Liberating the Schoolhouse
Posted on Apr 30, 2008
Although not every leadership team member contributed equally, the members worked together in an increasingly seamless fashion. One teacher explained how her colleagues divided up the work based on their personalities and abilities. “There are the more gregarious people, and then there are people who are really good with technology, and others who do a lot of the writing.” Even those who participated on the margins benefited from the collaboration and contributed by holding the social structure together. One particularly busy teacher spoke about the value she got from being consulted even when she couldn’t contribute. “When we were working on the tardy issue, we didn’t feel threatened when we saw a new draft policy written down. Why? Because I know that we worked on it together, and I get the chance to write ‘OK, I agree’ or ‘No, I don’t think this works.’ We’ll compile everyone’s responses before we decide. And I also know that if we say we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it.”
From Assembly Lines to Self-Managing Teams
The model of leadership that emerged at Baldwin Park High School had been long in the making. For the past 75 years, study after study has shown that employees want to have a say in decisions that affect them and want to be treated respectfully. When they are treated as people rather than robots, their satisfaction and performance improve. The Baldwin Park model, in fact, goes back to 1949 in the gritty coal mines of England. There, Eric Trist, a social psychiatrist, and Kenneth Bamforth, a miner and trade unionist, observed how miners had refused the dangerous and nonproductive system of mass production that had been forced on them by the government and mine owners.6 The miners reverted to a traditional system that had been used for centuries called the “hand-got method,” which later became known as self-managing teamwork. These self-managing teams put decision-making back in the hands of the miners to restore human relationships, which are vital for safety and increased productivity. Later, Trist and his colleague Fred Emery developed a theory of organization and leadership called socio-technical systems (STS) that extended democratic principles into the workplace.7 In the 1950s and 1960s Scandinavian companies such as Volvo and Saab began experimenting with self-managing teams based on STS theory, followed in the 1980s by U.S. companies including Hewlett-Packard and Nabisco.8 More recently, these ideas have developed into organizations designed as networks to speed the rate of decision-making and innovation.9 Infante says she was unaware of how her model fit into this historical context, but Baldwin Park reflected a new evolution of the same human impulse expressed by the miners and other workers—to have control over one’s work, to enjoy productive relationships with colleagues, and to feel a sense of satisfaction from doing a good job.
By the end of 2004, Infante’s vision began to show results as the school—administrators, teachers and students—began to emerge as a single community. The campus was cleaner as students started picking up after themselves; tardies and cuts dropped in frequency; and the school’s test score index shot up an amazing 95 points in less than two years, a gain that placed Baldwin Park High School among the schools with the greatest increase in scores. Infante recalled of her staff, “at first they thought it was a mistake. They didn’t believe in themselves.”
Square, Site wide
It was amazing to witness the school’s culture begin to shift as the teachers’ self-confidence grew. I was as surprised as they were, but for different reasons. Up to that point, I was blind to the possibility that training teachers to run meetings could enable them to believe in themselves, begin to trust administrators and share decision-making with the principal. I had stubbornly clung to my original conviction that changes in teaching had to start in the classroom if they were going to have any impact. I recalled a story told to me more than 10 years prior by Marty Neil, a general manager at Hewlett-Packard when my research team and I were studying the company. Neil said with a laugh, “There’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea ... when it’s the only one you have.” I had retold his story with delight many times, never imagining that it might apply to me. But now with the school’s success staring me in the face, I realized I had fallen into the same trap.
New norms, the foundation of an organization’s culture, were being established. After a meeting where we had designed the 2005 faculty survey, a teacher told me: “People are taking instruction time more seriously. Kids used to come in and say, ‘It’s Friday. Do we watch a movie today?’ But you don’t hear that as much anymore.” The rancor of a group of teachers who challenged these new ideas also grew smaller as their colleagues took on more leadership.
UCLA’s Otterness noted that the changes were subtle but powerful. “We’d walk through and it looked like they were still doing pretty much traditional teaching. But what had changed was that teachers and students were taking things more seriously.” The leadership team had opened up a schoolwide discussion about good teaching, including how to teach students who spoke little or no English. In turn, as the teachers began to trust their new authority, they began to extend collaboration into the instructional process, working with students to develop lessons that would prepare them for high-stakes tests.
In 2005, a second teacher survey showed that improvements were taking hold and spreading throughout the teaching staff. More than half of all teachers (55 percent) reported that administrators were good leaders (an increase of nine percentage points over 2004); the importance of discipline as a problem had fallen by 19 percentage points to 41 percent of teachers who agreed; and ineffective discipline as a school weakness had dropped 38 percentage points to 31 percent agreement. Though teachers had been skeptical of the leadership team at first, more than half of the teachers (57 percent) reported that it gave them an important voice in how the school was run. More than a third (36 percent), many of them younger teachers, wanted to join the team.
Everything was riding on continued accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, an accreditation that had been jeopardized by the school’s long history of failure. After a thorough review of the school’s self-study report, representatives of the accrediting group visited the school. According to Infante, the visitors were impressed with what she and the teachers had accomplished in such a short time. The accrediting group’s report pointed to improved attendance, reduced tardiness rates, increased enrollment in higher-level math and science courses, and remarkable gains in test scores for all students including Latinos and low-income students. The report also praised the school’s leadership team, noting that it had helped “create a culture of change and improvements.”10
“They couldn’t believe that such big changes could be made in three years and that it was the teachers who had made them,” Infante said. It was common knowledge that a principal’s tenure in Baldwin Park was short, so it was not surprising that the accrediting team expressed concern about whether the school’s achievements could be sustained. “They told me that they were worried that the teachers’ leadership would fall apart when I left,” explained Infante. But she was confident that enough groundwork had been laid for the teachers to carry on without her if necessary. In its summary, the committee wrote: “Clearly, Baldwin Park High School has much to be proud of. Students appear eager to learn and the faculty is dedicated and eager to create a meaningful educational experience for its students.”11 As an official stamp of approval, the association gave the school the maximum six years of accreditation.
Many teachers shared the accrediting association’s concern about what would happen when Infante left. Some worried that the district might replace Infante with a more traditional leader who would erase the progress they had made. A leadership team member took me aside after a team meeting and said, “I hope that they’ll see the tremendous amount of time, energy and resources that went into this, and that we’ll get another like her, not a principal who will try to reinvent the wheel.”
In January 2006, Associate Superintendent Lynne Kennedy invited Sterling, Chernow and me to present the results to the Baldwin Park board of education. When we walked in, the meeting room was so packed that it was hard to find a chair. After we spoke, board President Sergio Corona commended the school for the remarkable results and praised UCLA for its guidance. Then he asked, “What should the board do with the school now?” Chernow politely replied that the board should take steps to protect the school from district interference and that it should find ways to spread the model to other schools. Though Corona and other board members nodded in apparent agreement, it would soon become clear that Chernow’s advice had fallen on deaf ears.
As many had feared, less than six months later, on July 1, 2006, the board and superintendent removed Infante. She was put in charge of the district’s music program and given the title principal at large. Infante said she was replaced because the district did not want other schools to follow in her footsteps. “They gave me credit when I was the principal, but it was clear that they didn’t want the model. If they had given me credit ... it would have given me too much power, and they didn’t think I was entitled to it. It’s basically the message, ‘Yeah you did good work but now your heydays are over.’ ” Skvarna said of the transfer: “Julie has a music background. She was a big band nut and we had a guy who retired. We put her in there and she loved the idea of doing that.” Though he tries to put a gloss on it, he clearly wanted a different leadership model and a principal who could deliver it.
No one I spoke with at the district had in fact understood what Infante had been doing since the day she was hired. Former board President Corona recalled that when Infante was being interviewed in 2002, he told her: “You’re an artist and this is your studio. Do it.” It was an odd comment coming from Corona, for he was clearly influenced by an industrial model of leadership. In an interview in 2006, before Infante had been removed, I asked Corona if he saw evidence of teacher leadership at the school. He replied, “I don’t have any data to indicate that there’s leadership going on there. ... I am results-oriented, so if the API scores are going in the right direction ... that tells me that the machinery is working.” He continued: “It’s like an engine. I don’t need to know if the spark plugs are clean or dirty. I don’t need to know how the belt is moving. If something goes wrong then I’ll look into it. ... If it is true, what Julie’s saying, that there’s leadership, all right. The bottom line should tell us that.”
Corona’s metaphor of the school as a machine brought to mind Charlie Chaplin’s classic film “Modern Times.” In it, his famous character, the Little Tramp, suffers a mental breakdown from being overworked on an assembly line. It is actually significant that Corona used industrial imagery to describe the school’s workings because public schools were formed in the image of early 20th century industry, from its command and control management to the assembly lines that produced the finished product. A mother who visited an early public school said that the long lines of children “looked to me like nothing so much as the lines of uncompleted Ford cars in the factory, moving always on, with a screw put in or a burr tightened as they pass—standardized, mechanical, pitiful.”12
But today, this century-old model is slowly becoming an anachronism in industry, because it hobbles companies in fast-changing business environments. It also has a debilitating human impact that turns workers, like the Little Tramp, into drones and alienates them from their jobs.13 But the image still exerts a paralyzing grip on the many schools that continue to be run like industrial assembly lines, with boards of education and superintendents telling principals and teachers how to mass-produce educated children. Infante’s transformation of Baldwin Park High presented an opportunity for the district’s leaders to break away from worn-out ideas and support a significant and promising innovation that could have put them on the map. Infante had put the model right under their noses. But their fixation on being in control and bottom-line-oriented, without interest in how results are produced, led the board and superintendent to make profoundly wrong decisions.
From the perspective of the board and superintendent, that was not the case. They in fact argue that they deserve most of the credit for creating conditions in which the school could be rehabilitated. Skvarna, who speaks of himself as a tough and unconventional thinker, claimed he had to clean house before Infante came. “There was a cadre over there,” he explained to me in an interview in February 2006. “There was a couple of coaches and they ran the school and this one guy had been there since God came looking for his tennis shoes. And we fired him ... and we took him down. ... That place needed to be torpedoed.” He also said he took a hard line with the union and that because he had a military background he drew criticism. Skvarna described how union leaders said: “ ‘Here comes this military guy. He’s never been in the classroom. You know he’s not wanting to sit around and say Kumbaya.’ ” Skvarna continued, “I’m not really interested in hugging kids,” and said he sidestepped conflict with the union by providing teachers with hefty raises.
Corona’s replacement as school board president, Jack White—a World War II paratrooper, retired LAPD commander and former Baldwin Park mayor—agreed with Skvarna that the board deserves most of the credit for the district’s success. White explained in an interview at the district office in July 2007 that the board was tired of the school’s long history of failure and that it took a “new look at everything, a new emphasis.” Skvarna said that success was not confined to Baldwin Park High School and was common across the district. “You find that everywhere. We have got three or four schools this year right on the heels of 800 API.”
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