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This article first appeared in The News Journal on November 15, 2014.
The article can be viewed here: http://delonline.us/11cpWNg
The obstacles to a good Delaware public school education have been many, varied and usually school specific but not so with the attempted solutions. The obstacles have included such things as poverty, student and parent indifference, community turmoil, varying teaching and administrative abilities, etc. Proposed resolutions to overcome the obstacles are often preceded by, “One size doesn’t fit all,” followed by a new law, regulation or procedure that applies across the board usually with a new person or office to oversee it.

Every few years we see new people arrive with new ideas. We gather data, cultivate alliances, get input, design plans and essentially begin anew. After the recent Vision Coalition Conference at the University of Delaware, a respected member of the Department of Education and I agreed that the conference was very good, but we had heard everything many times before (funding, salaries, teacher recognition, student needs, parental involvement, testing, etc.). In addition to the merits of any proposed plan, the challenge has been to fully implement that plan. Currently there is an underlying suspicion that history will continue to repeat itself and completion will remain an illusion.

Charter schools are an example of that implementation history. They were to be small laboratories used to experiment with new ideas that, if successful, would be adopted by the traditional schools. If they failed they would be closed. School autonomy was a major component. The original draft of DOE’s charter regulations (1995) said they would be “free of most state and school district rules and regulations” and “reliance on bureaucratic decisions would be a thing of the past.” Have the traditional schools moved toward greater autonomy, or have the charter schools become more traditional?

A bureaucracy (not a bureaucrat) is concerned with compliance. It enforces the letter of the law. It is not anarchy to suggest that a creative mind can work within the spirit of the law. However, that requires thoughtful and skillful decision-making. Merriam-Webster clarifies the problem with its definition of a bureaucracy: “an unwieldy administrative system burdened with excessive complexity and lack of flexibility.” Many years ago the U.S. Department of Education said we had to “replace rules-based governance (think compliance) with performance-based accountability, thereby stimulating the creativity and commitment of teachers, parents, and citizens.”

The impact of a systemic change has been modeled in computers. First introduced in the late 1940s the new technology did small operations quickly using a binary system. The world demand for the new technology was estimated to be only five units. Today computers are ubiquitous, and yet they are still doing the same thing (small operations quickly). What has changed is how they operate. They went from bulky, inefficient, heat-producing vacuum tubes to today’s microchips. That enabled the system to operate much faster, be more efficient, become smaller and do more. Would changing our current education system produce similar results?

Since combinations of obstacles can be found uniquely in various schools, a “cookie-cutter” approach will fail. Individual schools must be given the authority to design customized plans to address the needs of their students. Such schools, according to DOE’s 1995 draft of charter regulations, would “… empower local communities to try new, unique solutions to problems that are facing their own schools.” The separation of powers among the education entities could be stated, “Powers not delegated to districts or the state are reserved to the local school.” In any event, the properly prepared principal (CEO) should have broad administrative authority including the responsibility to hire, fire and manage the budget. Districts and the state should have oversight responsibilities and an appeals function. They should provide opportunities for the professional growth of school personnel so that the new education system will be one of continuous improvement.

Educating students involves a professional relationship between teachers and students (similar to doctors – patients, and attorneys – clients). Running a school is a business function, and the essence of administration is decision-making. The principal’s (CEO’s) role is to provide teachers with the support they need to get the job done and to create a culture of success that permeates all operations with a goal to “max every child.” Building CEOs must be properly prepared before taking over the helm of the school. The time needed to do this will vary by building administrator so this process will have to be phased in.

The state’s business community, the Vision Coalition, DOE, Rodel, etc. have played a significant role in moving things along. They should continue to support education and to provide a vision of what the future expects of our students so that the education professionals in the buildings can better prepare them. Parents should select the “best fit” school for their child using available choice opportunities. Such choices might include alternatives like Education Savings Accounts that have been successful in Arizona and will soon be considered in Delaware.

Just changing the system can improve student performance. Andreas Scheleicher, a member of Rodel’s International Advisory Group, presented information at Rodel’s April Education Event to show the positive effect of local, front-line autonomy. When that autonomy is coupled with distributive leadership (involving teachers in the decision-making process) student gains were increased even more.

Some assumptions: This plan will be phased in over a period of three to five years; it will use mostly current educators; properly prepared principals (CEOs) are important for its success; teachers are critical assets; 19 school districts are too many (Los Angeles has more students than Delaware but only one district).

Education is a multi-billion dollar business whose purpose is to maximize the abilities of all students. That would have a positive economic effect on all residents. Site-based management may not be a panacea for all of Delaware’s education ills, but it is the right course of action at this time. So let’s put on our old Nikes and “just do it.”
Ron Russo
Senior Fellow

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