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The Soul of the Enterprise



During a recent on Southwest Airlines to visit a newborn granddaughter, I picked up a copy of the airline’s monthly magazine, Spirit, which profiled each state’s teacher-of-the-year honoree. While flipping pages to reach that article, my eye caught a column by Gary Kelly, president and CEO of Southwest Airlines, who described for readers what made his airline different and successful. His words took me, a superintendent in retirement, back in time to the 1980s and Fairfax County, Va.

What made Southwest successful while other airlines struggled, Kelly contended, was its attention to the company’s culture. “Your business plan is what you are, but Culture is who you are,” he wrote. Kelly capitalizes the word culture to emphasize how important he and Southwest Airlines think it is.

What does that have to do with me, the 1980s and Fairfax County? Reform was then in the air in business circles, and Tom Peters and Bob Waterman’s best-selling book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies was a compulsory read. Schools were beginning to question their fundamentals as the first wave of reformers spoke out, sparked by “A Nation at Risk.” Linton Deck, superintendent in Fairfax County then, told those of us who were administrators in the district that we needed to read Fifteen Thousand Hours: Secondary Schools and Their Effects on Children. Published in 1979, this study of secondary schools in Britain by Michael Rutter and others carried seminal lessons, Deck said, to teach us what we needed to do in our fledgling efforts at school reform.

Timeless Truths
Fifteen Thousand Hours (named for the time a typical student spends in a British secondary school) was a wonderful book, introducing us to the concept and importance of ethos (Greek for culture) in organizations. Its lessons are still germane.

It told us:

A marked difference existed in the behavior and achievements of students among the secondary schools of London, but these differences did not fully account for the differences in achievement among schools. Rather, the differences in achievement stemmed from students’ experiences in school.

The differences in achievement among schools were not related to physical factors, such as size or age of school but stemmed from “their characteristics as social institutions.”

The cumulative effect of various social factors (e.g., teacher expectations, feedback to students, disciplinary procedures) was considerably greater than the effect of any of the individual factors on their own.

“The implication is that the individual factors may combine to create a particular ethos, or set of values, attitudes and behaviours which will become characteristic of the school as a whole,” wrote the book’s authors. “Children’s behaviour and attitudes are shaped and influenced by their experiences at school and, in particular, by the qualities of the school as a social institution.”

Like other timeless truths, these conclusions do not shock. Written more than 30 years ago, they echo in today’s headlines regarding the failures and successes in school reform. In the years since, we often have attempted, in one reform after another, to change the whole by tinkering with one part — merit pay, block scheduling, writing across the curriculum — even as we ignored the soul of the enterprise, its culture. These efforts were well-intentioned and had value in themselves, but each fell short of system change. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, we had the experience (of failure), but we missed the meaning (the need for holism).

Real People
The findings of Fifteen Thousand Hours do not justify spineless generality. Indeed, the organizational culture of Southwest Airlines would be meaningless if it did not manifest itself in frequent inspections, constant attention to maintenance and high levels of safety and customer satisfaction.

In the same way, so too would K-12 education’s enshrinement of culture be pretentious and empty if that culture did not incorporate world-class objectives, frequent assessment and corollary feedback, constant improvement and, ultimately, if it didn’t prepare all children with high skill levels and deep qualities of personal character.

At the outset, I alluded to my new granddaughter, Melanie, to ground these reflections in the reality that our future consists of real people, not dry abstractions. Our statistics have faces. I want for Melanie and her peers what so many educators with whom I worked wanted for their students: all children learning important knowledge and skills in an environment that promotes engagement, enthusiasm and a lifelong love of learning. That is a culture worth building and the only one that will endure.

Thomas McGarry retired in 2004 after 17 years as superintendent in Longmeadow, Mass. E-mail:


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