I hear a lot, in school reform discussions, about teamwork and the importance of school boards and school committees acting “as a team.” I’m not sure where this emphasis comes from, but I suspect it’s from the contemporary idea that public schools are essentially businesses that deliver products to clients, that superintendents are CEOs, and school boards are like corporate boards of directors or product-development teams.
Or maybe this emphasis comes from the way Americans love to discuss complex ideas through football metaphors. Either way, elected bodies are not teams, and the public should be concerned when school boards start talking more about teamwork than they talk about the issues. Here’s why:
The quintessential team is the sports team. They have owners, coaches who pick the players for their athletic skills, designated roles for every player on the team, and a clear goal: to beat the other team and win games. Similarly for corporate teams, the CEO hires employees with particular professional skills, can replace team members if they aren’t working out, and their goal is to create products that are better than the products created by other teams. In both sectors, members of the team don’t vote to make decisions, there are no explicit rules of discussion to protect unpopular or minority views, and the boss or coach always makes the final call. Teams are not democratic entities.
Elected bodies, however, are a different type of organization–they are democratic entities. No one selects the members except “the public,” their skills are not necessarily complementary, and their goal isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, to win a game or be the best. (Does any school board, for example, really want other districts to provide a worse education to their students?) In fact, the goals of elected bodies are never clear and can’t be: circumstances are always changing, the public is always changing. As is said in postmodern parlance, the goals are “always being contested.”
Far from coming from the same athletic or professional background, elected officials come together with different experiences, different values, and different mandates from those who voted for them. The more diverse the city they serve, the less they will have in common. If their city has ethnic, race, language, gender, economic, and other types of conflict–which every city has, the elected officials will include representatives from communities that are in conflict with one another. Fundamentally, those conflicts will be over values and resources. The officials will bring those conflicts to the task of governing, and in fact, that’s what they are elected to do. If individuals and groups weren’t in conflict, we wouldn’t need government because everything would just fall into place in one big love-fest.
Government is the social organization of conflict and competition for resources. Though not always successful, government is designed to keep us from killing each other.
Group conflict is a good and necessary thing because it brings diverse people together to find solutions to problems their group can’t solve on their own. In a lot of sectors, including businesses and the arts, heterogeneous work teams have been found to be more creative and productive than homogeneous teams. Why? Probably because they are less team-like than homogeneous teams, the members are more independent of one another, they can act more as individuals rather than as members of an in-crowd, and their primary commitment is to solving a problem or creating something new, not to getting along with each other or making sure the team always appears unified. Whenever groups of people start worrying more about appearances than what they are actually accomplishing, it’s a problem.
Disagreement and difference are essential for problem solving. Too much agreement, too much focus, narrows the field of what’s possible. We learned that back in the 1950s when psychologists discovered “groupthink.” The Best and the Brightest who brought us the Vietnam War were a great team, everyone heading in the same direction, focused on the same goal–stopping the spread of communism. Except it was the wrong goal because they missed the bigger picture–their focus was too narrow, their knowledge too limited. What we’ve learned since then is that one of the biggest threats to good decision-making is the suppression of conflicting information and alternative viewpoints, i.e. groupthink.
Another crucial way that school boards are different from teams is that elected officials represent the public. That’s their most important feature because otherwise school districts would appoint their own boards of directors, which is what private and charter schools do. When those boards of directors convene, they are not obligated to represent the conflicting interests of the people in the community or to be responsive to constituents. They aren’t required to function as a democratic institution in which decisions are made by majority vote. They are free to make decisions by consensus or tacit agreement, i.e. to be undemocratic.
When elected bodies start saying the most important thing is teamwork, they risk losing sight of the obligations they have to the public and its diverse constituencies. Elected bodies that function as a “team” can mean that the elected officials are on the team and the public is not.
Or, even worse, that the public is the opposing team. One of the quickest ways to create team solidarity is to have a common opponent.