principals Academy...and Shows the Newbies How to Use It
By Mary Hoffman
Part 1: The School for Principals
When Joel Klein answered Mike Bloomberg’s call to serve as New York City schools chancellor in the new mayor’s administration, one of his stated intentions was to get rid of the so-called “bad teachers” he believed were preventing the children at their schools from learning. Even without the vacancies his pursuit of that mission could be expected to create, the school system faced an administrator shortfall. Forty percent of the principals in the city will be eligible to retire by 2005. Hundreds of replacements will be needed in the next five years.
Traditionally, New York City school principals have come up through the ranks: starting their careers as teachers, then assuming teacher-training and administrative tasks and taking educational administration coursework at a university. Klein, and others at the Department of Education, saw a need for an alternative training route for aspiring principals. They envisioned a school where the process could be brought under one roof, and the time required to turn out a school-ready administrator shortened. When one considers the mayor’s business background, it isn’t surprising that the organizational framework for the Academy should be the model used in many business schools to turn out corporate leaders. Students work in groups to run fictional schools. They are given “paper” students and staff profiles, a budget, etc., and work to set up a school. There’s also a “real life” component: during their first year of study they are assigned to an acting principal for mentoring. They observe the principal they are assigned to, and undertake a small project to address an area of “instructional need” they’ve identified at his or her school.
The Academy is not funded with city monies. Instead, corporate and foundation donations were solicited to underwrite the cost of the training, and to provide the candidates with salaries of a little over $100,000 a year. Given the source of the funding, it’s also no surprise that many of the people selected to run the project came from a background in business rather than education. Richard Knowling, the top executive at a number of internet and technology companies was chosen as the Leadership Academy’s CEO.* Richard Parsons, CEO at Time-Warner, was picked to serve as vice-president of the advisory board, a post he shared with former schools chancellor Anthony Alvarado. When I learned about the Academy, I did expect that somewhere in the lineup there’d be a figure with a record of academic and/or humanitarian accomplishment that would symbolize the ultimate goal of the work the principals would be doing in the city schools: promoting the academic and social achievement of the students in their care. And, whether from the world of education, business or philanthropy, the individual ought to be an exemplar of effective leadership: someone whose ideas and actions earned the respect of the people she or he managed, since principals oversee the people who provide direct instructional services to children – teachers. Naturally it wouldn’t be the CEO of a company whose financial services division was fined for discrimination against low-income consumers. Or one whose firm was convicted of numerous cases of cheating on defense contracts throughout the 1990s. No individual whose organization paid no taxes on net earnings of $2.7 billion in 1998 (for a combined total of $6.9 billion in tax breaks between 1996-98) would be an appropriate choice for a school that aimed to train public school principals. In other words, it wouldn’t be somebody like Jack Welch.
But, remarkably, that’s exactly who the Department of Education DID offer the top spot on the Leadership Academy’s advisory board to. Jack Welch – the PCB-causes-cancer-denying, corporate-tax avoiding, personnel-and-plant ridding, outsourcing cheerleading, former CEO of General Electric.
For a thorough treatment of the scandals that took place at GE during Jack Welch’s tenure, and the social costs of his leadership, I recommend the book “At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric, and the Pursuit of Profit,” by Thomas O’Boyle, a former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal (Vintage Books, 1998). Most of the information in this article comes from that book, and even a cursory glance shows why it’s hard to imagine a less suitable figure for the post he was given at the Leadership Academy. It might be one thing if Welch’s position had been largely ceremonial – if all he was charged with was providing a little color at public functions. But Welch’s role has given him direct access to the new principals. He is one of the Academy’s instructors, and he uses the forum to actively sell his brand of management by intimidation and fear.
Part II: The First Class
I first learned of Jack Welch's association with the Academy at the start of the 2003-04 school year. In the week or so before school opens each fall, Channel 13/WNET usually broadcasts a couple of programs with education themes. That year, one program seemed particularly relevant. One of the station’s staff reporters, Rafael Pi Roman, introduced a documentary-in-installments that would follow three of the candidates in the newly established Leadership Academy as they undertook their year of study, and then took charge of a school. Episodes of the documentary would air periodically on a program called “New York Voices.” I watched, fascinated, as the three candidates the program would focus on were introduced. All seemed earnest and intelligent. I found myself hoping that the Leadership Academy would live up to their expectations, and satisfy the city’s need for good school administrators.
I watched with less enthusiasm at a scene from one of the classroom lessons the candidates sat through. An instructor at the Academy pretended to be a math teacher with a monotonic voice. She threw out a couple of phrases so the students would know what subject she was supposed to be teaching...something about the formula for computing the slope of a line, if I recall. When the performance ended, the instructor asked the students how they would approach this teacher. “You’ve seen this teacher on your travels, haven’t you?” she asked, disdainfully, eliciting laughter. One member of the class responded by suggesting that she might open might open a dialogue with the teacher by imitating her – as the instructor had just done. Another objected that the teacher might reasonably become upset at seeing herself mimicked. No mention was made of the content of the lesson, or where the study of slope might fit into a larger lesson. But then, an analysis of the content hadn’t been the instructor’s object. The object had been to show these future leaders WHO to look for when they took over their respective schools: the people with monotonic voices talking about math formulas. (In Jack Welchian terms: the “dull crowd” he thought they’d be such “jerks” for hanging around with in the quote that opens this piece.)
I was heartened that one of the candidates seemed as uncomfortable with the performance as I was. He suggested opening a dialogue with the teacher with a question: “What do you think worked...and what didn’t work so well?” It was harder to tell about the others. At $100,000 plus a year, and given the instructor’s apparent lack of concern about using mimicry to make her point, any reticence they felt about expressing their misgivings would be understandable.
Which is why a scene from a later episode that aired during the series’ first year rekindled my optimism. Jack Welch had invited the Academy’s students to GE’s upstate conference center for a weekend retreat. At one point they were all seated around him in a circle. The topic under discussion was the value of teacher incentives. I was heartened when one of the aspiring principals took issue with the idea that incentives should be tied solely to test performance. “Children are not products,” she said, heatedly, and went on to present her case: schools must try to consider each child’s individual needs and talents...
Mr. Welch squashed her outburst. “Oh, yes they are,” he said, with the absolute assurance of a man whose retirement package was so generous that it even raised eyebrows on Wall Street, and her protest petered out.
But she had made a stand. It would have been easier to let Jack Welch feel important, and keep silent about any differences of opinion. Enjoy the weekend upstate, and let him play guru. I was so pleased at this evidence of independence that the next day I reported on her courage to the new principal we had last year – and for just a year – recommending that she try to see the program the next time it aired. (She had come to the principal’s position through traditional means, teaching for many years first. She was taking classes at the Leadership Academy, but was not in the full-time program featured in the documentary.) In June, during the last week of school, I saw that principal showing someone around our school. The visitor’s face was familiar, but I didn’t place her until I returned to my room. Then I realized who I’d seen, and went to the office to confirm the identification. The Leadership Academy student who’d “talked back” to Jack Welch was seated with the principal in her office. I introduced myself, and asked if she would be working at our school the following year. I thought perhaps the visitor might intend to take a position as an assistant principal until something else opened up. She shook her head. “Oh no,” she said.
In August she telephoned me at home: she was going to be our new principal.
Were changes in order at the elementary school where I work? Most definitely. Our schoolyard –or the lack of one -- had been a problem for years. Located half a block away from our building, the logistics of using the space were always a challenge, and over the years it fell into disuse and disrepair. For at least the past fifteen years, our students have remained indoors, seated at their cafeteria tables, throughout their entire lunch periods. A number of teachers made efforts to get their students outside, with limited, and sporadic success. (For a time the former principal approved class visits to a new early childhood playground built down the street from the school, but after 9/11 she withdrew her approval. Individual teachers took children on neighborhood walks, and occasionally used the playgrounds around local apartment buildings. At one point I had arranged for Operation Greenthumb to come and measure our playground for the creation of a community garden; but the MTA had already started work on the conversion of an adjacent transformer station, putting if off-limits for school use.) Last year I told this story to someone at the regional office that replaced the district offices closed under Mayor Bloomberg’s school restructuring. She assured me that there would be action on the matter and within a month I was introduced to the representative of a company that designs playgrounds. I turned over to him the blueprints for the schoolyard that I’d gotten a couple of years earlier from the School Construction Authority as part of my quest to get it reopened, and I’ve been told that efforts to make the renovation happen are underway. In the meantime, the children have a real recess, either outside on the terrace in front of the school (an idea I suggested to the principal we had last year, and which she put into effect) or in the gym. This year a talented student from the school of education at Brooklyn College runs clubs during the lunch periods.
Academic performance had also been showing steady improvement over the past few years. In 2001, 24.1% of the students in Grade 4 scored at Levels 3 or 4 in English Language Arts; in 2003 61.6% did. In Math, 34.1% of Grade 4 students scored at Levels 3 or 4 in 2001; by 2003 that had risen to 76.3%. The “Adequate Yearly Progress” goals set by New York State were met in both these areas in 2003. How much these scores reflect real growth in academic achievement by individual students is difficult to say however; one would probably need to follow the students’ progress over the course of years to see whether the apparent improvement had lasting effects. But as a very crude measure of whether or not students were learning, it seemed that many students were making progress.
It’s interesting to note that this improvement took place before the new, standardized “workshop model” of delivering instruction was implemented in most city schools. A change in the state reading test some years ago drove a return to using texts of greater length and complexity in the classroom than had been the case for many years in some schools, and to the study of genre and literary devices. (Before that, the test followed a ‘cloze’ format – students had to fill in words in short paragraphs that were devoid of any literary value, and at our school, classroom materials tended to follow that format.) A treatment of the pros and cons of the workshop model and the units of study supplied as curriculum guides in reading is beyond the scope of this article. Support for portions of the reading program can certainly be found in the research literature. The value of read-alouds, followed by discussion and “lessons that build children’s understanding of the ideas, topics and words in the story” are an effective way to address the problem of word-poverty that’s at the heart of reading difficulty for many students, for example.1
But the comments of a city teacher I met recently illustrate the shortcomings many see in the new reading program, and/or the way it is being implemented in some schools. This teacher said that she can see the positive impact the program is having on some of her students. And it’s apparent to me in the school library: students have always been eager to borrow books by the authors I’ve featured in read-alouds; now they are asking for the works by the authors their teachers are using for that purpose in the classroom. For others – the New York City children who come to school less ready to read than their peers for a host of reasons-- she feels the new program falls short. “There are children in my class who still don’t recognize ‘the.’ It’s December! I know, with a program like McGraw-Hill, they would be able to do that.” This teacher isn’t saying she would ditch all aspects of the new program.. Nor is she saying that the alternatives – whether McGraw-Hill, or any other program, on its own, has everything she needs to teach reading effectively. What she would like to be able to do is customize her presentation of the material she knows her students need to master, based on what her prior experience has shown her will work with her students. Surely, any school leader would be interested in what these teachers have to say about where the new curriculum falls short, and how they would like to customize it to help their students? They would be encouraged to come up with the mix of methods and resources that best meet them? Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
Part III: “Get Rid of Your Negative People.”
This fall, the opening episode of the documentary about the Leadership Academy featured scenes from the ceremony for the first class of graduates. Chancellor Joel Klein addressed the gathering, as did Mayor Bloomberg. Again, Jack Welch played a role in the proceedings. When I saw him at the podium I wondered: would he wish the graduates luck? Tell them they could continue to call on him for advice and support? Thank them in advance for the years of public service they were about to embark upon?
“Get rid of your negative people,” he said.
Not an unexpected sentiment, coming from Jack Welch, if somewhat inappropriately – well, negative – for the occasion. He earned the title “Neutron Jack” for his slash-and-burn style of doing employee relations. His lack of concern for how his policies impacted on his employees is legendary. The list of former employees who have accused Welch of firing them for trying to bring attention to problems within the company to light is a long one. (In one case the company paid $7.2 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a GE engineer who charged the company with selling the Air Force jet engines that didn’t comply with contract terms.) His general attitude towards GE employees might best be summed up by one of more famous quotes, which states that in the perfect business world, companies would have their manufacturing plans on barges, so they could move them around the world looking for the cheapest labor. From the book “At Any Cost”:
“Companies move jobs all the time. But seldom do they move them with as little consideration given to the human and societal consequences as does GE. Consider Welch’s announcement in January 1998 of another year of record profit. Buried in that proclamation was a $2.3 billion charge to cover, among other things, the cost of eliminating more than 4,000 manufacturing jobs.” In many of the cities affected by the job loss, “...union and government officials had engaged in months of negotiations, offering wage concessions, tax breaks, anything, so that their locals and communities would be allowed to keep the jobs.”
Now it seems that Mr. Welch wants to export his style of personnel management to the city’s schools. “Get rid of your negative people,” he told the graduating principals. And who might those people be? Probably anyone who expresses skepticism about any aspect of the new curriculum. The official term used by the instructors at the Leadership Academy is “pushback,” and students role-play methods of dealing with it. A Joel Klein statement made in the course of the documentary is also instructive in this regard: he said one way the new principals could gauge their effectiveness was to ask themselves “...how much you are changing the system, and how much the system is changing you.” In other words, “good” graduates will not be altered from the missionary outlook the Academy has instilled in them; “bad” ones might allow themselves to learn something on the ground, even from people who don’t have the Academy’s seal of approval. And there’s no doubt what Jack Welch would counsel the new principals to do with the people who dare question the new program, or its implementation – even when they ask out of genuine concern about what’s best for students. In the Welch playbook, the solution to the problem of what to do with those who do not immediately surrender to the new order is obvious: the new principals should “get rid of them.”
Part IV: “Pushback” and Teacher Autonomy
I once met H. Carl McCall during the brief period when he served as the president of the Board of Education for New York City schools in the early 1990s. I described the lack of children’s literature in the school where I worked – a function, as explained earlier, of the type of reading tests students were then required to take, and the administration’s efforts to prepare them for it. I bemoaned the tension between the test preparation focus of the curriculum, and the efforts of many teachers to expose the children to wider offerings. McCall paused to consider the problem, and then said, “That’s not a bad tension.”
This anecdote is instructive for two reasons. Yes, it does show that teacher skepticism about the curricula they are required to offer students is nothing new. But, more importantly, it points up an important teacher function – one that that the DOE leadership, and the instructors at the Leadership Academy do not recognize – and that is to protect their students from the changing enthusiasms of the education marketplace. You can choose your analogy – the Emperor requiring all his subjects to get their clothing from the fabulous new tailors who are dressing him; with teachers keeping a collection of old clothes on the side for their students to wear; or the enthusiasts at the DOE running after “workshop model” purity like lemmings running headlong off a cliff, with teachers conducting a lesson on the dangers of blind faith looking on from the side. The anedcote is not a defense of teachers who don’t know why they do what they do, but want to keep on doing it anyway – but in my experience there are very few of those. It is an argument on behalf of those teachers who express their doubts about what they are being asked to do out of genuine concern that students will not be well served by some of the changes being forced on them. These teachers take their role seriously enough that they are willing to risk administrative censure – and in some schools, that’s getting serious – in order to protect their students from the untested new – arguably as important a function as that of rescuing them from the discredited old. As long as those in charge defend their sudden jettisoning of one form of instruction in favor of another with the argument that the “children can’t wait,” teachers are the only people who can keep everyone from leaping off that cliff, or arriving at the end of the school year without the “clothing” of skills and experience required for the next. To the plea, “Let teachers teach,” Carmen Farina said that students “didn’t get what they needed” when teachers had more autonomy. To which I reply that while teachers have never had as little leeway to “correct” for the shortcomings of the curriculum or methods they were required to use as they do now, they’ve never had complete autonomy either. And that while some children did not make the kind of progress every teacher would like to see every child make, many did. I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t have ideas about how to improve the prospects for those children who are not as easily served. Their input was rarely sought before; it is even less valued now.
Part V: The Welch Effect
This year’s first episode of the documentary about the Leadership Academy rebroadcast scenes from the programs that aired previously. Once again, the three candidates the program would be following were introduced. Two of the new principals were going on to high schools...in fact, due to an emergency vacancy, one had already taken charge of his school. And, viewers were again treated to the scene in which Jack Welch addressed the Academy students at the GE conference center, and my principal made her small gesture of independence.
She was standing in the office when I arrived for school the next day. I mentioned that I had seen the program, and commended her for “talking back” to Jack Welch. She replied with a demurral: Welch was a great leader; someone who had, “really turned his company around.” As evidence, she presented the fact that the value of GE stock had soared under his stewardship. Then she added, “But he could fire people.”
I was taken aback. Did she really think that success depended on the top executive’s ability to fire people at will? Did she have any knowledge of Welch’s treatment of company whistleblowers? Or his treatment of so many other employees?
I decided she needed to know more about Jack Welch than the sanitized biography they were obviously offering at the Leadership Academy. During the next Monday professional development block I presented her with the O’Boyle book, which sets out to correct the impression of executive infallibility the business media had bestowed on Welch. As I handed her the book, I mentioned a few of the not-so-good things Welch had “brought to life” at GE:
-- His long and well-documented efforts to prevent GE from bearing any expense for cleaning up the company-generated pollution in the Hudson River, and the many affected towns in upstate New York, where PCB-infected soil was illegally dumped.3
At a 1991 meeting where high level staff members met to discuss an environmental study the company had commissioned, Welch stopped the discussion once the cost of various clean-up schemes began to be discussed. “On this one, guys, let’s just keep two steps ahead of the law,”4 he told those assembled. With more lawyers and money to devote to that enterprise, GE successfully fended off responsibility for any cleanup for years.
-- the fact that the rise in GE shares came about, not through engineering innovation, but from the acquisition of financial service companies. As one business writer put it: “Welch likes to claim he succeeded by stimulating innovation, but his record says otherwise. He bought innovation, he didn’t create it. In that respect, he is not a good model for most enterpreneurs.”5
I hoped she would read about the following:
-- GE attorneys kept tabs on individual workers poisoned by working directly with PCBs, creating lists of the “experts” GE could call upon to refute these workers’ claims about the health effects the chemicals caused.
-- Within days of the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to announce a dredging order that would finally force GE to begin to clean up the Hudson River, the company announced that it would move the headquarters of its Power Systems devision from Schenectady, New York, where it had been since founder Thomas Edison’s time, to Atlanta. Local people interpreted the move as revenge for the state’s support for cleaning up the river.
-- The fact that 77% of GE’s 401k employee retirement plan was invested in GE stock as of Nov. 2001...this is what ENRON did with its employee pension funds, and when that company went belly up, many lost those pensions.
-- GE has “the dubious distinction of (being) the leading corporate criminal among the defense department’s one hundred largest contractors...Defense contract fraud was so rampant in GE that in June 1990 the Department of Defense took the unusual step of creating a special office in Philadelphia solely to police and audit GE defense contracts.”6
While any of these things ought to put a wrinkle in the portrait of Welch being presented at the Leadership Academy, it is his style of dealing with employees that probably poses the greatest threat to the principals-in-training, because it is the easiest to imitate.
Welch counseled GE managers to fire 10% of the workforce every year, whether or not their departments were productive. The aim of the policy is explained this way in “At Any Cost”:
“To get results, Welch and his lieutenants had created a climate of purposeful insecurity, a turbocharged environment in which people were never quite certain they would have a job tomorrow. It was a form of corporate cannibalism, which eventually unleashed a series of scandals that were unprecedented in the history of American business for their variety and scope. More than anything, it was Welch’s treatment of GE employees that engendered the cynicism which in turn paved the way for those scandals, blemishing his own reputation and that of General Electric.”
Welch was lionized in the business press for his merciless style of dealing with employees, and as long as share price was rising, no one argued with its effectiveness. In hindsight, the long-term impact of such behaviors are less clearly positive:
“Downsizing also wrecks morale among those who survive. People come to feel that the organization doesn’t care about their welfare, and they respond by becoming 9-to-5ers, unwilling to put forth extra effort, certainly unwilling to take risks...the American Management Association found in a survey of one thousand companies that fewer than half had laid off people and managed to increase their operating profits afterward. That would seem to explain why the U.S. economy’s productivity gains have been relatively modest considering the effect of recent personnel cutbacks.”7
As for the defense that whatever Welch did, it was good for the shareholders:
“It surely is no coincidence that criminality within GE and throughout American business hit its apex at the very time when the corporate community was most profit-driven and treating its employees with the most egregious disregard.”8
Welch has long been an advocate of outsourcing, pressuring suppliers to relocate offshore in order to provide GE with lower input costs. The public is beginning to find out that such practices carry hidden costs, that aren’t reflected in the price of the products and services the corporation produces. Those costs must be borne by someone. A recent study of Wal-Mart employees in California, for example found that they are more likely then employees of other companies to rely on food stamps to feed their families, and emergency rooms for health care.9
The public pays for what Wal-Mart won’t; their low prices don’t reflect their actual cost of doing business. The same has been true of GE. Its stock prices soared in part because of the company’s successful avoidance of responsibility for cleaning up the PCBs left behind by its manufacturing processes in upstate New York, and its willingness to overcharge the military for the things it supplied...and, in some cases, to supply materials that did not meet military standards. The cost to taxpayers for the illnesses caused, for the loss of river access for fishing and recreation, for the unemployment that resulted from Welch’s race to divest GE of manufacturing plants in favor of service industries, wasn’t part of the company’s accounting practice. The costs never got factored into the soaring stock price. But somebody paid.
Of course, it’s hard to say with any precision how much any of the new graduates of the Leadership Academy has been influenced by exposure to Jack Welch. In the most recent broadcast of the Channel 13 documentary about their progress, a visiting instructor from the Academy inquired about what kind of feedback my principal was getting from the staff about her efforts to implement the workshop model. She replied that while she hasn’t gotten direct feedback, she has heard that teachers feel she is “policing them, which is so not what it’s about!” She seemed genuinely distressed at the perception. Later, the instructor faced the camera to explain: “Ideally, you would have more experienced people,” enrolling in the Academy to prepare to be school leaders. She then went on to suggest that the demographics of the coming wave of principal retirements meant that experience could no longer be considered an essential requirement for the job. I wondered if she had spent much time reflecting on the possibility that something in the curriculum at the Leadership Academy may have contributed to the “communication gap” between the new principal and her staff. Isn’t it possible that all those lessons about “pushback” might have prejudiced the Academy’s graduates against looking on, and dealing with, teacher concerns positively? Ditto for “Neutron Jack” Welch’s statement at the graduation ceremony about “getting rid of your negative people.”
Then, despite occasional protests to the contrary, there seems to be a general belief in the leadership at the DOE, from Chancellor Klein down, that the interests of students and teachers are mutually exclusive, and that the latter must indeed be policed or they will not get the job done. The idea that their experience and opinions might also serve children seems not to have any adherents, or at least not any vocal ones. At some point, all the Academy’s graduates may have the courage to form their own opinions on these matters...may make the revolutionary decision to learn from their surroundings, as well as from those who have the imprimatur of the Leadership Academy.
Part IV: What Should the Role of Business Be?
As potential employers of the graduates of the city’s public schools, city businesses claim a stake in how well they are prepared for work or higher education.
The Business Round Table is one national organization that makes the same claim, and publishes position papers on such issues as the importance of early childhood education, and a national testing program. I don’t see anything wrong with their efforts to offer their view – it is important to know what future employment trends will be, and what skills employers think they will need. The rise of small private schools offering certification in various software languages and packages, outside of the structure of college computer science programs, shows that established schools can’t always respond quickly enough to meet the economy’s needs for workers with particular expertise.
( On the other hand, the people inside the college departments might argue that they should NOT be concerned with meeting the needs of the current economy, but in preparing students to create the future one.) It could be useful for educators to have
an idea of what entry level requirements are for various positions in the major industries in New York. Many business leaders have promoted the idea of tying employment directly to coursework, by publicizing how many years of English and math would
be required for employment, for example, as well as grade-point cut-offs. This could provide incentive to struggling students to stay in school, and make it easier for those who will go directly to work after graduating (while studying part-time, or full-time) to get that first job.
What the architects of the Leadership Academy have done takes the role business should play in the schools a step further, however. By putting a Jack Welch in a leadership role, they have made corporate success the philosophical touchstone of
an educational endeavor. Now, the limited liability corporation might provide the best framework for bringing useful products and services to market, but the production of human capital has traditionally not been seem as the same kind of undertaking.
But even if you do think the corporate model could be an appropriate paradigm for a school system, all the recent scandals in the business world (from Enron to Worldcom, and a few in between), have shown that it really isn’t safe to assume that it always creates “the best for the most.” Many companies manage to be profitable while doing right by their employees, their customers and their country.Under Jack Welch, GE wasn’t one of them.
My misgivings about his appearance at the helm of an educational enterprise is probably best expressed by the quote that closes “At Any Cost.” It comes from one of the author’s college professors, Alfred Kern, who has followed Welch’s career – and the popularization of his management style – with dismay. “I’m both angered and saddened that we live in an America that now defines not only success but also good and evil by the Dow Jones,” Kern says.
I wish Mr. Klein and Mr. Bloomberg were as discerning. It seems they’ve bought the “Welch Doctrine,” no questions asked, and are content to give “Neutron Jack” unfettered access to the hearts and minds of those new school administrators. The concept of a “school for principals” may be a good one: one of the mentor principals shown in an early episode of the Channel 13 documentary says he wishes there had been something like the Academy available when he first became an administrator. The danger comes when someone like Welch is touted as the man to imitate. Again, from “At Any Cost”:
“History will eventually set the record straight. Above all, he will be held responsible for GE’s multiple misadventures: transgressions in which entire businesses were destroyed and thousands of people lost their jobs. Business historians will come to understand the anxiety and insecurity which Welch instilled and how that contributed to a make-money-at-all-costs world that was a perfect hothouse for a growing calamity.”
It doesn’t appear that anyone at the Leadership Academy has really taken the time to evaluate whether the mantra Welch is pitching is something his students can profit from. And whether the success of his pitch might have some hidden costs, that someone, at some point, will end up paying for.
When Pedro Martinez said he felt like the Yankees were his Daddy last year, I wasn’t sure what he meant. Then a baseball fan enlightened me: he was trying to say that when the Yankees beat him, they were behaving like a parent. Now a beating isn’t everyone’s idea of good parenting practice, but that’s what Pedro was stuck with facing the Yankees. Whenever I see Jack Welch with the future principals of the Leadership Academy, I know just how he felt.
March 8, 2005
*. Update: Knowling was replaced by Sandra J. Stein on April 8. A press release quoted Joel Klein saying,"Bob stayed longer than he first promised, and we wish him every success back in the corporate world.”
1.“Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge – of Words and the World” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., American Educator, Spring 2003, pp. 10-28.
2.“The Early Catastrophe: The Thirty Million Word Gap by Age 3”, by B. Hart & T. Risley, American Educator, Spring 2003, pp. 4-9.
3.“For years, a class of chemicals called PCBs were created in GE plants as a by-product of the manufacturing process for plastics. Their dangers to humans are widely-accepted. One study by two scientists from Wayne State University found evidence that babies born to mothers who had eaten PCB tainted fish “were born sooner, weighed less, and had smaller heads than those whose mothers did not eat fish...A subsequent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that children who had been prenatally exposed to PCBs in concentrations only slightly higher than those found in the general population exhibited IQ deficits, poor reading comprehension, and difficulty paying attention.” From “At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric, and the Pursuit of Profit,” by Thomas O’Boyle, Vintage Books, New York, 1998.
6.“At Any Cost”
7.“At Any Cost.”
9.“UC Berkeley Study Estimates Wal-Mart Employment Practices Cost California Taxpayers $86 Million a Year,” www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2004/08/02_walmart.shtml.