Today's New York Times has a compelling story about the steps new superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr is taking to clean-up the Atlanta schools, which were tainted by test score scandals -- with teachers and principals cheating in almost half the schools-- that was apparently fueled by pressure and fear created by the previous (and now disgraced) superintendent Beverly L. Hall. As the Times explains:
"For years, Beverly L. Hall, the former school superintendent here, ruled by fear. Principals were told that if state test scores did not go up enough, they would be fired — and 90 percent of them were removed in the decade of Dr. Hall’s reign.Underlings were humiliated during rallies at the Georgia Dome. Dr. Hall permitted principals with the highest test scores to sit up front near her, while sticking those with the lowest scores off to the side, in the bleachers."
The interesting thing about the story to me is that Davis is behaving in ways that follow directly from one of my favorite academic articles, Bad is Stronger than Good. He is working to eliminate the negative at every turn, immediately firing a teacher who allegedly supplied test scores students (he says he might get sued, but doesn't care), removing tainted senior administrators at a high rate, and during one of his many visits to schools he observed a toilet was clogged and made sure it was fixed before he left. He has also eliminated practices that Hall used that conveyed her superiority, isolation, and mistrust -- she did things like insisting that all questions be submitted in writing when she spoke in public so they could be screened.
Rather than her "Queen of the Ivory Tower" management style, Davis is out and about in the schools and the community eliminating the negative when he sees it, and as the psychologists who wrote "Bad is Stronger Than Good" advised,spreading around positive words and deeds at such a rapid pace that the negative is overwhelmed.
Most notably, rather than hiding in his ivory tower, he is visiting school after school and thanking everyone he sees for their good work. And rather than treating teachers as objects of scorn, blame, and mistrust, he says things to principals like “Education is the only industry in this country where failure is blamed on the workers, not the leadership.”
Finally, Davis has made an interesting symbolic change to send the signal that helping kids, not jacking-up tests scores through any means possible, is what matters most. The Times reports:
"When Dr. Hall was the superintendent, she covered one wall in her office with bar graphs showing the test results for all 100 city schools. After Mr. Davis became superintendent, he took the test scores down and replaced them with large color photographs of Atlanta schoolchildren."
As I noted here recently, my colleague Huggy Rao and I are working on book scaling-up excellence , and teach a related class at Stanford. One of the hallmarks of leaders who scale excellence is that they "make way" for it by removing bad behaviors and emotions that interfere with and turn attention and effort away from doing good things. The methods that Erroll B. Davis Jr is using to turn around the Atlanta school system don't just provide lessons for other educational leaders, they demonstrate a mindset and actions that leaders of almost any group or organization can use to eliminate the negative -- especially to drive-out fear.