Transparency in Education

When my husband was interviewed by Wired regarding some cyber-sleuthing he had done in connection to a crime and MySpace, he was given a subscription to Wired by the reporter, Noah Shachtman. I think I have been reading it more religiously than Steve has. Despite the fact that some true techies in their blogs complain that real techies don’t read Wired anymore, I have to say it rarely fails to make me feel inadequate about my technological knowledge. No matter — I enjoy the content.

The article that caught my eye in this month’s edition, entitled “The See-Through CEO” (written by Clive Thompson), begins with a discussion of Glenn Kelman, CEO of an online brokerage firm called Redfin. Kelman began blogging about his company in what some might term a revolutionary way:

He denounced traditional brokers, accusing them of screwing customers with clubby closed-door practices. (“If we don’t reform ourselves, and take out all the sales baloney, too, people will come to hate real estate agents the way they hate tobacco companies or Big Oil,” he wrote.) He publicized Redfin’s internal debates, even arguments about the design of its Web site. He mocked himelf: One post described how he had sat at a college job fair for hours, waiting in vain for a single student to approach him. (136)

In other words, he openly discussed his personal opinions about the way his business should be run, he talked about the kinds of internal struggles most companies try to keep quiet, and he even dared to share stories that might not cast his company in the best light. A remarkable thing happened: his business grew. It turns out that customers liked this new open model.

The article goes on to describe how other companies are adopting similar tactics, mainly based upon the notion that nothing stays private anymore, so we all may as well discuss everything — whether it’s a problem or brewing scandal or a product in development — before others beat us to the punch. Much of this new model seems counterintuitive. What kind of sense does it make to allow or even encourage employees to blog about products in development? Won’t rival companies steal ideas? As it turns out, this method has helped companies generate excitement about products before they come out. And why would anyone want to openly blog about problems in one’s company? As it turns out, the thinking behind this sort of openness is that the truth will out anyway, at least in this modern age of bloggers who “rely on scoops to drive their traffic” and make “muckraking… a sort of mass global hobby” (137). My husband has benefited from this sort of blogging, so far be it from me to knock it. I think blogs have been great for forcing out the truth in many arenas, from politics to pop culture.

What I wondered as I read the article is how would this model would work in education? Are we honestly living in times in which teachers can feel free to blog openly about problems in education? What about talking about exciting developments in the works? Unfortunately, while we are encouraged to share the good news, I still don’t think it is safe for a teacher to blog about negative issues in education without using a pseudonym, and I can think of only a few teacher bloggers who blog openly. Some school districts actively discourage blogging, even going so far as to ban access to sites such as Blogger/Blogspot, arguably the most popular blog host. In fact, in many instances, teachers who did blog about problems under a pseudonym and subsequently “outed,” have lost their jobs and been roundly criticized for their lack of team spirit and general meanness.

I think it would be interesting to see education embrace this sort of openness, but I contend that educators are not ready for the consequences. Are principals and superintendents ready to open up and possibly receive criticism from parents and students who comment on their blogs? No way. What would happen if a faculty had a model similar to that of Zappos, whose CEO Tony Hsieh encourages employees to post to a “company-wide wiki [that] lets staff members complain about problems and suggest solutions” (138)? Hsieh figures that “it makes his employees, suppliers, and customers more forgiving of everyday snafus” (138). I would venture to guess that most school administrations across America don’t even encourage that kind of “complaining” about how the school runs in faculty meetings, let alone on a wiki that anyone can view.

Thompson argues that Google is quickly becoming a “reputation management system” and that secrets will be uncovered no matter what cover-ups are attempted (138). In illustration of this thesis, Thompson discusses Jason Goldberg’s troubles after hiding the fact that his company was planning lay-offs. In retrospect, Goldberg said “It’s the nature of Web 2.0 and new media that if you don’t embrace openness, it will come back and bite you.” On the other hand, when Richard Edelman’s firm created fake blogs praising his client Wal-Mart and the cat was let out of the bag, Edelman owned up to the mistake and apologized for his lack of judgment all over the place (139). As bloggers linked to the stories on the Goldberg and Edelman, eventually the opinion of the ‘net at large began to even out into a formal consensus:

[I]f you’ve got hundreds or thousands of sites linking to you and commenting on you, the law of averages takes over, and odds are the opinion will be accurate: The cranks will be outweighed by cooler heads. Again, the Net rewards the transparent. (139)

This is true in Amazon customer reviews or eBay seller ranking. When Southwest Airlines received criticism for their treatment of an overweight passenger, the company addressed the issue in its blog and issued an apology. The result? People accepted the apology and a potential public relations nightmare was turned into a positive (139). Somehow, I don’t see schools being bold enough to try such tactics. I realize not everyone is comfortable with this level of openness, but as Thompson posits, the negativity gets out somehow anyway. What is our opinion of a company that denies problems and shoves them under the rug versus openly discussing them and seeking input? I don’t know yet, but I know I like honesty.

Let’s cook up a scenario. What if test scores were low at a certain school? What if NCLB regulations dictated that the next step in sanctions for said school were to allow students to transfer to other schools in the district? What if the principal addressed the issue head-on in a blog posted to the school’s website, explaining why the school had failed to make AYP an eliciting parent and student help in improvement? In our fictional scenario, let’s say that the issue facing the school was something like low math scores. Perhaps knowing what was happening and where the system was breaking down would encourage parents to ensure their children studied math at home. What might happen to test scores, then? I have the feeling, however, that almost all principals would feel discomfort at the prospect of openly discussing such issues with their school community.

An interesting side note: Clive Thompson shared the development of his product — the article — on his own blog, Collision Detection. I think his own openness made his article better — he obtained feedback regarding the issue of transparency from comments from readers, and he incorporated their ideas into his article.

Thompson closes his article with words to ponder:

The future could be a brushed-chrome machine made of truth and honesty — or some gothic nightmare in which the whole economy is driven by gossipy high school dynamics. Either way, there’s no use trying to resist. You’re already naked. (139)

Interesting word choice — “gossipy high school dynamics.” While I think Thompson was referring to the way students pass news, he might just as well be talking about the faculties of many schools where I’ve worked, too.

Of course, transparency is fraught with some problems, too, but my post is already so long you probably haven’t read it all anyway, and I think we can save that discussion for the comments. Let’s go!

Source: Thompson, Clive. “The See-Through CEO.” Wired. April 2007. 134-139.

[tags]Wired, radical transparency, See-Through CEO, Clive Thompson[/tags]

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