Category Archives: team player

Sunstein and Hastie Must Be Smart, and Nice Too!

I finished reading Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter.

The blogpost title references one of the problems with groups identified by Sunstein and Hastie (page 98), which is that we tend to respect and like people more once they have told us something that we already know.

I predicted, after reading the introduction, that I would find the book interesting and I did, though perhaps largely because I am in agreement with the authors’ recognition of the importance of dissenting opinions being heard. From the conclusion (page 214):

Wise leaders embrace a particular idea of what it means to be a team player: not to agree with the majority’s current view, but to add valuable information. Leaders create a culture that does not punish, and even rewards, the expression of dissident views. They do so to protect not the dissident, but the group.

Regular readers of this blog will not be at all surprised that this definition of being a team player appeals to me.

I had no problem identifying with the explanations in part one of the book in regards to where group decision-making can go wrong. I had more difficulty with the solutions offered in part two, perhaps because many of the examples related to business, fact-finding, or forecasting type decisions.

I think that education policy decision-making could be improved by being, as much as possible, based on facts as best they can be ascertained as opposed to facts we hope or wish to be true, and that some of the solutions offered by authors could help.

But what if decision-makers (or those who get to select the group members) don’t want to be better in this regard? What if there aren’t any anxious leaders on the ballot, just humble, pliant, complacent ones or malcontents? What if the decisions to be made are more about values and priorities than about facts and forecasting? I’m not sure this book provides much guidance on these points.

All in all, an interesting read–and a book I’d like to see school/education leaders read and think about.

ATF: Participating as a Parent

It can be time consuming to participate in education policy decision-making task forces, boards, or committees at the state or local level, but parents need to be heard. It is worthwhile to attend meetings, speak during public comment, write or call decision-makers, or write letters to the editors or guest opinions for the local paper. However, as I noted in an earlier post, there is something particularly rewarding–and empowering–about participating from a seat (with a vote!) at the table.

I don’t expect to have another opportunity to serve at the statewide or local level (not for lack of trying), so I encourage all parents to volunteer and take advantage of the opportunity to serve on committees working on education issues of great interest to you, if it is offered.

Parent voices, in my experience, are more often merely tolerated, rather than welcomed.* And a non-educator in a room full of educators is inescapably an outsider in some sense.** It isn’t necessarily easy to walk into–and speak up in–a group as an outsider, even less so, if you become aware there may be unresolvable differences of opinion.

Here are some things I found helpful to remember or to do:

Many education policy decisions are a matter of values, preferences, and priorities.

In the case of the assessment task force, we weren’t being asked to write accountability assessments, just evaluate and make recommendations about accountability assessments written by assessment professionals. If you are invited to serve as a parent representative, you are there to offer a non-educator parent perspective. If a group member, hypothetically, were to observe at the outset that all of the educators are also parents (implying, perhaps, that your presence and participation is superfluous) speak up anyway and without prefacing your comments with “I’m just a parent . . .” or “I’m not an expert, but . . .” These statements, in my opinion, signal that your opinions, comments, or questions don’t count as much as other group members’ opinions, comments, or questions.

Not needing to be an expert is different that not needing to be informed.

While it is important to review the agenda and read any materials distributed for discussion at meetings, this won’t be enough to inform your participation. Fortunately, the internet makes it easy to inform yourself. For the assessment task force, I found Twitter, education blogs, and subscriptions to both local papers and Education Week to be great sources of information. This takes time but makes active and productive participation possible.

Talk about the work of your group with non-group members.

As the internet can function as an echo chamber, so can a closed group. I found it helpful to talk to other parents and other educators, both to inform myself on issues and to get a sense of opinions held by non-group members about our task force work. As it became clear that I would be in a distinct minority on the task force with regard to Smarter Balanced assessments, it helped to know that I was not alone in my viewpoint in my larger community. If my view had been in line with the task force’s recommendation, it would have been equally reassuring to know that others in my larger community supported that too.

In short, my unsolicited advice to parents who have the opportunity to serve is this: do your homework and speak up without apology.

And for those of us parents not invited to the table? We have options for participating anyway: paying attention, showing up to meetings, speaking up during public comment, and writing about education issues–whether it be blogposts, letters to decision-makers, letters to the editor, or guest opinions.

*I have found some Iowa educators to be welcoming of parents on Twitter and blogs. In fact, EdCampIowa has specifically invited parents to participate. As of now, tickets are still available at all five locations (Cedar Falls, Iowa City, Cherokee, Council Bluffs, and Ankeny)  for January 31, 2015.

**I should note here that though I remained an outsider throughout our work, I enjoyed working with the other task force members; if I was unwelcome, they hid it well.


I have been loaned Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, a new book from Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie. This book aims to explore reasons why group decision-making can go wrong and offer suggestions for improving the decision-making performance of groups. I am only just now starting to read it but, if I can judge a book by its introduction, it promises to be an interesting read.

From page 3:

You can also increase wisdom within a group or a firm by cultivating certain social norms that redefine what it means to be a team player–not to go along with the group, not to engage in happy talk, not to show unqualified enthusiasm for the boss’s demonstrable brilliance, but to add new information.

And page 15:

The principal focus [of chapter one] is on how groups may fail to obtain important information–and on how their leaders and members tell dissenters, or people who have a different perspective, to shut up.

ATF: Thoughts on Our Process

I enjoyed serving on the task force more than I should probably admit. Having steeled myself to make public comments at school board meetings a time or two, I can say that it is rewarding to have others actually respond to your comments and questions and to be able to participate throughout the meeting. I appreciated the opportunity to become acquainted with the other task force members and DE employees. It was also interesting to have an insider look at how things get done.

I am generally not a fan of trying to accomplish anything by committee. Too many people involved and it can be difficult to get things done, too few involved and you may miss out on hearing a variety of perspectives. Twenty-one members ended up working out pretty well in terms of ensuring representation of various groups while still giving everyone plenty of opportunity to voice their opinions; if we erred, it was always on the side of letting discussions run long rather than cutting things short before everyone had had their say.

In retrospect, I’d say that we spent far too much time drafting the screening rubric and might have better used that time collecting additional information and deliberating. We might also have benefitted from getting an earlier start drafting the report as it helped clarify what information we had or did not have about the assessments.

Other things that ended up working well:

  • Icebreaker introductions. I didn’t start out a fan of these, but they helped us get acquainted a bit and warmed up for discussion at the start of each meeting. I suppose once you have spoken up in front of a large group of people, it is easier to speak up again.
  • Using technology to share documents and work together. I have gained some additional 21st century skills.
  • Using subgroups and small groups to accomplish some of the work that would have been difficult to get done with twenty-one people all at once.

Other things that worked less well:

  • Receiving materials shortly before the meeting. Whether hundreds of pages of vendor materials or a twenty page article for discussion, I like to have plenty of time to read and think before discussion at the meetings.
  • Pair and share activities. They seem to be a waste of time when the group isn’t too large for a whole group discussion. Thankfully we didn’t use these often after the first few meetings.
  • The twelve hour meeting. Seriously. In September, we met for twelve hours. It ended up being a good meeting (thank goodness for endless refills of caffeinated beverages), but conference room chairs are not designed for that many hours of sitting and it was inevitable that we would end the meeting with both shouting and uncontrollable giggling. Five hour meetings are definitely preferable.
  • Absence of the press and the public.

In the end, I think we were working pretty smoothly as a group. Though after more than seventy hours of meetings over fourteen months, I don’t think any task force members are sorry to see our work come to an end.

Updated to add: Fist to five voting completely slipped my mind. It worked well during preliminary decision-making when we were still in the process of deliberating and consensus-building, but was cause for some confusion during final votes. It would be more clear to have simple yes/no final votes on motions and recommendations.

Decision-making rules also ended up working well. Creating a majority vote rule (rather than requiring unanimity) allowed us to make decisions and move on, rather than allowing one person to hold up everything or forcing people to withdraw their dissent to keep things moving.

The Elusive Clear Majority

In the public debate around the closure of Hoover Elementary, there have been efforts to dispute the notion that a majority of the community favors keeping all existing schools open.

Here’s Eric Johnson in the comments of a Press-Citizen piece written by Chris Liebig (also published at A Blog About School here):

Chris makes some good points here, but there are a few other things to consider on each one:Responsiveness to public input: The “public” that Chris claims made its views clear during the visioning process consisted of about 450 unique people total. So, the claim that the mind of “the public” is known on this quite a stretch.

I have seen other comments to this effect, that workshop results do not represent the view of the majority, and that commenters at school board meetings do not represent the view of the majority.

This could very well be true but I don’t think we can really know what people think who don’t speak up, so I reject the assumption that everyone who didn’t show up to speak supports closing Hoover but were too intimidated to say so.  It is just as likely that they aren’t paying attention, don’t care either way, or thought their view point was capably communicated by the workshop participants and commenters who spoke out against closing schools so they very reasonably stayed home.

I do think that it is striking that no campaign has the slogan “Equity, Excellence, and parking lots where elementary buildings used to stand.”

[Save Hoover: Where is your Big Yellow Taxi spoof video?  I’m humming “They paved Hoover School and put up a parking lot” to myself as I write this.]

Instead we’re hearing talk about moving forward and being team players.

But I digress, because my main point is this:  We’re never going to know for sure what “a majority” thinks about anything under Eric Johnson’s standard; school board elections are notorious for low voter turnout.

  • 2011: 5.96% or 4492 “unique people total”
  • 2009: 6.08% or 4394 “unique people total”
  • 2008: 2.66% or 1852 “unique people total”
  • 2007: 4.13% or 2586 “unique people total”

The 450 “unique people total” who participated in the workshop is just shy of the 515 voters who participated in the 1992 school election–0.96% turnout!–and no doubt that, despite the low turnout, the election counted and the duly elected candidates were seated on the school board.

Elections matter.

Elections matter even if the turnout is low and doesn’t constitute an actual majority of the registered voters in the community.

The majority of the people who cast ballots ultimately get to “speak” for the majority, no matter how small the actual number is, so if you care about whether or not Hoover Elementary is closed to make way for a City High parking lot or athletic field (or about any other issue in your school district that might be determined by school board members), this is the time to show up and be heard.  Polls close Tuesday, September 10th at 8 pm.

Proper Role of the School Board

Some candidates have suggested that school board decisions, once made, should not be revisited, and that board members should be team players who back whatever decisions have already been made.

This makes no sense at all to me, after all, what is the point of elections if no decision could ever be revisited?  If no policy could ever be revised?

I think it does raise an interesting–and important–question though: what do candidates understand the proper role of the school board to be?

Important, because it points to how the candidates are likely to respond to issues that arise during their tenure on the board.  Think PBIS and the not-less-than-fifteen minutes for elementary lunch issues, for example.

When a board member or candidate declares that something is not a board issue, what does that mean?

I think it could mean a number of things.

It could be an incomplete description of the governance method by which the board sets policy and delegates authority to the superintendent to carry out the details of the board policy, in which case, perhaps they mean (and should say so clearly!) either 1) we are satisfied with the superintendent’s exercise of the delegated authority (or a past board’s decision) so we’re not interested in taking up the issue at the board level (again) or 2) we believe that the teacher/principal/superintendent need an opportunity to address and resolve this issue before we take it up at the board level and we believe that hasn’t happened yet.

But it could also mean: we don’t want to take responsibility for this issue, we believe that we must be absolutely deferential to the superintendent (or past boards), or we don’t want to micromanage.

I think many issues are potentially school board issues: the school board bears the ultimate responsibility for both the facilities and the education program of the school district.  Any board that confines itself to facilities management is only doing part of the job.  Any board that  acts as though, having adopted policy, it has fulfilled it’s obligations is only doing part of the job.

I think it is obvious that a school district could not operate if every decision were required to be made at the board level; delegating authority to the superintendent is essential.  But having delegated that authority, the school board retains the ultimate responsibility for the education program and the facilities of the district which requires not just monitoring, but actual oversight on behalf of the community–which may sometimes mean revising the terms of the delegation of authority.

This requires a willingness to do the work to become independently informed on issues, to think critically–ask questions and insist on satisfactory answers–and to revise policy as needed; not just more or less passively accept information from and the recommendations of the administration.  

There is a difference between micromanaging and providing effective oversight, and there is a difference between providing effective oversight on behalf of the community and “not being a team-player.”  In my opinion, we need school board members that can tell the difference.