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Liberating the Schoolhouse
Posted on Apr 30, 2008
What will break this addiction to control? Collaborative models of leadership seem to be everywhere but the schools. Pick up any book on innovation in companies and you will find teamwork at the center. For decades, companies like Hewlett-Packard have been experimenting with self-managing teams, and New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI, a GM-Toyota joint venture) implemented the now-famous Toyota Production System, which in the 1990s led to a revolution in the design of productive organizations. Fairtlough describes new complex systems of which British Petroleum and W.L. Gore & Associates (makers of Gor-Tex) are examples. In their book “Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything,” authors Dan Tapscott and Anthony Williams provide other models based on collaboration and self-organization.16 The list includes established industrial firms such as Boeing, Procter & Gamble and BMW, plus a host of new companies like MySpace and the Human Genome Project, all of which are moving away from hierarchical control.
An important feature these models have in common, and which could be seen in the making at Baldwin Park High School, is that control is distributed, allowing teams to manage themselves, as the English coal miners did more than half a century ago. As employees take responsibility for decision-making, they develop an authentic authority, meaning the kind of authority that comes from knowing something well and having control over one’s working conditions. When individuals begin to develop this kind of authority, they are less likely to project it onto others because they already possess it, and they are more likely to become independent in their thoughts and actions.
At Baldwin Park High School, teachers acted on their newfound authority and brought students into the learning process. They discovered that when they engaged students with interesting lessons, discipline problems disappeared and test scores went up. Yet, many schools persist with the “skill and drill” style of instruction, in which students are treated as empty vessels that need to be filled with information. The value of collaboration was a cornerstone of the thinking of educational philosophers John Dewey and Paulo Freire.17 They noted that when teachers and students develop their own authority, they become more informed and active citizens who are less willing to be cowed by those who wield just institutional authority.
Though the window for innovation was open at Baldwin Park for a few years, it has now been shut. The last time I saw Infante, in October 2007, she was still running the district’s music department. It is housed in what appears to have been a storehouse next to the railroad tracks about a quarter-mile from the district headquarters. She took me to her windowless office through rooms cluttered with trombones, pianos and accordions. She sat back in her chair, rolling her eyes at her surroundings. “Somebody has to manage this department,” she said. “But, it doesn’t build on what I know.” Infante was still unhappy about her title, principal at large, because it meant a principal without a home. She asked the superintendent repeatedly to change her title to director, a title more in line with that of other former principals. “It’s just not a high priority item for [Skvarna],” she said. “But it sends a big message to me that they just don’t care.”
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The last meeting of the leadership team that I observed was in the spring of 2007. Cruz was running the meeting from a seat in the corner of the room as two teachers wrote on the board, taking cues from him. The teachers were not so dispirited as they had been at the beginning of this story, folding their arms and staring at the floor, but the lively banter and chaos of collective leadership was gone. The meeting was orderly and people spoke one at a time as they covered one by one the points in the principal’s agenda. They discussed a new district mandate that the school be reorganized according to the newest educational fad, “small learning communities.”
As I talked with some of the teachers over lunch, it was clear that they know something important has been lost. “No one ever asked us about the small learning communities,” one of the original leadership team members said. “We used to make these decisions, but all of a sudden this came, ‘boom,’ out of the blue, with a huge push. ‘Get on board or else go find another job.’ The tools we learned from UCLA—running meetings, walkthroughs, and Critical Friends—they’re just sitting over there on the side not being used.” Another leadership team member complained, “No one knows what’s going on except the principal.” Other teachers agreed that information was tightly held. One said, “It’s like an amoeba, we’re going in all directions but I don’t know where we’re headed.” Another said wistfully, “The community has broken down. We don’t run the meetings anymore, and I really miss the common meeting time.”
Making a clean sweep of it, in March 2008 the superintendent fired Infante from the district, citing budget problems. Infante remained philosophical saying, “You know how hard it was at first to move the school forward. But once the teachers began to take control you could feel the excitement. It’s so sad to see that all of it could be destroyed in a year and a half.”
I was saddened listening to Sterling’s account. “In 2003, when the teachers began to feel empowered, there were strong voices on the faculty,” he recalled. “Each of us believed that every one of our kids could succeed. The school was on its way to ingraining this idea. Imagine how it could have been if we’d had another six or seven years to make it really solid. We were on the verge of something great. It’s too bad.” As we concluded the interview, Sterling turned philosophical, remembering what a huge change the teachers went through and the “monumental” impact the experience had on him. “When I’m a principal, I’ll be 180 degrees different from the others. I will empower the teachers.”
But will he ever get the chance? In the minds of today’s top educational administrators, exerting control over others is justified as a way of keeping order and discipline, and because they are ultimately held accountable. But one has only to witness the expensive buyouts of superintendents’ contracts to realize that failure is also rewarded. Those with ambitions to reach the top are usually gifted in using institutional power to achieve their ends. Once promoted to the upper levels, these ambitious and skilled individuals who have already been socialized to the institution’s norms feel entitled to what they have achieved. They also benefit from the substantial rewards that come with being at the top—money and power—and they do not share it easily. Each of us—citizens and educators alike—is going to have to break our obedience to centralized control or doom the public schools to Sisyphus-style reforms, repeating the same mistakes over and over, because the reforms never last. No progress can be made so long as we remain blind to the suffocating effects of centralized power.
If we are lucky, some of us have memories of education at its best. Mine is from a two-room schoolhouse in northern Wisconsin where the teacher taught us from experience—catching fish and studying their habits, measuring the sun’s path through the school’s windows, planting trees and learning the difference between White and Norwegian pines. Those memories have guided me through 30 years as a professor of education at UCLA, hoping that public education could live up to its promise. But now I have to face the rather bleak assessment that centralized power oppresses the very qualities that ignite innovation and learning. What are the alternatives? In a 2003 interview with Charlie Rose, Norman Mailer offered a chilling one. Mailer says that democracy cannot be injected into a society that is not ready for it, adding, “I think the natural state of government for most people is fascism.” Asked why, he replied, “because it is easier.”18
I remain more hopeful. The urge to control seems written into our DNA, but we do not have to be its hostage. The Baldwin Park case is a reminder of a more promising way. It shows how much progress can be made in a short time—and how quickly it can be erased if it is not understood. We need to take back authority for ourselves so that we can see and name the collaborative model of leadership that Infante and the teachers created. Only then can it take its place as an alternative to central control. It will take more than rhetoric trumpeted by the media, politicians and schools of education to do it. It will take nothing less than changing our minds.
The author wishes to thank Centrum, at Port Townsend, Wash., for providing an artist residency, where he wrote the initial draft of this paper, and Susan Suntree for her guidance. This paper will also be available as a printed publication from the British publisher Triarchy Press on May 30th 2008.
1Jonathan Kozol, “Jonathan Kozol Blows No Child Left Behind Out of the Water,” Underviews, http://prorev.com/2007/09/jonathan-kozol-blows-no-child-left.html (Sept. 10, 2007).
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