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Monday, May 20, 2013

Screening for Superstars 

“We can only hire superstars, and they’re hard to find,” an educator exclaimed at a barbecue last weekend. He was commenting about hiring teachers.

Screening for “superstars?” Professional sports screen those who want to earn a great deal of money by playing games. The great majority don’t reach stardom. Those that do have superb skill sets, top mental and physical conditioning and grit. Faced with difficulties, they tried harder – and they tried smarter – and they tried again. A few became superstars.

Leader superstars 

Military leaders are screened during training courses filled with pressure-cooker stress and increasing demands that appear impossible to meet. The courses have high drop-out rates. Only the superstars become leaders, especially in combat. In the long term military leaders protect our way of life. In the short term they protect their soldiers – our sons and daughters, spouses, parents, and lovers. We need superstars as military leaders.

Superstars with knives

People who want to practice medicine absorb amazing amounts of data and synthesize it under constant supervision and criticism. They must persist and excel. They become superstars because they have a calling to medicine, and they train, and they persist. They have the ability and they have the grit. We want superstars holding the scalpels.

Poor screening = poor results 

Screening isn't fun; it’s often unpleasant, especially for those who are screened out. But it’s necessary. If we lower the demands we get less than superstars.

Lowering the stress faced by military leadership candidates led to disaster. Remember Lt. Calley? He became an officer through a de-stressed officer candidates’ course. It was the Vietnam era, and lots of officers were needed.

Lt. Calley passed the lower-stress training and was assigned as a leader in combat. In 1968 he succumbed to battlefield stress and machine-gunned the village of Mai Lai. The low-stress screening didn't remove a leader who would lose self-control during the frustration, fear and confusion of battle.

Others screened

During the same time period the USMC continued to screen for a “few good men.” Navy SEALS faced training just as demanding as ever. The USMC and the SEALS faced high dropout rates. Their screening was effective; it led to productive marines and SEALS, not to leaders who became war criminals.

Want superstars, need superstars 

We want, and get superstars to entertain us. We demand and get superstar surgeons who cut into our tissues. We get Navy SEALS, Marines, and soldiers who have skills, abilities – and grit. Not everybody makes it through screening. Not everybody is cut out to be a surgeon, a basketball forward, or a Marine leader. Only the superstars are selected.

How -- and how not -- to screen them

In our opinion there are two major reasons that we have superstars in the surgery suite, on the battlefield, and on the playing fields. First, they are screened, and only the most suited make it to the top. Second, their screening is designed by professionals in their fields so it screens for what is really important.

What about teachers? Teaching is certainly a calling. It is certainly a profession. Becoming a teacher requires extensive training and practicing and performing under close scrutiny.  But, teachers are screened by the uninformed, the silly, and even the ignorant as well as by teaching professionals.

Government sets curriculums and defines standards. This is the same government that cannot make the Post Office work. So people who've never taught – and in many cases have never had a job or built a business – tell teachers how and what to teach. And parents demand automatic promotion, “niceness” and fun as substitutes for professional teaching.

The enemy is us sometimes 

It’s not all the government’s fault, though. Teachers joined unions to try to protect their profession.

Unions, like all powerful organizations, grew. Now their union protects the union first, then the union protocols, then teachers. That makes it very difficult for administrators to screen out bad teachers. So it’s imperative to screen early and find the superstars. It’s too hard to get rid of them if they don’t become superstars quickly. Some of those who are screened out could become superstars, just not quickly enough.

The police are unique

Police officers face demands civilians don’t – and can’t – really
understand. They should be screened by top professionals in their field so only the superstars remain on the force in Costa Mesa. City Council members, administrators, and lawyers cannot effectively screen them. An alert public can help screen the police and fire departments, though – but as customers, not as evaluators.

Cops are praised for being nice, or handsome, or having a spiffy uniform. Or they are chastised for making mistakes in the chaos of violent conflict in the dark, while they were meeting demanding responsibilities using inadequate information. But their critics are often uninformed; sometimes they are fools, as well. Both “badge bunnies” and cop haters provide evaluations that are fluff at best, harmful at worst and useful rarely.

"Associations" can impede 

They also face many of the problems that teachers face in the form of unions (that they call associations) which protect the union, union procedures, and jobs. Performance and professionalism often suffer

For example, their unions insist that screening by time on the job is meaningful, and that union reps be present when officers are counseled. The latter turns a learning experience into an adversarial ordeal. Effective screening and guided improvement become difficult. 

The City's role

The City Council can fairly determine how much Costa Mesa can spend on the Police and Fire departments. They can’t evaluate police and fire professionals. The Public Safety departments – and honest citizens with the courage to insist on professionalism – must screen for superstars – and for those who should seek other careers.

Our role 

Let’s help both departments screen their own organizations for superstars. We need superstars as cops and firefighters in Costa Mesa. We must let them know how well (we think) they did their jobs -- often.

The truth is: we’ll get the LEO's and firefighters we earn – and deserve. And we'll end up with the teachers that show "super stardom" early in their careers.

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