When I first began at the Nord Family Foundation, I agreed to serve as program officer for education. I had experience teaching high school for a few semesters and teaching at the college level. Realizing my limitations, decided it was essential for me to learn more about what teachers go through every day. The best way to do this, I thought, was to form a book club which I did with the help of colleauges at Center for Leadership in Education which the foundation funded. Seven school professionals participated and consisted of middle, high school and elemetary teachers as well as a first-year school principal from a rural school district. Our book was Victory in Our Schools – We CAN Give Our Children Excellent Public Education by Major General John Stanford. Gen. Stanford was elected Superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools in 1995 and initiated a quality reform effort with lasting postive results. Gen. Stanford died of lukemia in 1998 and was mourned deeply by the Seattle community.
Our book club met faithfully and teachers found it a safe environment to share their experiences of being in classrooms. They loved the intellectual challenge and everyone kept their assignments faithfully. What I found was an alarmingly bright gathering of people who felt as though the “system” treated them as children. The felt as though their creativity as professionals was not really respected by supervisors and they yearned for more communication with supervisors. I will remember one passage toward the end of the book that resulted in lengthy discussion for two sessions.
General Stanford writes, “As the CEO of this ailing business, I had high aspirations. I wanted to be in the Fortune 500 of educational institutions. …We’d have to act as if every one of our customers had a choice about whether or not to use us, and we’d have to do everything we could to become every customers first choice.”
This was another philosophical shift in public education. The schools were accustomed to operating as if they were part of a command economy like the one in the former Soviety Union. Money and students were alloted by the central administration; the survival of individual schools was guaranteed regardless of customer satisfaction and customers had to accept the prudcut whether they liked it or not.”
This section of the book on page 186 resonated with the teachers. This was shortly after the reforms of t he No Child Left Behind Act resulted in a frenzy of high-stakes testing in the schools. The teachers I spoke with lamented the fact that their school principals and superintendents focused now on producing schools that would make the Officials at the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) happy. Superintendents began competing for report card scores in the same way they compete for football or baseball standings. The tests were the game and the goal was to win no matter what. Teachers felt as if a punative system was in place in which the Centeral Offices were now positioned to threaten teaching that did not align with their rapidly developed assessment tools.
Ten years after General Stanford’s death, schools have made efforts to change the philosphy toward better customer service. That is, I find, a slow process. In Oberlin where I live I have heard several teachers say that parents are a nuisance and should leave the teachers to do what the do best. There is little sense of customer service. In my time visiting schools and talking with teachers throughout Ohio, Colorado and South Carolina few would disagree with General Stanford’s original comment. Public Schools in this country continue to function as the last bastion of the Soviet style command economy. Until recently, charter schools and alternative schools were seen as diabolical. Even today, education reporters from The Cleveland Plain dealer write as if charter schools “take” money from the public system. Few take the time to help the reader understand that Charter Schools ARE Public Schools – they simply have a little more freedom to do what needs to be done to run a school like a business that is locally owned.
The parallels between the old Soviet system are helpful when one tries to understand why it is so difficult to encourage innovation within the system. At the Centeral Offices, the focus is on a standardized system that fits all. The assesment tools are created in ways that make it easy for a teacher to gather data quickly so that the people at Data Central can churnc that data out. The assessments are summative – i.e. a snapshot that serve to determine a minimal level of competency for a student. I found this summative assessment to be embedded in the teachers vocabulary. I attended a local meeting of teachers and superintendents from Lorain County at the local community college. The topic of conversations was, “How we can achieve ADEQUATE schools for the children of the county.” I was depressed and lost patience with the group and challenged them as to why they would not be talking about how to achieve EXCELLENT schools in the county?
The challenge for most states is to determine how schools can have the freedom to develop formative assessment tools that work. To do this, one needs to change the way we allow students to learn. Proper use of techonology can facilitate this process. There are teachers who are using technology in very innovative ways and finding remarkable results. Too often, this innovation happens outside the system and often without the approval of the principal or superintendent.
For really interesting discussion on this topic listen to archived recordings from the website EdTechTalk – Teacher on Teaching.
I have just finished reading Clayton Christensen’s book called Disrupting Class This book is a must read for every educator and/or education policymaker in this country. Not only does Dr. Christensen explain how and why innovation can and cannot take place within public schools, but he challenges us to view public education as an old bureucratic system that is being challenged by innovation and activities that are happening with success outside its reach. In many ways, Mr. Christensen is a Yeltsin to our public school leaders. Depending on which part of the country you reside, we have local and state leaders who are devout “party” members who are like Gorbechev’s trying desperatly to reform the system from within. In philanthropy, I think we have a growing number of people who see the writing on the wall and realize we must look for pockets of innovation in education and help bring it to scale.