In our first two parts (See ”Administrative Decision Making” and ”Part II”), we analyzed the inefficient, dysfunctional ways school systems come to making decisions. We discussed four examples which came from my teaching career and illustrated the problems in getting decisions made and evaluating their outcomes. I could provide many other foolish choices which resulted in ineffective programs which were then evaluated with little connection to reality, but I think you’ve gotten the idea by now. What we need are some ways to improve all aspects of how things get decided in public schools: The impetus, determination, implementation, and evaluation of programs in schools cry out for better approaches.
Solutions for this will be painful for administrators, slow to show results, and procedurally messy; but the good news is they won’t cost much. Fundamentally, administrators need to understand they have little real power over programs in our schools, that the teachers will be the ultimate decision makers on any classroom initiative which comes along, so teachers must be involved in the process. No, that’s not far enough—teachers need to BE the decision-making process in schools.
What that means is to take the Snowflake philosophy as it applies to teachers and apply it to each school. (“Snowflake” means that every teacher is unique and needs to be encouraged to teach from his/her strengths—see ”My Manifesto”, ”The Art of Teaching”, and ”Snowflake Teachers” for a more thorough explanation.) Only through the course of teaching classes day after day, year after year, can anyone really know what changes need to occur, what form those changes might take, how to initiate those changes, how long to allow the changes to operate before evaluating their effectiveness, and what criteria to use to judge the changes’ success. We should furthermore recognize the folly of having those who make decisions also being the ones to evaluate their effectiveness, making sure others determine how well those modifications worked.
Initiatives have to come from the classroom, and administrators should be listening to their staffs, encouraging them to experiment on teacher-generated ideas. Obviously, some dreams might be too far-out or too expensive; however, with the proper delicate administrative touch, those ideas needn’t be rejected outright. Administrators should motivate teachers to go back and revise plans that seem half-baked, to consider how that seemingly unworkable inspiration might evolve into something that could bear fruit. When all the ideas have been contemplated and discussed with as many people as possible, slowly but surely, consensus will emerge.
At that point, the administrator can turn from nurturing organizer into hyper-charged cheerleader, lobbying the next level of administration and the school board to give the teachers the resources to make their vision a reality. You can’t imagine how revolutionary a procedure like this would be in my old school district, where teachers have become cynical to the point of bitterness at the stupidity of administrative decisions and lack of support for established programs, once something new comes along.
But let’s not forget that with rights come responsibilities. Teachers would have to be culpable when their master plan comes up a crapper. I’m not suggesting they should get fired because their best intentions didn’t pan out, but they would have to step forward and resolutely say, “We are to blame for leading the district in this wrong direction. We thought we were on the right track, but it turns out that we weren’t. We need to go back and look at some of the other ideas we rejected before selecting this one, because this one clearly isn’t working.”
Again, this would be a huge change from the immaculate record of the administrative decision-makers I have known: Countless decisions made, many disasters observed, no responsibility ever assumed. Their record is perfect as far as failures go—they’ve never admitted they had one. When initiatives based on their decisions go sour (and many do), they just fade away, soon to be replaced by some new impractical program, often pushed by the same administrator who led the district down the last blind path which terminated with a brick wall of frustration and wasted effort.
If anything, a bottom-up, teacher-initiated decision-making process would preserve the perfect non-failure rate of administrators since the decisions wouldn’t be theirs anymore. I know: the decisions were never theirs, really; but this way, they don’t have to tax themselves to come up with a ridiculous idea that has no relationship to the reality of classroom teachers, and then act as if that pile of garbage in the middle of the room, stinking up the place, doesn’t exist. Public relations is really the most important administrative job, so at least they should use some of those highly developed skills on teachers. And since the teachers are the ones who have the real power, currying their favor should be something at which administrators work harder in the first place.
So let’s see what an improved method might be like: Each school would have to work out a method for initiating brainstorming sessions on how the school could be better. The process might begin with faculty meetings in smaller schools, or department meetings in larger schools. Each month (week, quarter, semester), a two-hour (half-day, full day) meeting could be devoted to coming up with ideas for school improvement. Teachers who wanted to present an idea to the group could be scheduled to explain how their plans would work in ten (five, thirty) minutes followed by a five-minute question period. (The natural setting for these meetings would be teacher institute days, which we’ll discuss in future entries.)
After all the ideas had been presented, an open discussion of their merits could take place—the better the idea, the more discussion it would generate. Weaker, less-developed ideas would suffer the same fate as most administrative initiatives and just fade away. But that’s okay since they wouldn’t take up any more time, and maybe that idea could be revised so it could be presented at the next forum. Sure, there’d be stubborn teachers who would bring the same dumb idea back month after month, but somebody would eventually challenge them to stop wasting time with the same idea which had been rejected six months running. (I didn’t promise this would be a bloodless process.)
Once some intriguing suggestions had surfaced and gained significant teacher support, they could be presented to the administrators, whose main job would be to investigate logistics and be supportive. The whole process would go down the drain if after the teacher symposiums, administrators simply wrinkled their noses and issued an edict that this great plan was actually horrible—what were you stupid teachers thinking about, anyway? If you detect some bitterness there, that’s only because I’ve seen this happen many times. Automatically rejecting teacher plans without giving them a fair hearing is a heinous abuse of administrative power; it just wouldn’t be acceptable for this process. Obviously, the administrators would need to buy into the ideas that the teachers created, but to allow principals absolute veto power could not be tolerated. They would have to use their persuasive abilities to explain the problems with the teacher plan and allow the teachers to make revisions before trying something else.
Given the new ability to admit mistakes and back-track, this process would make it less risky to try things out; the change wouldn’t have to be some big hairy initiative that required all in-service time for a school year and major changes in the work day. Instead, we could test these ideas out in realistic settings—classrooms—which would give us evidence to be objectively evaluated by impartial third-parties. As you might be detecting, this process isn’t all that different from the old, bad way except in who is initiating the ideas and who is evaluating how the ideas work. Instead of administrators’ being the alpha and omega on school improvement projects, they would be assigned the role for which they are best suited—facilitating the real work of the teachers. Otherwise, the process—come up with the new idea, convince people that it’s a good one, test it out, evaluate the test accurately, move forward cautiously, have the full support of those who pay the bills, and only then move to a school-wide change—isn’t all that different from what we are supposedly doing now.
Let’s not be overly flippant about this new process—it would be tough. I can just imagine all drama with teachers trying to convince other teachers that their idea is better than anyone else’s. But at least the reforms would be based on things that go on in the classroom, instead of the latest fad being discussed at superintendent conferences or some state mandate. Sure, there’d be a ton of abysmal ideas which would be floated in open forums like this, but I have faith that the collective wisdom of teaching staffs would have a much higher success-to-failure rate than the limited vision of administrators.
Ultimately, this has to do with administrative power. As has been pointed out many times by many people, institutions are either moving forward or they are moving backward; standing pat isn’t possible. Right now, the power to alter the process, to improve how things are done all rests in the hands of a few people who don’t even teach classes. Administrators need to share this decision-making power in order to gain even more, legitimate power.
Teachers would be much more loyal, motivated, and enthusiastic under a system where they knew their supervisors valued their ideas and wanted to assist them in putting those ideas into practice. As it is now, most teachers on “decision-making” committees complain that they wish the administrator who chairs the committee would just tell them what decision he wants. Standard operating procedure in my district is that the superintendent or principal convenes a committee, has one of his tame underlings chair it, and forces the committee to make recommendation after recommendation until it endorses the idea he intended to put in place from the beginning.
Needless to say, most of the initiatives generated by this process never get off the ground. So how much power for change does that administrator really have? But imagine the difference if he insisted teacher ideas dominate the change process: Teachers would be happier, the changes would better reflect classroom needs and realities, and teachers would be much more forgiving and supportive of any bumps and retreats the administration had to make—provided the administrators were forth-coming with the reasons for their actions.
With current procedures, administrators have no reason to doubt the “success” of their initiatives since just getting the decision made seems to be their only measure of success. In theory, good decision making follows this basic path: “see need, brainstorm ideas, discuss, survey, decide, publicize/educate, test program, collect data, evaluate, reassess, modify.” However, the “evaluate, reassess, modify” part of this process doesn’t exist in most school districts. For teachers, it seems that this process has been pared down to “administrators decide, program begins school-wide, administrators declare success, program fizzles and fades away.” Administrators shouldn’t fool themselves into believing that this process gives power or enhances it; many teachers just go through the motions of new initiatives, wait for the luster to wear off, and revert to the status quo until the next big deal, without ever giving the new idea a chance.
Not only doesn’t this empower administrators, but it takes authority away since teachers learn a lack of respect for administrative opinions and develop a strong resistance to changes, even positive ones. Administrators can’t force much on us; without our cooperation and enthusiasm, new programs will sputter and fail. When it comes to decision-making as it relates to school reforms, administrators have much less power than they believe they do. Genuine, positive school reform will happen only when teachers are the central agents who decide in which direction a school should go.