Brothers from Another Mother: Management Fads and Educational Policies

A comment I made earlier today on Larry Cuban’s recent blog post titled Asking the Right Questions for Getting School-Driven Policies into Classroom Practice sparked the following post.


Since early 2009, when I started to pursue my new career in teaching, the many parallels between corporate America’s litany of management fads over the past three plus decades and public education’s policy-driven teaching methods and resources over a similar timeframe started to coalesce in my mind.

Our susceptibility to fads may not necessarily be an impediment to progress, as elements of each likely benefit select entities in meaningful ways, or apply more broadly in certain circumstances, likely very limited in duration.  However, an elitist or autocratic implementation, whether cloaked in sheep’s clothing or not, such as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) depicted as a state-driven effort, never seems to succeed over time or to be sustainable, especially when presented in a “lock, stock, and barrel” fashion.  Perhaps the very nature of top-down decrees rub our populace the wrong way, what with our past issues with monarchies and the like.

Management Fads from Corporate America

Management fads are not new as the following graphic illustrates.

Management FadsThe graph was purportedly created by Richard Tanner Pascale.

Many of the management flavors of the year or more depicted above, or listed below, found their way into companies where I worked since the 1980’s; ironically, I studied most in detail while obtaining my MBA in the 1990’s.  As such, I posit that while most have merit in aspects of their theory or philosophy, the top-down, broad-brush nature of many limited their viability, hence, success.

In Search of Excellence.  Best Practices.  Management by Walking Around (MBWA).  Total Quality Management (TQM).  Six Sigma.  Business Process Reengineering (BPR).  Core Competency.  Matrix Management.  Management by Objectives (MBO).  Downsizing / Rightsizing.

As usual, Scott Adams’ Dilbert strip captures the essence of management fads in the most humorous fashion.


On a more serious note, Management Fads That Don’t Work (2011) explores the differences between a fad and a legitimate management concept.  The author also points out the cyclic nature of some of the fads, which like weeds never seem to vanish entirely from the landscape, no matter how well maintained.

According to the Harvard Business Review, fads are typically: simple, relying heavily on buzzwords, acronyms and reductive ideas; prescriptive, listing actions to take under specific circumstances instead of supporting interpretation; falsely encouraging, promising to deliver big results; one-size-fits-all, taking little or no account of differences between companies; novel instead of radical, meaning their originality is superficial; and supported by gurus or disciples, constantly touting the prestige of adherents rather than using hard performance data.

Often the reason such methodologies don’t work is because leaders fail to realize that making real progress in improving operations comes not only with implementation but with sustaining these strategies.

“Without sustainment, you simply run in place. … [D]ecade after decade we seem to re-discover and re-apply a newly branded version of problem-solving methods to get better at what we do,” according to Raphael Vitalo and Joseph Vitalo of business consulting firm Vital Enterprises. “We have many tools and lots of energy for uncovering opportunities and making improvements, but we seem to have few if any tools and little excitement for ensuring that the improvements we develop sustain.”

Perhaps the persistence of management fads is driven by the infallible hope that some incantation, set of magic beans, or silver bullet will save the day, much like we see in public education.

Educational Policies as Fads

Since I entered the teaching profession very recently, I have not experienced many of the following education fads directly as a teacher; I did spend time with a couple of these as a primary- and secondary student in times of yore.  Nonetheless, I witness many of their vestiges in one form or the other in our district where select administrators, steeped in these methods, continue to carry their banner.  Likewise, for more recent policy driven or purportedly “research-based” entrants, which the district mandates, my involvement deepened.

New Math.  Open Classroom.  Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Whole Language.  Constructing Meaning.  Learning Styles.  Brain-based Learning.  21st Century-[fill in the blank].  Common Core.  Time on Task.  Differentiated Instruction.  Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI).  Thematic Instruction.  Heterogeneous Groups.

In a tongue-in-cheek fashion, the following cartoons lampoon various aspects of our educational system, primarily those driven by various policies handed down from on high from many with no recent or relevant experience in education.

Humor 0

Humor 4

Humor 3

Humor 1

Humor 2

In Educational Fads: What Goes Around Comes Around, Mark Pennington describes possible reasons for the flurry of passing fads in education.

Teaching is, by its very nature, experimental. We teachers are just as susceptible to snake-oil sales pitches, fads, and cultural pressures as any professionals. And many of the teaching strategies, movements, and philosophies appear years later dressed up in different clothes. Talk to any veteran teacher of a dozen years or more and the teacher will eventually comment on the dynamic nature of education with statements such as “Been there, done that,” “There’s nothing new under the sun,” What Goes Around Comes Around,” “We tried that back in…”

Teachers are also victims of the bandwagon effect. What’s new is questioned, until certain key players buy in.  At that point, many teachers become no-holds-barred converts. We teachers are especially vulnerable to new ideas labeled as “research-based,” “best practices,” or “standards-based.” We could all do with an occasional reminder that one of our primary duties as teachers should be to act as informed “crap detectors” (Postman, Neil, and Weingartner, Charles (1969), Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Dell, New York, NY.).

My first experience student teaching, and later as a full-time teacher, confirmed the “been there, done that” aspect of new mandates or theories, which resonated nicely with my three decades of experience in industry.  At the same time, I am not so jaundiced that I simply toss the next great thing in the round file.  I willingly embrace anything that I believe may be adapted successfully for my students’ needs and readily acknowledge there are many aspects of teaching and learning I do not know; hence, my wish to seek out alternative approaches.  I simply cringe, however, when someone vacuously repeats the “research-based” rhetoric, or other bureaucratic banter, as if it were divine intervention.  Without any facts to confirm this assertion, I suspect most teachers feel similarly.


As with management fads, where a top-down approach is taken to optimize the performance of a product, service, organization, or the interactions thereof, educational fads too are mostly mandated from above with the expectation that educational outcomes will improve for the targeted population(s) as the student, teacher, administrator, or system, itself, adopts the fad with little room for *adapting* the fad to suit the unique needs of the individual classroom or school.  Failure abounds in both arenas for rarely are systemic issues remedied so simply.  Declaring a mandate is simple.  However, its implementation rarely is since, in industry or education, the challenges of implementation are woefully underestimated, if considered at all.

Perhaps it is our nation’s “can do” heritage that perversely sets us up for failure with any broad-based application as we erroneously extend the potential success of individual effort to that of entire organizations or systems?  Or, as I intimate above, is it the inability for the missive to be adapted to fit the unique circumstances of the lowest level unit of analysis that impedes success (i.e., a “one-size-shoe-fits-all” model will never succeed)?  Or, perhaps it is our reluctance to comply with “orders from on high” without knowing their applicability or efficacy beyond the phrase “research-based” especially when we have battle scars from earlier calls to arms?

One thing is for sure.  While select organizations may attain amazing results using a home-grown recipe customized for their unique environmental factors, rarely may that same recipe be repackaged and sold to the masses as a “new and improved” system, process, method, approach, philosophy, stratagem, or other cure to what ails your product, organization, district, school, or classroom.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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10 Responses to Brothers from Another Mother: Management Fads and Educational Policies

  1. Oh my god, Dave, we definitely suffered through the same series of vacuous management fads in high-tech. I laughed out loud while reading this post, and I realized that my file of Dilbert cartoons probably looks exactly like yours. 🙂

    Most of these fads can be summed up as some form of “The beatings will continue until morale (or our test score) improves.” The fantasy of a quick fix is a strong addiction for human beings to break.

    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)


    • “The fantasy of a quick fix is a strong addiction for human beings to break.” So true! In most of corporate America, it was driven by the quarterly reports of public companies. Now, it seems as if its a never ending stream 24x7x365 given the intensity of global competition, an unsustainable trajectory if there ever was one…not sure what that portends for our collective future though. 😦


  2. Dave your senior ( experience and age only) says:

    You know better than I, that the classroom is like a battlefield situation. You have a plan, the wind changes, your equipment fails, reinforcements do not arrive…

    Research based is better than off the wall, if the research is applicable.


  3. CA Maestra says:

    Differentiated Instruction is hands-down my least favorite of any educational fad or idea I’ve ever dealt with in 13 years. If you haven’t watched this tongue-in-cheek Youtube video on it, you need to:

    I laughed… then I wanted to scream.


    • Too sad because its too true too often…


      • CA Maestra says:

        Tell me about it. I wanted to cry when the teacher said the line about learning parts of speech every year in school. Every blasted year starting in first grade (nouns, pronouns, verbs, and adjectives.) High school rolls around and they still can’t find a pronoun with two hands and a flashlight.


  4. Pingback: Teacher Humor re: Differentiated Instruction | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

  5. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:

    Reblogging a post from last summer…


  6. Ernie says:

    Don’t you think you should credit the fad graph with the person that put the work into it? or is it okay by you to steal others work?? Richard Pascale created the graph.


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