Focus On The Classroom If You Want School Reform

Tom Peters

Last week we examined the seeming conspiracy to prevent learning in the classrooms of our decrepit K-12 school system. Now let's train our sights on administrators and schools.

Get administrators off the backs of principals and teachers. Administrative obesity caused corporate cardiac arrest. It's done the same thing to our schools. A staff of 6,000 oversees the New York City public school system. The more effective New York City Catholic school system, however teaches about one-quarter as many students and has an administrative staff of 25!

Shrink school size. Pioneering New York City high school principal Deborah Meier says that only smaller schools will permit effective teacher empowerment, engender trust that comes from knowing one another and enable faculty to nip bad behavior in the bud. Replace industry-inspired memorizing factories (the big school idea was swiped from Ford) with schools of less than 250 students. We need not torch larger schools: In East Harlem, 51 autonomous schools are nested in 19 former big-school facilities.

Focus on the classroom. Wise corporate chiefs are belatedly aiming their efforts to improve innovation, quality, and service directly at the front line. We need an analogous, unmistakable thrust in our schools.

Eliminate distractions. Public address systems, constant assemblies, and other disruptions destroy the rhythm of already brief class periods. Let schools exude respect for learning, rather than mimicking LA freeways at rush hour.

Encourage principals to be educators, not administrators. "Principal" is shorthand for principal teacher. Each should be an expert coach at making learning happen, and essentially nothing more. Great principals deserve pay far exceeding that of their administrative "betters."

Involve faculty in all aspects of running the school. Pioneering Winchester, N.H., principal Dennis Littky worked with teachers for more than a year to develop a school philosophy statement. The faculty develops the school's day-to-day approach to education, encouraged by Littky. Engaged and respected teachers, like engaged and respected workers in industry, are more creative, energetic, and responsible.

De-emphasize lesson plans and prescribed "coverage." I advocate planning. But when plans about plans mandated by the school district superstructure snuff flexibility (e.g., teacher lesson-plan requirements), then disaster looms. As to "coverage"—c'mon, what does learning have to do with an edict to spend 63 minutes on the Civil War. Treat teachers as adults!

Trust the teachers. We haven't trusted workers—that egg has now hatched. We haven't trusted teachers, an egg that's also hatched. The good news: When we have trusted our workers of late, we have found that 95 percent are ready and waiting to answer the call. The same will be true for our teachers, if we can resist giving in to the school reform movement's wrong-headed teacher certification mania.

Honor our teachers. I collapse after giving a seminar. I cannot imagine the exhaustion of a teacher—"on stage" for six or more hours a day, dealing with 100 or so unique cases of individual development. Teachers deserve the nation's greatest respect and adulation—certainly not its all too common disinterest and even contempt.

Weed out teachers with a high need for control. Support those who see learning as intrinsically motivated exploration by the student. Rigid teachers with a high need to be "in charge" perform marginally in the classroom (like yesterday's Simon Legree supervisors in the plant).

Don't expect technology to save us. The best computer-based instructional technologies emphasize engagement, positive reinforcement, self-paced learning and relevant symbology. That helps. But a jillion multimedia computers with user-friendly software will aid the American education system about as much as GM's desperate investment in high-tech manufacturing aided its market share. The incipient classroom technology fetish distracts from core issues.

Read Sizer. Brown University Professor Ted Sizer's 1985 book, Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School, should be required reading for anyone interested in rejuvenating our schools. Warning: You'll find no quick fixes.

Beware the businessman bearing gifts. I'm delighted that business leaders are taking a greater interest in education. But I fear their simple solutions. Most cotton to the market idea (choice of schools) in education; so do I, but it's one tool among many. Another troublesome example: Former IBM education boss Jack Bowsher's book, Educating America, touts centrally mandated methodologies and class-by-class cost-benefit analyses. Heaven protect us.

These guides only approach a remedy. Each is achievable, as our best school leaders and teachers prove daily. Yet there's no easy-to-start-tomorrow first step. Quick-fix potions diverted corporate America from its mission of renewal for many years. Now they're doing the same to our crisis-torn schools.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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