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Case Study - Thurgood Marshall High School

By gnadmba Oct 26, 2014 2084 Words
Thurgood Marshall High School Case (Harvard Business School case) presents an interesting “house system” concept. According to the case description, the Marshall High’s organization was broken down into four “houses”, each of each contained 300 students, a faculty of 18, and a housemaster. Each house was in a separate building and had its own entrance, classrooms, toilets, conference rooms, and housemaster’s office. The 4 houses were connected by an enclosed outside passageway and shared the connecting “core facilities” including the cafeteria, nurses’ room, guidance offices, gyms, offices, shops, and auditorium. The school teachers were also carefully selected from other Great Falls schools and some from out-of-state graduates with impressive education background from Stanford, Yale, Princeton, and several best Western schools. The students were also carefully balanced in racial mix with a third of student body each from African-American, whites, and Hispanics background (Gabarro, p.1). This house system theoretically was seen as an important breakthrough in inner-city education in Great Falls, Illinois. However, in practice, this system seems to originate many challenges and difficulties during implementation and use. In fact, after two years from opening, the school’s first principal, Dr. Louis Parker, resigned. Before becoming the principal, Dr. Parker had written a book on the house system concept and a second one on inner-city education. He indeed mastered the concept of the house system, but seemed to fail to implement and realistically realize it. Dr. Parker was seen as a broken man when he resigned. His disillusionment showed in his physical appearance from fatigue and strained look to permanent dark rings under eyes and finally a perpetual stoop. David Kane was transferred from outside to be the new principal of the Marshall High’s organization. Kane was carefully selected over several more senior candidates because of his proven record of being able to handle tough situations in education system environment. Kane, as the new principal, had to face and deal with the problems the organization was carrying. Some of the significant problems were seen as interpersonal and group conflicts, violence, and low and decreasing quality education. Problem analysis:

The house system with 4 houses running independently was to increase autonomy and promote healthy competition in education achievement between the houses. However, it also created great deal of conflicts. One conflict issue seen was between the housemasters and six subject area department heads. It originated from differences in interpretations of curriculum policy on required learning and course content. The housemasters had to convince the department heads to assign certain teachers to their houses while the department heads tried to encourage the housemasters to offer certain courses. One program from the C House appeared to be “the most innovative of all”, but it was also most frequently attacked by the department heads for “lacking substance and for not covering the requirements outlined in the system’s curriculum guide” (Gabarro, p.4). Second conflict was the resource allocation and selection of teachers. Each housemaster selects and requests certain teachers from each department. They all wanted the best fit teachers for their house. This created a lack of desired dedicated resource for each house, especially on the second school year when 8 teachers resigned but replacement was not possible due to budget cutbacks. A “flexible staffing” policy was implemented to allow sharing of teachers between the houses and cross-registration for students to take courses in other houses. Conflict between the housemasters actually occurred as the housemaster of C House – Wesley Chase – opposed the idea of “flexible staffing” and wanted his own staff. Two other housemasters didn’t agree with Chase and joined a group of faculty and department heads to counter his position. They argued that “the individual house faculties of 15 to 18 teachers could never offer their students the breadth of courses that a schoolwide faculty of 65 to 70 teachers could offer and that interhouse cross-registration should be encouraged for that reason” ( p.3). Conflict was also seen in a teacher performance evaluation and program feedback. . In Kane’s first staff meeting, the head of the English department, Betsy Drobna, accused Chase for impeding her evaluation of a nontenured teacher and her experimental sophomore English course taught in Chase’s house. Chase complained that his teachers’ autonomy decreased with such interference from the department head. The two argued and Chase threatened Drobna to break her neck if she stepped into his house again. Moreover, even within the falculty, intergroup conflict was also seen. Several teachers were circulating a letter requesting the housemaster of A House to be removed as they felt he could not control the house or direct the faculty while the head of the social studies department – Francis Harvey – did not agree with the request and expressed his other side of argument in an escalated request of interview meeting with Kane.

Another significant problem facing Kane and his organization is violence. There were assaults and robbery of teachers in school. There were also assaults of students in school with involvement of outside of school people. Even so no security gaurds were instituted because some people argue that the presence of guards would be repressive and would destroy the sense of community and trust that was developing. The school also had to close twice due to two similar fight disturbances that occurred back to back within 2 weeks. The fights were reported that there was also involvement of outsiders. There were physical damage to the school with several students being taken to hospital for minor injuries. A temporary detail of municipal police was ordered to the school by the Board of Education. This order was, however, against by the school teachers and students. The police detail was later removed due to a protest walkout of 30 out of 68 teachers and half of the stuendt body. A compromise was called for the temporary stationing of a police cruiser near the school. These incidents caused fear in teachers and students. This could be the underlying reason that some teachers decided to resign and students’ absence and drop-out rates were high, especially in A House as described as three times that of any other house.

Another major problem is the low and decreasing quality education. During the last two year, the school’s achievement scores of its ninth and tenth graders had declined. There was no significant improvement found in the achievement scores of eleventh and twelfth graders. The budget cutbacks worsen the education as there were not enough dedicated teachers nor classes offered in each house. The “flexible staffing” and interhouse cross-registration was not put in use and had to stop due to erroneous scheduling issues. Moreover, the violent incidents had brought fear to the teachers and students. The school Vice Principal – William Jones - expressed that “no learning will ever begin to take place until we make it so people don’t have to be afraid anymore”. Between the houses, there didn’t seem to be a uniform set of curriculum. Each house had its own required learning and course content. Chase’s house had tried an experimental sophomore English course that seemed new and different than the other houses. Even though each house operates independently, there should be some shared common education achievement goals and maybe similar paths to attain them.

Kane also faced a challenge in the differences of experiences and skillsets of his administrators ( the 4 housemasters). Kane described that Chase seemed to be a very bright, innovative, and charismatic leader whose mere presence generated excitement. Frank Kubiak, B House housemaster, seemed to be highly competent though not very imaginative, who had earned the respect of his faculty and students. John Di Napoli, a 26-year-old housemaster of D House, seemed very bright and earnest but unseasoned and unsure of himself. John might have difficulty simply coping. Wilkins seemed to be a sincere and devoted person who had a good mind for administrative details but an incapacity for leadership”. Recommendations:

In order to propose any recommendations for solution, it is necessary to agree on the problem and its root cause first. The house system seems to be the underlying cause of most of the problems discussed above. Again, there were conflicts between the houses, between the houses and the department heads, and also within the teacher group. Therefore, the house system should be considered re-structured or even eliminated and consolidated back into an ordinary organization.

In case of re-structure of the house system, Kane should consider the Matrix model of organization design (Ivancevich, p.490). Within the model, job responsibilities, duties, and level of authorities of the department heads and the housemasters should be clearly defined. The department heads should be responsible for the necessary core required learning and course content which would be fairly consistent from one house to the other. The faculty resource should be part of each department and be shared among the houses. Formal authority of giving performance review and feedback to the teachers should be given to the department heads. A 360° review could be considered in order to involve and seek the teachers’ performance feedback from the housemasters. The housemasters should be responsible for any additional selective learning in order to promote motivation in their students. Experimental courses and extra curriculum proposed by the housemasters would also be encouraged, given that they should communicate and discuss about the content and the learning goals with the related department head. The housemasters should also be responsible for the overall upkeep and safety of their own house.

Moreover, to promote learning interests and potentially increase the education achievement scores, Kane should be aware of the diversity of students in his school. The three different races of students would require different motivation means to stir their interests and keep them motivated to learning. Interhouse cross-registration would be one of the good policies to promote interest and learning. There would be more selective classes to choose from. There would also be less division between the students as they would have a chance to get to know other students/ classmates in other houses.

In case of a more radical change, Kane could propose a new transformation of the school structure. The house system would be eliminate and consolidated as this would drastically minimize division and conflicts and bring solidarity between student body, faculty, housemasters, and the department heads. A vertical structure with clearly defined roles and responsibilities as well as authority should be used. Marshall High had enough great talented and experienced staff once consolidated to put together a new curriculum with required learning and interesting course content. The department heads should be the ultimate responsible group for the new curriculum, but they should also consult and collect other people’s inputs and suggestions regarding the required learning, course content, and experimental and extra curriculum. There would be some major changes and shifts in personnel and positions since there would not be any specific house. The following changes would be recommended: •The housemasters, since there would be no specific house, would be placed in positions where their strengths and experience would be most utilized and appreciated. Chase could be a charismatic vice principal for education. Burtram Wilkins could become the Vice Principal for planning and scheduling for the entire school. Frank Kubiak and John Di Napoli could be the education advisors where each would interact more focused and closely with two grade levels. Kubiak could be responsible for identifying improvement opportunities for the achievement scores of the 9th and 10th graders while Di Napoli could work with the 11th and 12th graders. •William Jones, since he had been focusing on safety and security of the school, would remain the Vice Principal for facilities, safety, and campus security. Kane should be very cautious about imposing these changes as there would always be some resistance. Kane should be very open to people and communicate openly about the organization genuine education goals which could be improvement in education achievement scores and converting the school to a total safe place to teach, learn, and play. The goals should be achievable and shared by his staff with commitment from everyone. With clear vision, goals, strategy, and enough great resource (people and materials) in place, execution would be focused and successful for Kane and his organization.  

1. Gabarro, J (1993). Thurgood Marshall High School. The Harvard Business Review. 2. Ivancevich, J. M., Konopaske, R., & Matteson, M.T. (2011). Motivation. In Organizational Behavior and Management. (9th ed., pp.119-148) New York, N.Y: McGraw-Hill.

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