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Thompson: Learning From NUMMI

ScreenHunter_10 Apr. 07 12.12 Late last month This American Life told the story of how General Motors tried and failed to transform itself. NUMMI, a collaboration between Toyota and GM, turned around one of America’s most dysfunctional assembly plants. The key was respecting the personal autonomy of workers and their desires to produce a high-quality product. Workers at NUMMI had also received the wake-up call of having their factory shut down.

Although I’d quarrel with some of Justin Cohen’s take on the NPR program, it does explain a problem with bringing reforms to scale.  Educators need a sense of urgency. And conversely, turnaround specialists driven by urgency need to respect the autonomy of teachers as much as the autonomy of principals. Each individual must have the authority to sound the alarm that might shut down the assembly line when it is damaging children. And all of us should recommit to the values of individuality and creativity that made America great.


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I love that you mentioned this...I thought of education when I heard the podcast too (I'm now addicted to This American Life).

My biggest takeaway from NUMMI was that a plant was able to turn things around not by "making heads roll", so to speak, but by turning around a dysfunctional workforce. Once factory workers were empowered to "stop the line", saw that their bosses were willing to listen to them and help them, and experienced a culture-wide attitude shift, they were able to become productive employees. They built a good plant with the proverbial "bad" employees.

I wonder if similar lessons can't be used to rehabilitate so called "bad" teachers. Maybe a toxic culture at failing schools can turn otherwise good teachers bad?

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