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Minnesota District Looks to Business for Tips on Productivity

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Teachers could increase their productivity by 50 percent if the obstacles that they believe impede their effectiveness were removed, according to results of a new survey of teachers in a Minnesota district.

Independent School District 112, located in Chaska, a suburb of Minneapolis, has embarked on an unusual self-assessment to identify how resources could be better allocated to improve student performance without spending more money.

To do so, the 3,400-student district is resorting to methods that are common to big business but virtually unknown in the public sector. It is drawing on the expertise of Tor Dahl and Associates, Minnesota-based consultants that have conducted more than 300 productivity assessments and workshops for Fortune 500 companies.

The effort to introduce business concepts into the public schools is one of the first such nationwide.

In its report A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy argued that, unless schools become more efficient--in part, by adopting techniques from the private sector--they will be unable to produce the kinds of workers needed in the decades ahead.

"It was a decision on our part to be 'proactive' to the reform reports--to take the position that there probably are ways that we could do a better job with our current resources,'' said Carol J. Ericson, the district's superintendent.

"We want to play a part in shaping our future,'' she added, "instead of having it shaped for us.''

The efforts under way in Chaska have also attracted the attention of Ruth Randall, the state commissioner of education, who said she would work to encourage similar studies in a rural and an urban district.

Teachers Playing Major Role

Mr. Dahl is a proponent of a relatively new, and increasingly popular, school of thought that holds that efforts to improve productivity should be designed and implemented by those whose performance is targeted for enhancement.

In the case of Chaska, the firm's first experience with a public educational institution, that means the district's teachers are playing the major role in both identifying obstacles to productivity increases and suggesting ways that they could be removed.

The point, Mr. Dahl said, is that, "when you conduct your own evaluation, you are going to be harder on yourself than I would ever dare to be from the outside.''

In April, the district's 210 teachers were surveyed with a questionnaire that had been developed from interviews with 20 of the district's most highly regarded teachers.

For Mr. Dahl, the interviews proved to be "far more exciting and interesting'' than those he normally conducts with business executives.

During the sessions, he said, he identified two characteristics of teachers that would be unusual in the private sector. First, he said, "teachers are enormously adept in terms of verbal expression, compared to business executives.''

And second, he added, there is "endless variety in how a good teacher operates,'' while in business there is generally one accepted way of accomplishing a task.

Morale, Pride Are Critical

The survey found that teachers believe that the most critical factors in the success of a school are the quality of its personnel, and the sense of morale and pride under which they operate.

The greatest obstacle to productivity, the teachers said, is the amount of time that they are forced to devote to non-teaching tasks. Next, in order of importance, they listed inappropriate class size, inadequate planning time, discipline demands, and problems posed by students' family situations.

The district will examine each obstacle with an eye to developing solutions, Ms. Ericson said.

For example, she said, the district might use teacher interns and clerical aides to reduce the burden of non-teaching tasks, or it might make some classes larger and some smaller.

For Mr. Dahl, one of the most astonishing findings was that teachers did not have their own offices or telephones.

"These things are so inexpensive they are ludicrous,'' he said, noting that no industry outside education could survive if it hampered the function of its professionals by refusing to provide such resources.

Noting that education is similar to other service industries in the proportion of its costs that go to salaries and supplies, Mr. Dahl said there must be a way to ensure that teachers have adequate supplies and satisfactory working conditions without straining existing resources.

District officials are currently seeking grants to pay for workshops in which teachers would be trained to identify steps they could take to improve their productivity. Teachers would develop individualized productivity plans, and would then be responsible for carrying them out.

The district would also develop a plan for performance improvement, addressing those issues that cannot be solved by an individual teacher or student.

When problems involving more than one segment of the school community are identified, the people affected would identify their concerns to "problem-resolution teams,'' which would develop plans and propose solutions to whoever is empowered to act on them.

"It is our experience that few problems can be resolved through administrative fiat,'' Mr. Dahl said. "Most organizational issues will require involvement, participation, and eventual 'buy-in' by all of the affected parties.''

Added Ms. Ericson, "Our goal is to make sure that the teaching-learning act is the most effective it can possibly be.''

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