May 24, 2013
Liberating the Schoolhouse
Posted on Apr 30, 2008
In fact, academic achievement dropped districtwide in 2007, and the state put the entire district on the equivalent of academic probation. The facts also show that no school in the district made the same progress as Baldwin Park High School in that same period. Certainly, none of them had been restructured in the same way either. Just a year earlier, Skvarna and his top assistant had told me of their plans to promote the district to attract national attention. Associate Superintendent Kennedy, whom Skvarna said he was grooming to take over, said proudly, “Our goal is to be on the front cover of Time or on “60 Minutes.” They’re going to notice what’s going on here in Baldwin Park.” Skvarna said that he had been meeting with the Gates Foundation and that he had been invited to talk with “big shots” at the New School Venture Fund, adding that he had spoken with people from the Harvard Business School. “You know,” he said, “That’s quite a compliment. We’re a hell of a long way away from Harvard.”
The irony was inescapable. Infante and the teachers had provided the superintendent and board with an educational model that would have put them on the map. Instead, they removed her and took control of the school, declaring victory for the whole district, only to be threatened with a state takeover if the district didn’t improve. I wondered why the district leaders could not see what seemed so obvious. The evidence I saw pointed to the fact that neither the board nor the district office staff grasped or valued what Infante had achieved. They were so convinced of the correctness of their own belief about leadership—a hierarchical model that was diametrically opposed to hers—that no other idea registered with them.
After Infante’s removal in 2006, I met with Skvarna in his office. He explained how he thought Infante had led the school. “How did she do it?” he asked. “Did she get behind them and go like this?” he asked, pushing upward with his hands. “No. She got in front and led them.” He added, “Julie built the foundation and we’re going to build on it and not destroy it.” But after Infante was removed, it became clear that they meant to build something quite different than that which she and the teachers had created.
In his new book, “The Three Ways of Getting Things Done,” the late biochemist and former CEO of Shell Chemicals Gerard Fairtlough argues that top-down control dominates our thinking about management because of the widespread belief that it is the only guarantee of discipline and order.14 The belief is so deeply etched in the Western psyche that all other possibilities are occluded. Fairtlough could have been writing about Baldwin Park High School as he describes how centralized control makes it impossible to sustain change because the only learning that takes place is at the top of the organization and everyone else simply follows orders. For the district leadership to consider that power could flow in the opposite direction, up from the ranks of the teachers, was simply unimaginable. But witnessing how the teachers led the Baldwin Park High School turnaround is forceful evidence of Fairtlough’s admonition: “The identification of discipline with hierarchy is a mistake—a dangerous mistake. Actually, it’s the professionalism of the work force that matters.”
But Infante had done much more than just cheerleading. She had turned the management pyramid on its head and taught the teachers how to take control. The school was not a machine that ground out results, but an uncommonly productive web of human relationships that had emerged from Infante’s vision and courage. 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.
Though the board’s policies were ostensibly for “the kids,” in Corona’s words, in effect they served to tighten control of the schools. Kennedy says that board policy had eliminated barriers between the district office and the schools and removed unnecessary employees. While these changes no doubt helped streamline operations, it also had the effect of centralizing power in the superintendent’s office. In February 2006, when I interviewed Skvarna and Kennedy together in the district office, Kennedy described her vision of leadership as Skvarna nodded approvingly: “It’s the school site that’s important. We have to make sure we go from good to great [a reference to a popular business book that has been adopted by many educators]. You get the right people on the bus and get them in the right seat.” As Kennedy continued there was little doubt where the decision-making power lay. She said as though speaking to a principal, “Yes, we’ll support you because we’re going to expect a lot, but on the other hand we’re going to hold you accountable for doing these things. We’re going to walk you through them and be there with you, but it has to happen. Those are the non-negotiables.”
Both Skvarna and White attribute much of their professional success to their military training. White says, “I go back to the chain of command and a principle called Unity of Command. That means you should have only one boss ... you see it very clearly in the military.” For two years, Skvarna had taken the district’s principals, what he calls his “leadership team,” to the Army War College, where they analyzed the Civil War battle at Gettysburg. Skvarna says, “I want them to realize that regardless of whatever the situation they will run into, what’s going to get them through is leadership.”
At one point, I asked the superintendent what kind of leader he hoped to find to replace Infante. “I’m looking for someone who can dance ... multitask. Somebody that’s going to have an excellent attitude,” he replied. “Not somebody who is going to give me a bunch of fluff. ... Education is just full of bullshit and the current fad of the week. None of this [his approach] is fad-based. It’s just good solid leadership from the board right on down the line.”
The man selected to replace Infante, Luis Cruz, a 38-year-old former Baldwin Park middle school principal, is considered a rising star in the district. He dresses stylishly and has close-cropped hair and a look of a quick intelligence. Most of the teachers I talked with like him and seem drawn to his magnetic personality. One teacher said: “He’s a hands-on person. He’s a motivational speaker and he runs our meetings.” Another teacher described the new principal as a “natural talent and a good communicator.” The superintendent described him as “either a Ph.D. or near a Ph.D., bilingual and bicultural. He’s a real believer in the system.” Indeed, Cruz appeared to be a good fit for the system in which he now had to succeed.
When I interviewed him at the end of his first year in 2007, Cruz explained that his plans for his second year had taken shape. “I’m not a top-down administrator-leader,” he said. “I believe in leadership being distributed and shared.” But he then proceeded to make it clear that it was he who was going to set the goals for the school. Despite his disavowal of top-down leadership, his praise for Infante and the leadership team’s progress, it became obvious that he, like Skvarna, was operating from a command-and-control position.
I wanted to find out what the original leadership team members thought about the changes, so I attended an offsite meeting of the school in March 2007 and then began interviewing a number of the teachers. In one interview, a teacher said he liked the new principal and praised his political skill. But he added, “He appears to be democratic, but he gets input from the teachers to make his decisions seem legitimate, to lessen the opposition.” Another teacher who also says she likes the new principal, told me, “I’m sure he has the best intentions and thinks he’s doing distributed leadership, but it’s not the way I learned it. Now we find out what we’re to do from our boss, or a few small committees. He already has the decisions made. He’ll come up with an idea and says, ‘This is what I think would be great. What do you think?’ ” When we spoke in 2007, Cruz was certain about his goals for the coming year: to increase the number of students with sufficient credit to graduate on time, to improve instruction and to get more parents involved. To these ends, he said, he had reorganized the leadership of the school. The old leadership team was now the “assembly,” the department chairs the “senate,” and the administration the “executive branch.”
According to some teachers, the new principal uses his authority to keep control. “The new principal is regarded by the district as their ‘fair-haired boy’ and he has a lot of power,” one told me. “People know he’s tough and doesn’t lose a fight once he’s in it. No one will cross him. The teachers are intimidated. And as they feel more powerless they stop caring. They stop thinking about the kids and pay more attention to their own positions.” But other teachers say they like the fact that Cruz has relieved them of much of the work they had to do as members of the leadership team. One said, “When Julie was principal, my job was a lot harder, but Luis has taken a lot of pressure off us. We’re not up front running the meetings anymore and we have less responsibility, but when you’re teaching six or seven periods a day, it’s a lot to do.”
By the summer of 2007, a few teachers saw that the new principal’s charismatic personality and his take-charge style had begun to erode the teachers’ decision-making. One teacher elaborated, “He’s divided the teachers and seized control.” Another said, “No one seems to notice because the principal runs a tight ship. Every kid has an ID and gets checked at the gate. Kids on passes wear orange vests so you can see them right away. Things look shipshape, but the effect has been to make the teachers docile.”
One of Cruz’s initiatives for the 2007-2008 school year, he says, is to improve the school’s core instruction. Just after he took over, he discontinued the UCLA contract because coaching the teachers was not part of his new vision. He described to me a movie he had made of children talking about good teaching. He said he was going to present it to the teachers, “to show them what can be done.” And he plans to go further with his supervision of instruction. “We’re going to come up with a rubric—what’s good classroom management? We’re going to share it with the teachers and then hold them accountable. Like when you join a gym, you get a trainer. We’ve hired two instructional coaches. I don’t want the teachers to think that these coaches are spies or reporting to me on their teaching. I don’t care about that. But my administrators and I are going to spend 60 to 70 percent of our time in the classrooms. What I want to see is ‘does the teaching improve?’ This is our job, the executive branch’s job.”
When it came to discussing the meteoric rise in the school’s API scores before he took over, Cruz revealed a certain political savvy, showing that he could “dance” as the superintendent wanted. In 2007 the school registered a modest 15-point increase in its API, making it clear that the days of near triple-digit gains had ended. Cruz was dismissive, on one hand, of the API, saying he doesn’t give it a “heavenly focus” because it measures only part of what children learn. But on the other, he said, it helps to keep the board out of his business. “It has a political use,” he said. “If the scores are up, people say ‘there’s something right happening there.’ ” But if the API scores drop, he said, the board would be “down here saying ‘what’s going on?’ ”
The reversal of the school’s direction was taking place out of sight, obscured by the din of life in a big high school and the skill of a control-minded principal with a disarming personality. Just as the changes that liberated the school in 2003 and set it on a new course came quietly, as though there had been a “secret takeover,” the new administrative control is taking root without much notice. Each step the new principal has taken is in the direction of substituting the teachers’ leadership and authority with his own. Writing about individuals coming to “self-hood,” psychologist C.G. Jung explains how the substitution of authority can artificially inflate a leader’s authority while creating dependency among followers.15 Jung writes about the “mana personality,” the ancient image of what he calls “a wise man” whose authentic authority we desire for ourselves. But because such authority lies beyond our consciousness, we project it onto others instead of finding it in ourselves. These projections, says Jung, are the making of heroes and “the godlike being,” and they often land on superiors, particularly charismatic ones, imbuing them with authority beyond that which they actually possess.
These unconscious projections can become problematic, as in the case of Baldwin Park, where the board, superintendent and principal apparently intend to hold power over the teachers because they operate invisibly, outside of conscious control. Once the institutional authority of the district and principal are fully re-established, the dependency of the teachers will again become an accepted way of life. Leading the school from the bottom up, as Infante did, will be all but impossible.
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