We've noted for some time that Principals of schools run little fiefdoms within each school. Their authority within the school is not much circumscribed. Within the school, the Principal is all powerful. In order to get all the schools rowing in the same direction either of the following is required...
(1) Extensive and thorough values socialization... OR
(2) Simplistic KPIs (both academic and extra-curricular)
Charting a Unified MOE Direction Using KPIs
In the past decade, a Principal's job performance has been evaluated by a basket of quantitative KPIs. By distilling the essence of education into a series of numbers, these KPIS also throw away much richness and nuances important to the role of educators at every level (kindness to children, seeing qualities in children that are not KPI-related, enjoying children, caring about their health and their emotional wellbeing).
These other aspects of education not defined by KPIs are present if the school Principal believes they're important. They're absent if not. Not all Principals think the same.
Through the mechanism of KPI management, we were very successful in getting all the schools to row in the same direction. All educators (and even parents) learnt to focus their attention on a few numbers, and over time, our education system (and parenting styles) became all about chasing that last mark, and getting that gold medal. We forgot that these were living and breathing children. We worked them like the last employee in a corporation, driving them towards higher and higher results.... better and better KPIs.
Charting a Unified MOE Direction Through Character & Values Socialization
Let's examine now, the notion of extensive and thorough values socialization. The best way to illustrate this to to look at the training of a Jesuit priest. See HERE. The formation of a Jesuit priest is LONG (between 8 to 14 years... and final vows are only taken several years AFTER formation ends).
Compare this with the one year training course for school Principals.
In the days before globalization, a Jesuit priest was expected to uphold the the exact same values and embody the character of Jesus, all by himself, in far flung countries where he would be alone and completely empowered to do as he deemed fit. Wherever he was and no matter that he had complete freedom, a Jesuit priest could be trusted to row his flock in the same strategic direction as every other priest anywhere else in the world. The 14 years of formation (plus some) programmed his intrinsic values, worldview and character so thoroughly that he could be trusted thus.
In contrast, Principals can each think very differently from each other. They possess a diversity of opinion and values that almost ensures that school after school will be run very differently. What is a good education? Each Principal has his/her own idea... and depends on his/her own personality, career desires and past experience, to interpret this question.
My friend Ian Tan calls the schools Cowboy Towns where the Sheriff calls all the shots. We've noticed that since MOE relies on KPIs to govern the schools, the schools will get you the KPIs but some may do so in less than desirable ways.
What is the Impact of Such a Lack of Social/Moral/Strategic Unity for MOE?
The MOE now faces an uphill task to build consensus amongst Principals, HODs and Teachers on how to move the whole MOE ship into uncharted waters. The MOE knows that the bell curve is not ideal but there is a lack of clarity and consensus on what should take its place and how to move ahead. To his credit, Mr Heng Swee Keat has sketched a very clear direction AWAY from over differentiating students and schools... towards more equal opportunities for students and greater parity in quality between schools.
I do fear however, that his clear strategic direction will remain a mere SUGGESTION if he has no organizational mechanism to help him move every single individual in the direction he wants the MOE to go. As such, I thought it meet to perform an analysis of Power and Influence within the MOE using conceptual instruments long known to researchers in Organizational Behavior (i.e., OB Researchers).
School Principals Hold Reward and Coercive PowerPlease refer to the text-grab herein below to understand the accepted definitions (1) Reward Power and (2) Coercive Power within the domain of Organizational Science.
Text-Grab of Definitions of Reward Power and Coercive Power
Principals appraise HODs and Teachers. Principals are the ones that determine the career progression for HODs and Teachers. Principals have power over size of bonuses, promotional opportunities and developmental opportunities. Principals are generalists who administrate. They are not the anchors of teaching expertise. Principals have breadth, and not depth.
Teachers Hold Expert Power
The Principals therefore rely on the subject teachers to know how to teach. Principals often would not interfere with Teachers' teaching techniques. They leave the HOD to ensure quality of teaching. The situation is not unlike that of a hospital administrator (previously trained as an oncologist) feeling unable to tell his subordinate, an ophthalmologist, how to perform Lasik.
This means that the quality of teaching is anchored at the level of the HOD. The HOD can expect little guidance from the Principal vis-a-vis the exact techniques on how to teach such and such a subject.
Further, since the Principal's centre of expertise is School Administration AND he/she is the one to determine an HOD's bonuses and career progression, it is then no surprise that the HODs' time is channeled more towards administrative tasks than to deepening teaching expertise in his/her department.
Next, now that HODs are more concerned with administrative tasks than teaching quality and THEY determine the bonuses and career progression of the Teachers, is it at all surprising that Teachers (who wish to be promoted) are also more concerned with administration than with teaching well and caring for students?
Is it therefore surprising that our HODs and Teachers focus more on admin than on teaching?
What About Master Teachers?
Of course, there are Master Teachers (who prefer to teach and care for students)... but these Master Teachers hold little power. They lead by through Expert Power. They influence through persuasion. Master Teachers don't appraise Teachers in the same way that Principals do. Master Teachers, possessed of depth and skill in teaching, have very little power to spread good teaching practices. There is only so much you can influence behaviors through words and expertise alone.
Introducing the Notion of Subject Practice
Sharing platforms and teacher conferences can provide ideas, but schools remain cowboy towns in that they can refuse to improve their current teaching techniques in such and such Subject Practice (e.g., English Subject Practice, Math Subject Practice, Science Subject Practice etc....).
It also doesn't help Subject Practice unity ... nor speed of spread in innovation within each Subject Practice when Teachers all report to and are appraised by a generalist head (the school Principal more interested in using Teachers to administrate) instead of reporting to and being appraised by a Specialist Head residing within MOE HQ (a Subject Practice Head more interested in leveraging up teaching quality within his/her Subject Practice).
At present, there is no way for MOE HQ to ENSURE the spread of teaching expertise and innovation. If it spreads, great! If it doesn't, there really is nothing MOE HQ can do. There are flashes of brilliant innovation in this or that school but the spread of innovation is slow and patchy indeed. These individual innovators don't take too long to figure out that they can leave the system and command top dollar for their innovative teaching methods.
If this continues, Mr Heng Swee Keat's vision of achieving Every School a Good School is very much in jeopardy. His organizational structure gives him too little power over teaching quality.
MOE HQ Wasn't Being Irresponsible... It Was Merely Powerless
It took me a looooooong time to figure out WHY MOE HQ kept passing the buck of crazy exams to the schools. It took me a while to understand WHY MOE HQ kept pushing responsibility to the schools. I had thought it was because MOE HQ wanted to shirk its responsibilities. Now I understand that MOE HQ has too little power and influence to make things happen within schools.
MOE HQ had no power to stop schools from setting crazy exams. MOE's organizational structure had basically taken power away from MOE HQ and vested much of it in the hands of individual Principals, who each conceived of education in their own way (since they had not received the same sort of thorough values and character socialization à la Jesuit priest).
MOE is a Ministry with many little boats all trying to go in different directions. The success of the present MOE Workplan needs to wait upon the goodwill of its Principals.
Given that there are hundreds of Principals thinking all different things, it'll take very long (I fear NEVER) to unify mindsets. Our nation does not have the luxury of time. For every week that the schools persist in providing inadequate subject teaching, parents bleed finances... children bleed effort and energy... parents and children bleed from the wounds of family conflict over school performance). There is no cost to MOE but the cost to the nation is great indeed.
Restructure the MOE to Bring Some Power Back to MOE HQ
I do believe there is scope to explore ways in which MOE can restructure itself such that Reward and Coercive Power are brought back to MOE HQ.
One way to do this is to create a competing hierarchy wherein Subject Practice Heads residing within MOE HQ are given powers of Performance Appraisal and Career Progression over all the Subject Practice's HODs and Teachers. This would bring a lot of power back to MOE HQ, under the direct command of Mr Heng Swee Keat. It would also break down walls between same Subject Teachers from different schools.
What about the Principals then? Surely they need some Power and Influence too?
Principals are onsite. They face their Teachers everyday. They can use other types of Power (e.g., their Expert Power in school administration) to influence, lead and coordinate their administration of the school. They can also use Referent Power to influence, lead and coordinate their administration. See below text-grab for Organizational Behaviorists' definitions of (1) Expert Power and (2) Referent power.
At present, Principals hold in their hands FOUR types of power... (1) Reward, (2) Coercive, (3) Expert and (4) Referent Power. Take 2 types of power away from the Principals and vest them in the alternate hierarchy comprised of Subject Practices which report directly to MOE HQ. This will give Mr Heng Swee Keat more direct power with which to ensure that teaching quality between schools reach some sort of parity.
Right now, between the layer that needs to develop teaching expertise evenly across schools (i.e., the Teachers) and the layer that wants Every School to Be a Good School (i.e., Mr Heng Swee Keat), there is a layer of people who exist to administrate. These administrators hold ALL FOUR types of organizational power in their hands.
That is too much for anyone who isn't a Jesuit priest.
If power is not brought back to MOE HQ, I really doubt Every School a Good School will ever come to pass. When will ALL the school Principals buy in to Mr Heng's vision. How long will it take? 3 years? 5 years? 10 years? Never?
In essence, the deepening of teaching expertise evenly across all schools is all about Knowledge Management. How do you create and spread knowledge. I happen to know of a very reputable Knowledge Management consultancy in Israel. I am given to understand that it is the largest. I would suggest that the MOE explore its services. It's website is HERE. The boss/founder is Dr Moria Levy. The list of her clientele includes Israel's Ministry of Education.
This post is written on the basis of little information. The proposed idea needs to be put through a robust contest of ideas and it may then be found wanting. However, whether this specific suggestion is appropriate or not, one thing is clear. Power needs to be brought back to MOE HQ. It is impractical to wait for every single one of MOE's few hundred Principals to all agree to row in the same direction.