Closing the Achievement Gap through Diversity

The American educational system is experiencing competing views of how to close the racial achievement gap that has been well documented through standardized test scores. Some believe that these scores have no value, while others believe that the gaps identified by these scores must be addressed. Of course, how to address these gaps is a subject for significant dispute.  My view is that standardized tests are an important tool to provide apples to apples comparisons of schools and school districts, but such narrow tools necessarily cannot be the sole factor in measuring a student’s education, let alone a teacher’s or school’s performance.

Those who are truly interested in educational success for all students certainly should be interested in how well students learn to read, write and do arithmetic.  Yet, we all know that once students finish their formal education (hopefully with a diploma), the real measure of educational success will not be measured by one or more test scores.  Rather, the real measure of educational success will be whether our schools have provided students with the tools to succeed in their adult lives.

Since our nation has become increasingly diverse, with census data showing that in 2011, 36.2% of the US population were identified as people of color, and that percentage is expected to rise to 49.9% by 2050, a successful education must include ensuring that students are well equipped to live and succeed in a diverse adult world.

While most people may think that my hometown for nearly 3 decades, Madison, Wisconsin, is not very diverse, the truth is that like the rest of country, it is becoming very diverse, and its public schools are very diverse.  Indeed, my son attends Madison East High School, which is now a minority white school.

But merely attending a diverse school by itself is no guarantee that the diversity within the school will teach the students to succeed in a diverse adult world.  Fortunately, Madison East High School students are fortunate  to have teachers such as Cynthia Chin, who is committed to ensuring that a diverse education leads to a successful transition to adulthood.  In addition to being an excellent Calculus teacher, Ms. Chin is also the mentor for the Engineering Club. Her leadership has guided that club to regularly participate in the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) regional and national conferences. This organization is dedicated to the academic and professional advancement of black students and engineering professionals and indeed, the conference is attended by virtually all black students and engineers.

However, Ms. Chin saw an opportunity, which NSBE graciously facilitates, to provide an enriching diverse academic and social experience to the diverse students in her club.  As I reported last year, the East High Robotic team won the regional robotics competition at the midwest regional NSBE conference, which I was fortunate to chaperone.  This year, I chaperoned the club’s trip last week to the midwest regional NSBE conference in Detroit.  The team did not win any competitions, but they were nevertheless enriched by the experience of diversity, both amongst themselves and within the entire conference, where successful Black engineers served as inspiring role models to all.  One look at the East High Engineering Club’s happy faces after the closing banquet says it all.


After the closing party, I asked my son if the trip, which included very long bus rides, was worth it.  He told me that it was because he was able to reconnect with conference attendees that he met last year.  That says a lot about his ability to navigate easily in a diverse world, both now and in the future.  As we celebrate Thanksgiving, I am thankful for Cynthia Chin’s dedication to closing the achievement gap through academic and social diversity.  No test can measure the incredibly profound impact this has had on so many of her students’ lives.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.


Stop Burning Bridges

As we all watch our dysfunctional Congress fail to carry out its most basic duty of passing a budget year after year, and we see divisive political battles in states like Wisconsin, where police arrest peacefully singing protestors resulting in the filing of 15,000 complaints against the Capitol police, it is worth considering whether both sides of the political aisle’s current strategy of vilifying each other achieves the goals they seek. Cynics who believe that politics is all about power and has little to with actual policy may believe that burning bridges with the other side is the best way to fire up their loyal troops.

But for those who seek genuine, long-term systemic change to improve our society, whether on a local, state or national level, burning bridges through name-calling, personal insults and other forms of vilification, will at best, provide short-term emotional satisfaction, and short-term political victories.  Perhaps the worst case example of name calling is through comparing politicians to Hitler or Nazis.  Remarkably, this unfortunate pattern exists on both sides of the aisle, with the left making absurd comparisons between President George W. Bush and Hitler, and the right using the same vilification against President Obama.

Long term systems change happens when society at large believes it should happen and politicians are convinced that blocking such change will result in their loss of power.  Indeed, the opposite is also true.  Do those who invoke the ultimate Hitler insult against a sitting President, or any other politician in power, actually believe that they can work with supporters of the sitting President effectively?  In addition to the fact that such absurd comparisons insult the memories of the millions slaughtered by Hitler, they also ensure that partisan sniping continues and substantive progress on policy grinds to a halt.

For too many, when they disagree with whomever is in power at the time, they believe that they must oppose all that they stand for and use whatever arguments and tactics, no matter how absurd, to oppose that political leader.  For all the appropriate opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s attacks on public employee unions, suggesting a comparison to Hitler is not only absurd, but makes it impossible to work with him and his allies.

Thus, in my own work, I have spent my entire career working with politicians on both sides of the aisle.  I have avoided joining any political parties, which has eased my ability to work with whomever is in power. While I certainly agree with some political leaders more than others, and vote for those whose policies I support, I studiously avoid personal attacks and seek to find common ground with whomever is in power while avoiding burning bridges with those out of power.  The simple truth is that power is always transitory and good advocates know that they always want to be able to influence those in power.

So what should an advocate do when faced with political leadership that generally stands for views the advocate opposes?  

  • First, by all means, the advocate should clearly state opposing views, but those views should be articulated intelligently and respectfully, without burning bridges.
  • Second, seek common ground on issues that the advocate and the political leadership both support.  For example, along with many other advocates, I was able to work with both Republican and Democratic leadership during the highly divisive 2011-12 legislative session and obtain Gov. Walker’s signature on Act 125, which passed the legislature unanimously and now protects Wisconsin school children from inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.

This picture shows how advocates who refuse to burn bridges can work with both sides of the aisle for the common good as the bill’s lead sponsors Democratic Sen. Julie Lassa and Republican Sen. Luther Olsen join me and other advocates to applaud Gov. Walker as he signed Act 125 into law to protect vulnerable children.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Treating Employees Well is Good for Business

At a recent trip to my local supermarket, where I have shopped for over 28 years, I was pleased to see the cashier respectfully ask the elderly customer in front of me if she wanted a drive up after she asked him for two 40 pound bags of salt.  Initially, she declined the offer.  The cashier then asked her if she would like him to put these heavy bags of salt on top of the cart, instead of the bottom, and she accepted that suggestion. He could have stopped there, but after he finished checking her out and gave her the receipt for her groceries, he asked her one more time if she would like a drive up, informing her that it was no trouble.  Looking at her multiple bags of groceries and the heavy bags of salt, she finally accepted his offer.

This interchange was so kind and respectful that I told the cashier that it really pleased me to see.  His reply was that he had been working at the supermarket for 28 years and they give him stock in the company, so he wants to see it do well.  I remarked that I had noticed many employees who have worked there for the nearly 30 years and wondered if it was because it was a good place to work, and he replied that it was.

Perhaps the most famous example of how treating employees well is good for business is Costco, which pays better than average wages and therefore attracts a high volume of applicants for every available position, allowing it to choose the best possible employees.  Indeed, management spends no money on recruiting employees due to Costco‘s well known reputation for treating its employees well.  The company provides generous raises in order to retain its employees as it understands that employee turnover is costly and bad for business.  Indeed, it goes one step further and trains entry level employees for eventual management level positions as it realizes that the best managers understand how the whole store operates from the bottom up.  A remarkable 68% of warehouse managers started as hourly employees.  Costco’s 1st year employee turnover is only 6%, one of the lowest in the industry.

As reported in the 2010 in the Ivey Business Journal,

Costco had higher annual sales per square foot than its most direct competitor, Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club,  ($795 versus $516), and higher annual profits per employee ($13,647 versus $11,039) even though Costco’s average wage was 42 percent higher. Over 16 years, Costco grew from 206 warehouses and $16 billion in sales to 554 warehouses and $69.9 billion in sales.

Of course there are other ways of treating employees well, including profit-sharing,  and including all employees in decision making using open book management practices.  A Canadian packing-supplies manufacturer, Great Little Box Company uses these tools and has achieved outstanding results.  Per the Ivey Business Journal

Great Little Box has reaped substantial gains from the policies that fueled employee input. Over the past decade, sales have doubled from $17M to $35M.  During the past seven years the company’s success has enabled it to purchase the assets of six companies. Two more acquisitions are pending.

Business authors and researchers Jody Heymann and Magda Barrera conclude their report with the following excellent common sense suggestions for business leaders.

1. Understand who performs the majority of the essential work. At professional services firms, this may be lawyers or paralegals; in surgical clinics, this could include surgeons, nurses, technicians, paramedics, and individuals preparing the operating room; and in manufacturing, those working on the factory floor clearly carry out most of the essential work.

2. Realize that the firms’ success depends on the quality of the work performed by the majority of workers. Remarkably, few firms currently design their organizations to optimize the efforts of employees at the bottom of the corporate ladder—even when these employees are central to the firms’ ability to add value. At Costco, the sales staff was instrumental in ensuring the high-quality shopping experience that would draw customers to return. At Great Little Box, the company beat competitors because of its ability to respond rapidly to customized orders.

3. Recognize that the quality and productivity of employees at the bottom of the ladder depend on whether these employees are motivated, healthy, adequately rested, and well-prepared to carry out the tasks they are asked to perform.Employees at Costco were motivated to work harder and perform better by a combination of higher wages and opportunities for promotions. Great Little Box employees had a direct financial stake in the company’s performance.

4. Realize that line workers are often the ones who know best how to increase efficiency. Great Little Box benefited from suggestions from line workers that led to cost savings and greater flexibility in production. Managers at Costco had a better understanding of how to improve production because most had served as hourly workers.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Keeping Your Eye on the Prize

One of the phrases I often use as a reminder to clients is to, “Keep your eye on the prize.”   The roots of this phrase come from one of the Civil Rights movement’s theme songs, reminding those struggling for civil rights to maintain their focus on what the struggle is all about.  Mavis Staples released a beautiful version a few years ago.

The reason I need to use this phrase as a frequent reminder to my clients is that they often get caught up in the anger, frustration and resentment of their struggle, lose sight of the purpose of their battle, and shift focus to “winning,” or worse yet, “getting revenge.”  While winning or getting revenge may provide some temporary psychological satisfaction, they will rarely earn those who are struggling for civil rights the real prize they are seeking, i.e., equal rights.

This often happens as parents struggle to obtain appropriate education for their children with disabilities.  They often experience years of frustration and want to teach the school district a lesson by taking legal action to punish those they perceive as wrongdoers.  The problem is that although it is critically important for students with disabilities to have legal rights, and to be able to enforce them, such enforcement alone will rarely provide them with the prize of a quality education.  Thus, I will often use Getting to Yes strategies as I described previously, to try to achieve a win-win solution rather than a possibly Pyrrhic victory of a legal win.  Sometimes this involves direct negotiation.  At other times it involves mediation.  In either case, it may include the threat of legal action to force the school district to take the parent’s concerns seriously. But, as I remind my clients, proceeding down a litigation path does not guarantee the prize they seek, and even if they win the case, their child’s education may not improve and relations with the school district will undoubtedly sour.

Keeping your eye on the prize also applies to systems change advocacy, which the civil rights leaders and marchers understood.  Today, our political leaders spend too much time worrying about the next sound bite, and political positioning, rather than acting as statesmen to accomplish the greater good, as I dubbed them Pressmenthe opposite of Statesmen.  I described a more productive approach for achieving progressive change for the common good in How Systems Change Happens.  In sum, systems change advocates who keep their eyes on the prize must follow these key steps.

Those who want to fight powerful, well-financed special interests, must be willing and able to use the truth, educate all concerned, organize well, litigate enough of the right cases, and be persistent. Moreover, they must do so strategically and effectively.

Anyone involved in civil rights struggles knows that it can be challenging to keep your eyes on the prize, but with good training, and able assistance, it can be done successfully.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.