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Schools and the System

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Throughout the country there are subtle signs that the barriers that have traditionally been erected between schools and the rest of the community are slowly, tentatively, and uncertainly being broken down. Faced with the reality that the U.S. educational system is producing graduates who cannot compete adequately with graduates of other industrialized nations' educational systems, school officials, business leaders, local officials, and other interested parties have begun attempts to work together, rather than independently. In doing the work of systemic reform, these leaders have begun the long-term and difficult process of truly reforming education.

By systemic reform, I mean reform that starts with changing teaching methods, progresses through reconfiguring daily and annual calendars, and restructures schools. It has become increasingly clear that schools need to rethink their internal organization as well as the way they relate to "external" constituencies, such as parents, businesses, and civic and health-care organizations. Radical reform attacks the attitude of complacency about "my school" and "my kid's" learning that is so pervasive in our society with the deeper knowledge that unless our schools do change, potentially in ways that make them unrecognizable to those of us educated in traditional schools, we will continue to fail our children.

Examples of this new collaborative approach to school reform exist around the country:

In Connecticut, 30 businesses joined together in the Connecticut Business for Education Coalition to advocate fundamental school reform by working with all key stakeholders on legislative school-reform and -restructuring initiatives.
In Kentucky, confronted with the fairly radical Kentucky Education Reform Act, a nonpartisan group of business, community, government, and education leaders has formed the Partnership for Kentucky School Reform in an effort to improve the quality of education. This group is working through a major information campaign combined with a variety of other initiatives aimed at bringing educators closer to other stakeholders, such as parents, community members, and business.
In the poverty-ridden, geographically and ethnically diverse Los Angeles Unified School District, educators, business leaders, presidents of the local teachers' union and other school unions, and community representatives have joined together to effect school reform through the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now (learn).

One thing characterizes all of these initiatives: They all involve collaboration among groups that seldom work together, collaboration around the central goal of improving education for our children. As we all are aware at some level, people in the United States are notoriously individualistic, preferring independent action to collaboration. Yet these groups struggle to work together, despite the struggle, because they recognize the critical importance to all of us of improving education for our children. The central fact is that reforming schools is such a complex and difficult problem that it cannot be successfully tackled by one group acting alone.

Still, despite the crisis rhetoric of the past decade and more, we as a nation have only begun to recognize that our schools are in trouble, that schools need radical, systemic reform, not the incremental, tinkering-at-the-margins approaches that have been tried to date. From those communities and states that have begun to address issues of systemic reform we can learn a few important lessons. One is that there is indeed no quick fix to the education problem. Systemic reform is difficult, costly, politically charged, and arguably absolutely necessary to insure an adequately educated citizenry in the highly competitive, resource-constrained, knowledge-based society we will face in the future. It takes time to change organizations, effort and education to change attitudes, and hard work to bring people together for concerted action.

Effecting systemic reform requires that school officials reach out into the community to draw in previously excluded stakeholders, particularly parents, but also businesses, health-care organizations, and other civic and community organizations. It requires that these "external" constituencies reach out to schools with offers of working together, not unwanted help. If schools are to educate children, then we must all agree on that central task and allocate responsibilities for parenting, socialization, civic-mindedness, and health care to other appropriate stakeholders. This reshuffling of responsibility can only take place if all of these stakeholders are in constant, ongoing, and intensely involving communication with each other, working together for the sake of the children.

Another lesson is that if we put children and their learning first, it will be a whole lot easier for us to bring the necessary parties together and develop nonpartisan goals on which those parties can agree. As families continue to change and break apart, and as those families that remain intact face continued stress to maintain economic parity, we need as a society to consider how to rebuild the community infrastructures that have failed us, our schools, and our children in the past 30 to 40 years.

Few of us now live in neighborhoods where we know all of our neighbors. Even when we do, most of us are working between 35 and 50 hours a week and have little time to build community life. All of these factors, and many more, constrain the key element that children need to be supported as learners: adult attention. If we, whether we are parents, businesspeople, or simply concerned citizens, are to help schools become the learning organizations that they need to become, we need to work with them, not against them.

Conversely, schools also need to be willing to work with us. The lesson: We all need to change. To take one example, businesses may need to develop new family-friendly policies that permit parents the opportunity to work with schools for the sake of their children, and they may need to develop school-to-work transition programs that actually train students for the jobs that exist and show them what the world of work looks like. But schools also need to be receptive to these efforts when businesses are ready to make them, reaching out to business leaders, working together and recognizing that solid education can, in fact, take place outside the traditional classroom.

The problem of schools is systemic. It will take hard work, money, political will and courage, and a great deal of imagination to rebuild our schools and the community infrastructure that surrounds them. No less is called for. No less is necessary.

Sandra A. Waddock is an associate professor of management at Boston College's Carroll School of Management. She is author of the just-published book Not By Schools Alone (Praeger, 1995) and of the recently issued Conference Board report "Business and Education Reform: The Fourth Wave," both of which provide more details on collaborative initiatives in education reform.

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