A hands-on management style is reforming Buenos Aires schools

Esteban Bullrich’s radical management approach was inspired by an MBA at Kellogg
At 2am Esteban Bullrich’s phone went off and a teacher — incandescent about not receiving his pay cheque — left a long, ranting message.
“His name was Jorge, I will never forget, and he was just blasting me,” laughs Mr Bullrich, who at the time was in charge of improving the disastrous performance of Buenos Aires schools and who has been Argentina’s minister of education for the past year.
He solved Jorge’s problem and then made his phone number more freely available to try to win support from a disgruntled, underpaid and underperforming workforce. Even in his present job he makes a point of giving his contact details to every teacher he meets, promoting personal accountability while he institutes radical reform.
His story would be an ideal case study on a business school course on managing change. The minister credits “the human focus” of his MBA at Kellogg, the US business school, for his ability to share and achieve goals at all levels of an organisation, even a national network of schools.
“We are the servants of the system and we need to be the facilitators of reform,” he says during a meeting with the Financial Times as he passes through London.
A colleague chips in to say he receives 15 to 20 WhatsApp messages a day from the minister, who passes on problems for troubleshooting from individual schools and teachers.
At first the issues were basic: the non-appearance of Jorge’s salary or a dearth of toilet paper. But as he dealt with 17 teaching unions to reduce the number of strike days a year from double figures — along the way introducing testing and inspections, and making teacher appointments transparent to break union control — the questions turned to ways to access better training and how Argentina’s schools could learn from the best in the world.
“You start with toilet paper and you provide the toilet paper and then they say ‘listen I want to learn more about the Finnish system [known for being effective and scoring highly in international tests]’.
“It’s kind of a wave you create within the system. People start to take notice and appreciate that I do this,” Mr Bullrich says.
In the OECD’s latest international Pisa rankings, published this month, Buenos Aires schools showed a big improvement, ranking at 38, up from 47 andfar ahead of the rest of Latin America. Mr Bullrich hopes to see the national position similarly improved. This time round — Pisa is a triennial survey of 15-year-olds — the sample size from the rest of Argentina was deemed not representative.
Mr Bullrich is from a prosperous family and is one of a set of ministers appointed by President Mauricio Macri to sweep away the legacy of Peronism.
He studied at Kellogg in Chicago in the early 1990s, and worked in the private sector until he went into politics in 2001. It was Kellogg’s volunteer programme that sparked his interest in schools, leading him to teach maths for two months in an orphanage in Nicaragua: “When I came back from Chicago I thought ‘I want to help’,” he explains.
He credits the business school’s reputation for developing interpersonal skills as his core management philosophy: “If you understand the people, you have a much better chance of meeting your goals.”
According to Matthew Merrick, associate dean of MBA operations at Kellogg: “The school is very focused on the importance of collaboration. It is baked into how the students operate in and out of the classroom.
“When it comes to profound change, you have to make the case for that change,” explains Mr Merrick.
In Argentina’s case, Mr Bullrich faces a tough task. Nearly a third of the population live in poverty and more than half of young people drop out of education before completing secondary school.
In reforming the federal system, collaboration has meant trailing around 23 provinces and Buenos Aires, the capital city, to agree a list of education priorities for all parties to sign as well as a set of core competencies that all children should achieve.
This talk of persuasion needs to be global, says Mr Bullrich, who wants
to use his visit to the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos next month to argue for a global agenda on education reform — and on defining what the 21st-century school should be teaching.
Politics fails to plan long-term change because “it is driven by urgency”. He says with regret: “If I’m lucky I can do this for maybe only four years, eight if we win the election.”
Management education is an under-explored resource for improving politics, according to Jill Rutter of London’s Institute for Government. She bemoans the usual “divorce” between policy ideas and “the ‘how do you make it happen?’ aspect”, noting much policy fails to work in practice.
Ms Rutter says the chances of transformative change would be improved by more emphasis on teaching government leaders how to manage change.
But as yet, no other education ministers seem to be willing to take a lesson from Mr Bullrich’s rapid reforms by sharing their phone number with disgruntled teachers — presumably for fear of that inevitable call at 2am.
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