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Liberating the Schoolhouse

Posted on Apr 30, 2008
Baldwin Park High School

Baldwin Park High School

By Wellford Wilms

Eighteen teachers, Baldwin Park High School’s “leadership team,” sit in a semicircle with their arms folded across their chests looking at the floor. The year is 2003 and the new principal, Julie Infante, an exuberant 44-year-old woman, explains how they are going to lead this high school out of its academic doldrums together. The teachers are clearly skeptical, either distrusting what Infante is saying or disbelieving that they can do it. The Los Angeles County school has hit bottom. The campus is littered with trash, fights are common, students cut classes without penalty, test scores are so low that the school’s accreditation is in jeopardy, and the faculty is demoralized. The stakes are high because failure is an invitation for the state to take over.

Remarkably, in three years, between 2003 and 2006, with coaching from UCLA’s School Management Program, the teachers and the principal accomplished a stunning success. By every important academic measure, the school made impressive gains. The campus was cleaned up, the number of disciplinary cases fell, student absenteeism declined, and test scores improved dramatically. Not surprisingly, the teachers felt more positive about the administrators and less isolated from one another, and their job satisfaction increased. But, in 2006, in an equally astonishing turn of events, the board of education and the superintendent removed Infante, replacing her with a new principal who began to reverse the bold steps that had produced the turnaround. 

What happened? Why would the board and superintendent undo the actions that had produced such remarkable results? It was because they failed to understand what Infante and the UCLA coaches had accomplished. They were blinded by their own ambitions and by their conviction that administrative top-down control is the only way to run the schools. What they could not see was that Infante had turned the leadership of the school upside down, leading from behind the scenes and encouraging teachers to take control. As the teachers expanded their responsibility, a new professional authority began to emerge among them that translated into new norms for the school. Instead of blaming everyone but themselves for the students’ failure, the teachers took on collective responsibility for the students’ success.

This is a story about why bottom-up educational reforms that work cannot survive in the face of top-down control. It is ultimately a story about the use of power. The dominant belief is that top-down control is the only way to hold principals and teachers accountable for measurable results. The less prevalent belief is that bottom-up collaboration between teachers and administrators is a source of innovation that builds commitment to and support for successful reforms. The conflict has become especially important in the face of the federal No Child Left Behind initiative, which requires administrators to produce high test scores or risk their jobs. The pressure for test scores leads school boards and superintendents to mandate what is to be taught and to reward principals and teachers who comply and punish those who do not. The effect of the law, says author Jonathan Kozol, is like placing a “sword of terror just above teachers’ heads,” causing many of the best of them to leave the profession.1 As boards and superintendents usurp authority, the teachers who stay often become docile, as do other workers in stifling bureaucracies, resigning themselves to being told what to do. It is little wonder that without authority and leadership at the schoolhouse, gains made one day are so often erased the next.

Amazingly little research has been done on the subject of why school reforms are rarely sustained. Most of what passes for research is really little more than polemics. Books with promising titles like “Failure Is NOT an Option” and “Creating a Positive School Culture” invoke rhetoric about what should be done, without analysis of the underlying problems. How many years has education been a top national priority, and how much have we learned from the billions of dollars spent? Quite a few, and not much. The few research studies that have been done show that reforms do not last because leadership changes, districts change their focus, teachers lose their motivation, and energy for innovation diminishes.2 But a close examination of the shakeup at Baldwin Park High School reveals an even more fundamental culprit: adherence to the belief that power can only flow from the top to the bottom. 


Square, Site wide

I have seen the clash of these beliefs in every organization I have studied over the past 30 years, from schools and universities to trade and teacher unions, to corporations and police departments. The research is clear: Collaborative decision-making invariably improves employees’ productivity, the quality of their work lives, and their job satisfaction.3 But these improvements always wither with the introduction of top-down control, which strips employees of their professionalism, weakens their commitment to the organization’s goals and dampens their motivation to work hard and do a good job.4  In Baldwin Park we see both sides of the conflict play out. Once the board and superintendent decided to impose their control on the school, they destroyed the collaboration between the principal and teachers that had made it so vital. They also squandered the chance to build a new model of school-led reform that could have sustained the improvements over time. Unfortunately, Baldwin Park could be any school district in the country because the automatic and destructive use of top-down control is such a familiar and discouraging story.

The Turnaround

Baldwin Park is a medium-size city about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The school district comprises 14 elementary, four middle and three high schools, one of which is Baldwin Park High School. Baldwin Park High has an attractive campus built in the 1950s with low-slung buildings now housing about 2,400 students, 88 percent of whom are Latino. Nearly 20 percent speak little English. Students come from the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, with more than half receiving reduced-cost or free lunches. The school employs 84 teachers, who have taught there for an average of 10 years.




Liberating the Schoolhouse: Breaking the Grip of Centralized Power


By Wellford Wilms


Triarchy Press Ltd, 56 pages


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Before 2003, for as long as anyone can remember, the school had operated in the traditional manner. Teachers talk about how power had always been held by administrators, which had been the cause of many of the school’s problems. Recalled one teacher, “We’d always had a top-down management style from time immemorial, and most of the problems on the campus were the result of the administration rather than the administration preventing them.” The school also had a reputation for being rough. Sergio Corona, a school board member who was its president during the turnaround, had attended Baldwin Park High School. He called it a “gladiator school.” “People would come in from other cities every day and there were fights. I’ve seen rumbles at that school, and they were bad,” said Corona. It was little wonder that Baldwin Park also suffered from a poor academic reputation. Mark Skvarna, a 53-year-old career Air Force man with a graying crew cut, came to the district in 1998 as its fiscal officer and became superintendent in 2001. He acknowledges that the school had the lowest possible statewide ranking on student test scores. “Its numbers were in the dumps. It was the worst of the worst,” Skvarna said.

By most accounts, hiring Infante was an act of desperation. The students’ low academic performance, measured by the California Academic Performance Index (API), was an embarrassment to the district, and the school badly needed new leadership. The API, a scale that runs from 200 to 1,000, is determined by annual testing. “At the time, the school was a 475 or 479, and it had been dropping and dropping. I think they were at a loss to know what to do with it,” said Infante. Corona recalled that he asked Infante during her hiring interview: “We know that it’s not the greatest school. What can you do?” Infante convinced him of her “game plan,” explaining that the teachers felt alienated and that she wanted to empower them. “She was not telling me things I wanted to hear, but she had a coherent, logical plan ... that focused on learning,” said Corona. Infante was hired. Though the board and district office hoped that her ideas would work, no one grasped how radical her plan really was.

Shortly after she took over as principal in 2002, Infante brought in UCLA’s School Management Program to help her organize the teachers to rebuild the school. The program had a reputation for teaching principals and teachers to work collaboratively. The UCLA staff had helped Infante when she was an assistant principal in El Monte, a neighboring district. Now in Baldwin Park, two UCLA coaches signed on to support Infante and the 18 teachers who made up a new “leadership team.” 

In early 2003, Dan Chernow, executive director of UCLA’s School Management Program, who knew my research and my interest in education, asked if I would like to join the project to document its progress. He showed me the school’s abysmal statistics and described UCLA’s plan to coach teachers to take responsibility by running their own meetings on the assumption that, by setting their own priorities and being responsible for follow-through, they would become school leaders. I told Chernow that I thought his strategy would fail. I had learned from my industrial studies that changing an organization’s culture required changing how the work was done. In the case of Baldwin Park High School, I told Chernow, it meant changing what happened in the classroom. I was certain that his plan, like other reforms, would never reach the classroom or, more likely, that it would be swept aside by some new idea. But Chernow persisted, assuring me that I could write about whatever I found. Despite my skepticism, I agreed. Baldwin Park presented the chance to test my own ideas while I documented what I knew would be a certain failure. I was in for a surprise.

When I began the research, observing meetings, running focus groups and interviewing teachers and administrators, I was struck by the firmness of Infante’s convictions about sharing decision-making power. One day I asked her if being a woman had anything to do with it. She drew up her short body in her chair and retorted: “I’m not the nurturing kind. I’ll nurture kids, or someone in a professional way, but I’m not a touchy-feely person.” Though not “touchy-feely,” she had been deeply influenced by a principal in her former district who had taken her under his wing when she left teaching to become an administrator. He called her “the young one” and made sure that she was exposed to the school’s operations. Infante recalled that he “was looking at me as not just an assistant principal but thinking about what he could do to help me succeed. It shaped a lot of my dealings later with teachers because all of us want the same thing—to be motivated to try different things and to expand our horizons.” She said she had learned about sharing decision-making in El Monte, where she helped build a new school from the ground up. “It has to be a team effort,” she told me, weaving the fingers of both hands together. “Teachers and administrators have to do it together.” 

Infante’s Vision

Months before Infante took over at Baldwin Park High, she visited the campus, talking with teachers to get a better picture of what was going on. She describes sitting in on meetings where teachers passed the time talking about housekeeping and pointing blaming fingers at the administrators and at each other. It was common to hear teachers talk about the school’s “culture of failure,” she recalls. “The teachers felt completely isolated. There was no trust among them, there was no concern to know what each other were doing. The teachers were overwhelmed and just trying to survive.” The teachers’ sense of isolation was passed along to students, who were oblivious to the shadow their test scores cast on the entire school community. “Students had no idea how their behavior shaped the school’s poor image and that their failure ultimately came back to hurt them,” said Infante. “The adults didn’t know how to communicate with the students, so it was clear that it was going to take a lot of dialogue to turn this into one school [community].”

To reverse the school’s course, Infante knew that the teachers had to become part of the decision-making process, something they had never done. “I wanted to develop a leadership team from a cross-section of the school—not just the cheerleaders,” she explained. John Otterness, a former mathematics teacher who was one of the UCLA coaches, recalled, “Julie tried to make it a diverse group, not just the traditional leadership thing where you pull in the department chairs and that’s about it.” Infante said she asked for volunteers who “wanted to be part of an earth-shattering experience. I wanted them to feel honored to be selected and to know that they were on the ground level of change.” Infante also included the local teachers’ union representative to ensure that the union would feel part of her plan. After consulting with members of the faculty and department heads, Infante chose 18 teachers to be the new leadership team. 

Despite her talk about shared leadership, few of the new team members believed her. “I was sure she was just another principal who’d come in, talk to us about distributed leadership, and grab all the marbles,” said one teacher. Said another, “She talked a lot about herself and at first I didn’t trust her.” Infante behaved like a traditional principal to set ground rules to establish her authority. “I didn’t want them to get the idea that it was going to be a free-for-all. I issued directives for those things that I felt were essential,” said Infante. For instance, she insisted that every teacher post a daily agenda of instructional objectives and activities in their classroom. “I didn’t budge on that,” she said.

Though I was gaining confidence in Infante, I remained deeply skeptical of the notion that showing teachers how to run meetings could save a school that was in such dire straits. It seemed like trying to move a mountain with a feather. As I spent time talking with the teachers, it became clear that most of them were frustrated with meetings that were held to discuss schoolwide issues. “People had to spend all that time and they felt a lot of it was worthless. The meetings lacked focus and nothing happened as a result,” one teacher recalled during a focus group. Infante and the UCLA coaches were certain that if the teachers learned how to set priorities and run effective meetings, their confidence would grow. They calculated that it would be the first step toward teachers taking on more responsibility.

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By BPHS Student, December 19, 2008 at 6:49 pm Link to this comment
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Mr. Silvas, wow.
You are one scary dude.

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By A.R., May 22, 2008 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Be sure to check out this link regarding former board president Sergio Corona

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By john, May 18, 2008 at 3:41 pm Link to this comment
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When admin adopts a “my way or the highway” mindset (which, let’s be honest, is the case in 9 of 10 school districts, or, 99 of 100?), the teachers’ incentive for creativity or innovation drops like a lead balloon.  Over the years I’ve known many teachers, and after 10 to 15 years most of them were disillusioned with their honorable calling.

A story…

In the mid 1990s, I worked in a High School Special Ed class taught by the most amazing teacher I’ve ever met, Mr. Smith.

Every day Mr. Smith, who oddly enough addressed all the students with the title Mister or Miss, put on an educational performance that ranged from Ancient Rome to World War II.  Much to everyone’s astonishment THE KIDS ACTUALLY LEARNED THE MATERIAL!  We are talking about teens who did not read at the third grade level. 

(Note:  The school psychologist estimated 70% of the students were truly mentally retarded, and 30% were gang bangers who never learned how to read or do basic math, and the school district did not know where else to put them, so in they went to Special Ed). 

Mr. Smith told the students on day one that they had the potential for greatness and he would not settle for anything less.  The students quickly lived up to that expectation.

The gang bangers seldom behaved in a disruptive manner in Mr. Smith’s class.  The focus of the class was to learn and shine, so why waste time with crude outbursts as they did in other classes?

Mr. Smith was an effective facilitator of learning because he mandated it for himself through his own power of creativity and vision, not because the superintendent wrote up some lofty sounding window dressing Mission Statement. 

A deeper issue is how do we inspire future teachers to follow Mr. Smith’s example of excellence?  Also, how do we create a school environment conducive to this sort of transformation?

I doubt these issues will be addressed because there is too much distrust and animosity between teachers & administrators.  The kids pay the price for the gridlock.

In this discussion of top down vs. bottom up, not once have I heard anyone mention how parents fit in the equation.

The revolution we need, on the deepest level, must come from the parents- each household making a decision that learning (not simply school) is a priority and a great adventure from the moment that little toddler can say “goo goo, ga ga”.

If one is raised in the sort of environment in which one is encouraged to learn, grow, and explore (with basic training & support in study skills, and doing homework), then K - 12 is no big deal. 

That newly minted high school graduate would be very capable to chart their course from there, be it training for a skilled trade, or going to college, or joining the army, or hitchhiking across the country writing poetry & planting wildflowers.

Parents are the primary teachers, schoolteachers augment what the parents have created.  Too many parents view the public school system as free babysitting and expect the schools to do all the work of educating their kids, and then have the gall to complain when the schools “fail”.

We can teach our kids to see themselves as capable & bright “achievers”.  We can teach our kids that learning is actually exciting, and a way of life, not just 8 to 3 at school until they are 18 years old.

If most parents did this sort of training from age 2, imagine how a 5 year old would be poised for success in Kindergarten and beyond. From what I’ve seen, most parents do not do this crucial prep work.

Good luck trying to turn the tide on a 13 year old with seven years of bad grades, who is starting to experiment with booze and cutting class in his Freshman year.  I am amazed at parents who have teens with years of bad grades, and say “Doh, how did this happen?”.

If one has a healthy & capable child with a history of Ds and Fs, that shame belongs on the parents who permitted it to happen.  So, to all of you Homer Simpsons out there, stop being bad parents!

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By Babara Kebre, May 15, 2008 at 8:08 am Link to this comment
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My initial response to this article is “sour grapes”.  UCLA lost a lucrative contract and their “team” was, essentially, fired.  The reporter used anonymous sources or those who were positively involved in the process.  I did not see one source identified that was not a participant in the “Leadership” of the school.  Did the rank and file really think this was a great change?

As a teacher and counselor for BPUSD for the past 33 years, I agree there has been major shifts in policy about every five years.  But this is not just BPUSD.  One reason “change” doesn’t work in education is that those in power don’t give it time to work through a generation of children.  You can’t have systemic change in four years, then change again, without a cost in productivity and student success.

Mrs. Infante was not the first, and I am sure she will not be the last, to advocate for shared decision making in education.  And, just as it has not been maintained as a district model in the past, it will not be maintained as a school model in the future.  And why should it?  As long as the state and federal governments hold administrators personally responsible for the success of the school, administrators are going to do what it takes to document their leadership and cover their backsides.  Any of us would do the same thing if our professional life was what was at stake.

I have worked with Mr. Cruz on several occasions and have been impressed with his dedication to student success and willingness to “think outside of the box” when dealing with students’ academic needs.

The best thing this article did was to bring to light the need for systemic change in public education—again—using other peoples reearch.  Focusing on one school principal may have givent he article a more personal approach, but, overall, I would like to have seen more balanced reporting.

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By Stephen Smoliar, May 9, 2008 at 7:49 am Link to this comment

Actually, there IS a “theatrical” element to this whole affair;  and it happens to be one that David Simon engaged in the fourth season of THE WIRE.  This was the plot line that involve a team of social scientists getting a grant to run an experiment at an inner city Baltimore public school by focusing on those kids who were most socially maladjusted.  Details aside, the punch line is that the social scientists got to deliver a paper at their professional meeting and nothing changed in the Baltimore classrooms.

Note that I still hold to my original thesis:  This is still a cautionary tale about “the triumph of domination of signification,” as I put it in my original blog post:

However,the “teller of the tale” would have us believe that all the elements of domination can be traced back to Los Angeles politics.  What is omitted are the elements of domination that involve academic projects always in desperate need of funding.

I really should have had the presence of mind to follow the hyperlink on Wilms’ name BEFORE writing anything about his analysis.  The profile at the other end of the link is up front about his UCLA connection;  and, as the note at the end of the text indicates, he got to write his paper.  Where “the bad” gravitates into “the ugly” is in those agencies that fund the abstract world of academics to design and implement experiments in real-world classrooms.  Simon’s point was that the academics never have any stake in such projects other than their publication record.  My wife was involved in a summer project (which involved bringing students into a professional research laboratory, rather than going into a classroom);  and since then she has been very skeptical about allowing “academic theorists” into her classroom!

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By Chris Silvas, May 8, 2008 at 11:46 pm Link to this comment
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Not to one up Cheryl Steans and her fine response to the “article”, but let me add some additional “substance” for those who are interested:

The UCLA Managment Team that was brought in to advise on the process brought up-to-date strategy that is now common language among PLC schools in how to form collective leadership and a responsability to results in a school. The practices that were advocated included research-proven teaching strategy a la Marzano, clear emphasis on data driven instruction along with peer observation, and norms for group interaction to arrive at consensus that are significant “best practices” for schools that are trying to serve all students.

At no time was there any real investment, not by the principal or the UCLA facilitators, to understand why these “best practices” never got “deep implementation” in our school. The fact is that, as Cheryl Stearns commented, the team spent a lot of its time in off-campus “reflection” that never quite trickled down to the school. This led to the very common perception among “non members” of the leadership team that this hand-picked group was “Julie’s Group” led by “Lecturers” from some other planet. Julie had many strengths, but never really established any credibility on our campus. She very openly took credit for work that was not her own, and this lack of “cred” doomed any real buy in to the practices. The entire project “orbited” our school, never really making a landing on the surface where our students reside. This is not a knock on the staff that participated on the team, many of whom did tremendous work that should be commended. But to assert that this was some pilgrimage to the “Promised Land” as the “article” would assert is just plain fantasy.

It is probably more interesting to tell a story of epic proportions; how “team leadership” is snuffed out by the iron hand of “authoritarian reactionaries” both on our campus and at our district. It probably stirs more emotion and debate to portray the efforts of a new principal as “heroic” in face of a challenged community, then tragically smitten down by merciless “villians” who fear “creativity”. That would be a compelling story indeed - if it were true. The brutal truth is that it never happened like that. It was a worthy effort that never quite surfaced as a “silver bullet” to the problems of our school - nor should that have been expected. Without any real credibility,however, the leadership team along with the administrator that supported it became increasingly isolated and less relevant over time. This is what caused the chain of events that led to the ouster of our former principal—nothing more.

For the record, the leadership team still exists and its role will continue to evolve as conditions on the ground dictate.

Im sorry the truth isnt more “theatrical” or interesting…

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By Stephen Smoliar, May 8, 2008 at 10:07 am Link to this comment

Thank you for providing a more substantive account than Silvas did;  I have acknowledged your position as a comment to my own analysis of this article at:

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By Cheryl W. Stearns, May 7, 2008 at 9:25 pm Link to this comment
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I had to read Wilms article about Baldwin Park High School 3 times before I could get past the anger I felt at his unfair characterizations of the faculty, staff and students.  I have been a counselor at BP for 19 years.  Before that I was a teacher on the Braves campus for 13 years so I feel that I am enough of an expert to comment on what Mr. Wilms had to say.

His description of our former principal is incredibly slanted and one-sided.  Yes Ms. Infante brought about some changes to our campus and our API score did go up.  But it didn’t go up simply because she came in and “empowered” the teachers and students.  There are a multitude of factors that go into computing a school"s API, not just test scores.  And many people worked behind the scenes to make sure that we were properly placed in a group where our true growth could be measured and would be representative of what our students have accomplished over the years.  When all was said and done, Ms. Infante took most of the credit for accomplishing the “amazing feat” of improving our score by 95 points in one school year.  It was a team effort.  But to hear it described to others, our accomplishment sounded more like a “one-woman” success story.  Believe me when I say that no one shed a tear when she left.

Working in Baldwin Park for over 30 years has never been easy, but it has been immensely rewarding.  We have very high EL and transient populations to work with.  It is not uncommon for some students to check in and out of Baldwin Park High School 2 or 3 times in one school year.  And we are being criticized for not showing greater success?  We are successful every day when we keep our students in school despite the many distractions they have to deal with on a daily basis.

Mr. Wilms criticism of “the new kid”, our Principal Luis Cruz is also way off the mark.  I noticed that the quotes he used from teachers were anonymous.  Shame on those teachers for not stepping forward and identifying themselves.  We all know that every school has its “shining stars” as well as it “weakest links”.  If Mr. Cruz is guilty of anything, it is his passion for education and his immense desire to see all of the students succeed.  If he steps on a few toes by criticizing those “weakest links” then he should also be applauded for trying to help those individuals improve their skills or encouraging them to “perhaps find a different career where they can be more successful”.

Chris Silvas was right when he said that the article smacked of sour grapes.  Who wouldn’t be upset over losing a lucrative $400,000 contract.  But to slam all of the dedicated educators at Baldwin Park High because we felt the money could better be used for programs providing direct services to students rather than “Weekend Getaways” to discuss who knows what, was very unfair.  I was part of that Leadership team so I know what I am talking about.  I resigned after participating for 2 years because I felt my time would be better used to work with the students, rather than being off campus and out of touch for days at a time.

I’m just sorry that Mr. Wilms included quotes from a former teacher who never even worked with Mr. Cruz and got his information about what is happening on our campus from a secondary source.  Mr. Wilms, along with the other UCLA team leaders spoke with me on many occasions and asked for my opinion about various things they observed on campus.  I don’t see any of my comments quoted in the article.  Perhaps this is because I did not give answers that supported his claims and criticisms about Baldwin Park.

I am very disappointed that this article was written from such a negative point of view.  Many very dedicated and hard-working educators were hurt by this article - and to what end?  Maybe to help Julie Infante find another job?  Who knows what sometimes motivates people’s actions.

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By Kiwi, May 5, 2008 at 9:45 pm Link to this comment

Very Good points Non Credo. The Basis of the Libertarians approach is that you cannot choose to have a government-run school system or health system etc.
When Paolo says “In a free society (as advocated by libertarians), parents could choose to send their children to private schools of their choice, or to educate them on their own.” This pre-supposes that parents will want to educate their children. Isnt compulsory education the State involved in bringing up children? What if the parents dont want to? What if they want to keep their older children at home to babysit younger ones while they work? Should children not have basic protections? Should a parent
be able to sell their young children for sex ? Doesnt the fact we have laws saying “This is wrong” interfere with freedom? Laws to protect children are a basic tenet our modern society.

I guess the best protection from Libertarian Idealogy though is Democracy. In NZ the Libertarianz Party got 1% of the vote in the last election. Next election later this year they will probably get the same.

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By Outraged, May 5, 2008 at 12:13 am Link to this comment

As it is Stephen Smoliar is so much more “forgiving” than I. I call SOUR GRAPES.  You seem to be advocating the “we run the show around here” BS.  So, enlighten us.  What the hell was “wrong” with progressive change, addressing the issues and making changes?  I’m ALL EARS!

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By Outraged, May 4, 2008 at 10:59 pm Link to this comment

Re: Stephen Smoliar

I got side-tracked, but I wanted to comment on your point:

“This freed them from the bad judgments of an enfeebled power elite, and the results should put our entire education profession to shame.”

In this, I fear you are too generous.  Hopefully you don’t mind my edit. “and the results “DO PUT OUR ENTIRE EDUCATIONAL PROFESSION TO SHAME” (my emphasis, of course)  Further, for one of the RICHEST NATIONS IN THE WORLD, that is a NATIONAL TRAGEDY AND AN INCRIMINATION OF THE POWER ELITE.

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By Outraged, May 4, 2008 at 10:41 pm Link to this comment

Re: Stephen Smoliar, May 4

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I think this was a bad pilot program.  This particular program was not the teacher’s idea or program.  And I would add that it isn’t that I think her foolish or inept or anything of that sort.  Just that she was, to be more specific “shocked” that we could digest so much so quickly.  I thought the program was GREAT, in fact it has been somewhat of a “guiding light” shall we say in my personal perspective.

I realized then, and it has held true since, that if they require this or that, that in fact that is the tip of the iceberg and an overview at best of what people will do, can actually do or do DO, if given the opportunity.

And I think this carries over to the principal in the article and her perspective.  I do feel that she was genuine and understood the task, but moreso accomplished it with flying colors only to be marginalized later. And as to the “why did cast her aside”, I feel we may agree.

I am familiar with your association to “Frederick Taylor’s PRINCIPLES OF SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT” although it has been a while and when you elaborated regarding it, it was one of those “oh yeah” moments.  I tend to be a voracious reader and used to have a penchant for reading BS written in “sophisticated form”.  LOL.  Great fun.

My point was more one of, why.  Why was she so shocked?  I have theories, one of which is because she herself was part of the “other” ideology.  Not because she MEANT to be, but because that was what had been instilled, through many lengthy courses, mostly likely a childhood riddled with it, colleagues filled with it and so on.

Would I have been able to conceptualize this anyway?  Maybe.  It’s hard to say, since as it is, I’m a voracious reader.  I can qualify that it DEFINITELY set in stone this truth. That people can, will, and do DO what they aspire to do if GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY OR LATITUDE to do so.  The “proof is in the pudding” as they say.  Hang tough.

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By ZZ, May 4, 2008 at 9:48 pm Link to this comment
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This article is not saying “the state” needs to be left out of the educational system. It does, rather, point out the importance of giving teachers the freedom to respond creatively to their school’s particular conditions (those persistent and those ever changing).  It’s the teachers who are immersed in the culture and needs of their particular environment, and, therefore, they should be relied upon to respond creatively to those needs.  The imposition of external authority/solutions by school’s administrators can thwart or truncate a teachers responsiveness. 


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By kathleen shrum, May 4, 2008 at 6:14 pm Link to this comment
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Why do you need a voucher?  Obviously you are wealthy enough to send your child to a private school, the one near me is only 12oo.00 a month. Go for it, also Afghanistan has no central government, bet you would be real happy there, no taxes either, head on out, bet there school system is primo too and no vouchers required. You whiny people make me sick, why dont you ask corporate Amercia to pick up the tab? God knows they dont pay very much in taxes, Buffet says his janitor pays more in tax than he does.

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By Stephen Smoliar, May 4, 2008 at 7:59 am Link to this comment

It sounds to me as if, when you were in the fourth grade, you had a teacher who realized that she had a diverse gathering of individuals in her classroom;  and she decided to manage her classroom activities informed by that observation.  The reason I keep citing Callahan (May 2) is that Tayloristic thinking has made her teaching practices a very distant statistical outlier.  The public education system still labors under the premise that the classroom is a production line not substantively different from the one that used to put out the Model T Ford.  For all the insights of educational psychology (not to mention the abundance of empowering tools available through digital technology), educational authorities maintain their dominance by holding firm to what Callahan calls “the cult of efficiency.”  Other democratic countries with more effective public education systems recognized that such thinking was not just inapplicable but downright dangerous.  This freed them from the bad judgments of an enfeebled power elite, and the results should put our entire education profession to shame.

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By Outraged, May 3, 2008 at 10:43 pm Link to this comment

Re: Paolo

I myself have homeschooled, however it isn’t the only way or necessarily the best way, it depends.  There are many ways to do things well and I agree we should have that freedom but I also support, irregardless of the avenue we choose with our own children, public education.

When I was very young (4th grade), the school I attended allowed those who were able, as a pilot reading program to advance at our own pace.  I will admit that we (my group) were the better readers.  All the “seatwork” worksheets were available to us and we read our reading assignments and “filled out” the worksheets “on our own” with the teacher overseeing our work.  Straight away we finished our level book AND all the “seatwork” associated with it.

The teacher then had us read all the books available in the classroom or otherwise, for which multiple copies were available.  We did that also, higher level readers, science books, social studies books and the like.  There was still a quarter of the year left and we had nothing to do, much to the teacher’s amazement.

The reason I bring this up is that 1)I don’t feel she should have been amazed, that is STILL disconcerting to me as I see it as an incredible underestimation of our true abilities. 2)EVERYONE should have had the option, since only then would we know what everyone/anyone COULD have accomplished.  3) Because I believe ALL should be able to advance at their level of understanding and not be “held back” because of misunderstanding and 4) Because the very next year it was back to old grind.

There is no doubt in my mind that public education CAN do it, I was publicly educated.  The problem lies with ignorance, misconceptions, lack of progressive thought, authoritarianism and truth (as in reality check).

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By Outraged, May 3, 2008 at 9:57 pm Link to this comment

My last post was directed at Non Credo, May 2

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By Outraged, May 3, 2008 at 9:56 pm Link to this comment

I agree.  By pooling our resources we COULD do an excellent job if we quit tying the hands of those who would take the opportunity.  Instead “we”(rather the nincompoops in charge) insist on an authoritarian model.

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By Paolo, May 3, 2008 at 7:51 pm Link to this comment

In a free society (as advocated by libertarians), parents could choose to send their children to private schools of their choice, or to educate them on their own.

Private schools could educate children in any number of ways: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, non-sectarian, atheist—you name it. Since there is no such thing as one “correct” form of education (unless you are a state-worshipper), this diversity (real, actual “diversity”) of education would produce a diversity of intellectual views among the population.

This is a good thing. In a free society, no one group would be able to assert dominance, politically, over any other group. If different groups disagreed on some points, they would have to either compromise or shake hands and agree to disagree. No one could force their views down the throats of the entire population (as has been done, historically, by Protestants forcing their view of things on unwilling Catholics and Native Americans, to cite one example).

But many parents would choose to teach their children at home. I have done this myself, and have seen my children go on to college and excel academically. Teaching children at home, in the early grades up through high school, is really not that difficult, especially today, when there are literally hundreds of fine home-education computer programs (as well as paper-and-ink programs) that provide education that is far superior to what children get in the public schools.

Thus, in a free society, you would have a huge choice of ways to educate your child, rather than the one, monolithic, one-size-fits-all “choice” you now have with government schools. Diversity really is a good thing; if there is a public entity that discourages diversity, it is the public schools.

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By Reginald Cavendish, May 3, 2008 at 12:17 am Link to this comment
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And when your children graduate from McDonald’s High School, with their burger flipping certificates in hand (redeemable for one free Happy Meal) I do hope they thank you for taking such a stand on their behalf. 

If you think the private sector is appropriate for education, you must also agree that the police, fire, military and health service providers should operate on a for-profit basis.  Sadly, as corporate America continues to take over hapless minds like yours, it won’t be too long before you get your wish and your Happy Meal mentality will reign for a thousand years.

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By Reginald Cavendish, May 2, 2008 at 10:16 pm Link to this comment
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I’ve read your “libertarian” viewpoint several times on this blog.  I’ve also noticed a pattern in your criticism of public schools.  You repeat that they should not exist.  You also speak of how you once held a teaching position.  It seems to be a fixation of yours.  It’s becoming apparent that, contrary to the reason you post for leaving your teaching position, perhaps you were let go for incompetence, impropriety or possibly something more heinous.  In any case, your bitterness is palpable.  If you couldn’t fulfill your life as a teacher, you may have another calling.  Why don’t you try becoming a coffee barista.  That’s a fully privatized industry.

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By Paolo, May 2, 2008 at 7:20 pm Link to this comment

The premise behind your statement is that the State possesses some sort of mystic wisdom far superior to that of the rest of us mortals. Frankly, this sort of State-worship really gives me the creeps.

Now, if you as an individual want to introduce what you think is a great form of education, nothing in a free society would prevent you from doing so. You would just have to convince me and others that your system is good.

Governments don’t have to do that. They just use force to collect taxes to finance their insane schemes. Since they are virtually unanswerable in their power, the weirdest, looniest ideas get traction and stay in place for decades. See “Look-Say” or “Whole Language” or any other variant of the insane way we teach reading for examples.

I stand by my initial point that the upbringing of children is far too important to be left to the State.

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By Stephen Smoliar, May 2, 2008 at 4:35 pm Link to this comment

If there are errors of fact in Wilms’ piece, then I, for one, would like to hear of them, either in this comment space or, if you prefer, in the comment space for my reflection on the article at:

My guess is that my own thesis is still valid;  but, if I have fallen victim to faulty data, then I want to know about it!

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By Chris Silvas, May 2, 2008 at 8:41 am Link to this comment
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It is ridiculus to pass this “article” off as scholarly writing. I am a teacher at BPHS and I can assure you that very little of what has been asserted is true. We teach the students to be able to distinguish between “fact” and “opinion”, and clearly this is a skill that still needs to be mastered by even more educated people.

Anyone can “cherry pick” subjects to interview and build a case for about any cause or assertion that they see fit. There is no love loss for the previous administrator of our school, nor for the management team from her alma mater (and incidentally my own).

Perhaps they are simply upset that the nearly $400,000 contract they received had not been renewed because a school has many more priorities than simply paying theorists to do what only practitioners can do.

Our students are in need of action and not platitudes, and the rise in test scores has been accompanied by a rising acheivement gap and decreasing graduation rate.  This is a difficult problem that we have to work on, but WE will work on it because WE are invested in these kids.

By no means does my point represent a scientfic response, but I can only address the comments in this “article” on its own terms.

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By Stephen Smoliar, May 2, 2008 at 7:49 am Link to this comment

Your analysis emphasizes the significance of Raymond Callahan’s book, EDUCATION AND THE CULT OF EFFICIENCY, and indicates that you may have gotten the message better than Wilms!  Callahan’s thesis is that public education became obsessed with Frederick Taylor’s PRINCIPLES OF SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT early and the twentieth century and has never shaken loose from that obsession.  The problem is that Taylor was dealing with people operating machines on production lines, rather than people whose job consists primarily of interacting with other people (whether they are salespersons or teachers).  Callahan’s point was that in classroolms the Taylor approach breaks down with disastrous results.  You used the breakdown of Taylorism applied to sales to demonstrate Callahan’s argument.  Needless to say, the current Federal policy towards education involves a “total immersion” in Taylorism, which is more likely to drown our educational institutions than “save” them (religious metaphor baldly intentional)!

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By TDoff, May 2, 2008 at 4:33 am Link to this comment

The logical extension of the ‘Bottom Up’ method of administering the schools would be to pass the leadership mantle to the students.

If we were to start next year, in pre-schools, letting toddlers set their agendas, as that class moved through the school system, grade by grade, they would gradually remove the biggest barrier to inadequate education: The incompetent teachers.

About the time they reached the 8th to 9th grade level, and the educational administers realized what was going on, and tried to reassert their authority over the whole system, the kids would beat the crap out of them, and voila! We’d have a fully liberated school system, with no teachers (or teacher’s unions) and no stuffy old-fart ‘administrators’ to screw things up.

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By Outraged, May 1, 2008 at 10:33 pm Link to this comment

“The district administrators’ lack of understanding of what had happened at the school, and the unspoken assumption that hierarchical control was the only leadership model, demonstrated the extent to which top-level district decision-makers were prisoners of this single idea.”

As to Wellford Wilms assertion above, I disagree.  I think they knew exactly what they were doing. It is common in business to play a deceitful game with people, somewhat like propaganda or marketing consumerism. It is especially true in SALES.  Here’s how the game is played.

Mgt. tells the sales people that they will earn bonuses, after they hit a certain amount of sales.  They then let employees attain the bonus once, then.. they move the goalposts, so that NOW to get the SAME bonus one needs to hit a higher amount.  So the sales people work even harder (you see who’s winning here already don’t you).

Then Mgt. does it again, at this point there is talk among the employees and everyone starts to “see where this is going”. When that happens, they raise it one more time, to an unattainable amount BUT, they NOW add… that EVERYONE MUST sell “at least” the second or third amount, since now management is quite certain that it can be done, OR there’s the possibility of losing your job.

It’s a trick.  A deceitful little trick to see what could be done if one were working extremely hard, which in the beginning was fine since the employees were compensated for the extra effort.  Later, the extra effort is the MANDATE, WITHOUT COMPENSATION.

Since the whole “business model” is the rhetoric of the day, these administrators were just trying to gauge the employees’ ability.  When those numbers “were in” they relegated the principal to some non-position because it was NEVER their intent to empower teachers they just wanted to see how much work you could “get out of ‘em”.

Later they fired this principal.  They didn’t want her “empowerment” or “integrity” problem around I’m sure.  Somewhat like the ol’ “that’s not how we do it here” BS.  Five will get you ten that these teachers will now be REQUIRED to put in the extra effort or face dings on their records or possibly lose their jobs if those test scores come up short.

The administrators can now relax.  If those scores come up short, it’s not their ass is it?  (eventually sure, but they’ll easily be able to blame the teachers, just look at the numbers) All they need to do is bring the hammer down on the lowest totem pole employees, it’s how capitalists do business by conniving, cheating and lying.  They are using the “business model” here, that’s why they fired this teacher.  Hey, she might think she’s DESERVES something for saving their asses.


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By optipessi-mist, May 1, 2008 at 9:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

School Vouchers is the American voter saying the public school system is broken and has been for years.  I want my school tax money so that I can go to a private school of my choosing for my chilren. Take your public school system and shove it.

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By Kiwi, May 1, 2008 at 7:30 pm Link to this comment

A centralized, mandatory, government-run, taxpayer financed system can work and does in many countries. Many manage to find the balance between this and local management decisions that fit the local community. Such a system allows for alternative schools as well. Montessori is one of them. I agree it is an excellent system.
But as for the upbringing of children being too important to be left to the State. The Upbringing of Children is far too important not to include the State!!

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By Paolo, May 1, 2008 at 6:29 pm Link to this comment

I am one of those who quit teaching, well before my fifth year in the profession. As a libertarian, I came to understand—very quickly—what the problems are, and why they are so intractable. All attempts to “fix” the schools, while maintaining a top-down, centralized, mandatory, government-run, taxpayer financed system, are doomed to failure. Schools should be small, locally run, and allowed to pursue excellence in whatever way they choose. That is, schools should be part of a free society.

The Montessori Method, by any reasonable measure a far superior way of teaching children (or rather, allowing them to learn), will not be touched by public schools: Montessori allows too much freedom to both teachers and students. You can always rely on government entities to pull the iron fist out when they detect too much freedom.

In the final analysis, public schools should not exist at all. The upbringing of children is far too important to be left to the state.

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By Stephen Smoliar, May 1, 2008 at 10:36 am Link to this comment

A lengthy article requires lengthy consideration, too long for a comment but available at:

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