Published Online: May 14, 1997

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Common Understandings

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Phillip C. Schlechty, an educator best known for creating innovative professional-development programs, has written a book that focuses school leaders' attention and energy on their primary task in changing the schools: changing the hearts and minds of all the people who have a stake in their operation. In Inventing Better Schools, he proposes a plan of attack for parents, teachers, school administrators, and community leaders that relies heavily on attaining a radical shift in thinking about rules, roles, and relationships.

In the excerpt below, Mr. Schlechty, the president of the Louisville, Ky.-based Center for Leadership in School Reform, builds the case for a new brand of consensus-building that neither "bubbles up from the bottom" nor imposes itself from the top:

If real change is to occur in our schools, top-level leaders, including board members, the superintendent, principals, key central-office leaders, and union leaders must be willing and able to spend enough time together and engage in enough dialogue and analysis that they come to share a general understanding about the educational landscape, both locally and nationally. They must also share a common understanding of the problems they face, and they must learn to frame these problems in common ways: For example, top-level leaders need to have a clear understanding of how the present performance of schools in general and the schools in their district in particular compares to the performance of schools in the past. Is the dropout rate really higher today than in the past? Has student performance deteriorated? Or is the source of dissatisfaction with schools a result of a change in expectations? Such serious matters cannot be addressed as an afterthought or an add-on.

Leading through consensus is the best—and toughest—test of leadership.

Educational leaders must also come to a common understanding of what they believe about school and life in schools, and this activity, too, requires commitment and resources. At a minimum, educational leaders must develop a consensus around answers to questions such as the following:

  • What is the purpose of education? For example, is it to select and sort students on the basis of their capacity to do particular forms of schoolwork, or is it to develop the capacity of students to do high-quality work?
  • Do all students have the ability to learn more than they are now learning in school? Is it realistic to expect all students to meet high academic standards, or are many students incapable of learning enough to meet high academic standards?
  • What are the primary determinants of opportunities to learn? For example, when variance in student learning is observed, how is it explained? Does the preferred explanation--the one most commonly advanced in the group--have to do with qualities beyond the control of the schools, such as family background or inherent ability, or does it fasten on factors under the control of schools, such as the quality and characteristics of the academic work students are provided?
  • What assumptions are made about the kind of society students should be prepared to live in, and what assumptions are made about the life chances of students presently in the schools? Is it assumed, for example, that schools have some obligation to prepare students to live in a democratic, multiethnic society, or are such matters not of concern to the schools? Is it assumed that schools should encourage students to aspire to high-status positions, or is it assumed that such an orientation will simply lead to disappointment for most students?
  • What is the role of the family and the community in relation to students and schools? For example, is the family viewed as a true partner in the education of children, or is it seen more as a supporter of whatever the school prescribes? Is the focus of the community and community agencies on providing support for schools, or does it also focus on providing support for all children? Should the school be viewed simply as an educational agency and school leaders as primarily educational leaders, or is it assumed that schools should also be positioned as community agencies and that educational leaders should be both community leaders and educational leaders?
  • What should be the primary focus of schools? For example, should the focus be on students and their needs or on the needs of business and the larger community? If the answer is "both" or "all," how should priorities be determined?
  • How should schools be structured? For example, should the rules, roles, and relationships that shape behavior in schools be designed on the assumption that what teachers do and how they perform is the critical determinant of the quality of school life, or is it more appropriate to focus on what students do and how they perform? Should teachers be viewed as leaders, facilitators, and coaches, or should they be perceived primarily as organizers and transmitters of information and evaluators of student performance? How should the schools be governed and by whom?
  • What obligations does the system have to employees, and what obligations does it expect employees to assume? For example, when changes require training, who is responsible for providing the training and under what conditions?

I have suggested in Inventing Better Schools the direction in which I would push debates to determine beliefs about schools and a vision of schools if I were involved in those discussions. Whether or not the reader agrees with the substance of the belief structure I would create is not important. What is important is that those who would lead a reform effort in schools need to have some fairly well-worked-out answers to the questions listed above, answers they can articulate and defend.

Discussions about matters as important as the beliefs that will guide the direction of schools require all the leadership that can be mustered in any group.

A contrary view holds that such beliefs should bubble up from the bottom and that group processes should be employed to ensure that this happens. My experience has been less than satisfying when I have participated in, and sometimes led, such processes. Too often, if we seek consensus on beliefs from the group without someone setting forth in clear terms a set of beliefs to focus on or beginning the argument with discussions, the process yields little more than a set of pious statements and platitudes. What is needed from these discussions are statements that can be used to evaluate and direct action.

I hope that those who think it is top-down and nonparticipatory to focus initially on top-level leaders and leaders who are largely within the system will consider the following points before judging too harshly:

  • Arguments comparing bottom-up to top-down management are no more valid than arguments about centralization vs. decentralization. The latter argument is not usefully discussed as an either/or question; it is a both/and question, concerning what should be centralized, what should be decentralized, and what should be left alone. Similarly, the top-down/bottom-up argument is not an either/or question. Legitimate roles exist for both the "top" and the "bottom."
  • One of the obligations of people in top-level positions is to lead. They are required by their roles to do so, and if they do not, the group may have no leadership. People in positions of less authority are not required to lead, though they may do so and thoughtful people with authority may encourage them to do so.
  • Discussions about matters as important as the beliefs that will guide the direction of schools require all the leadership that can be mustered in any group. It makes little difference if the leadership comes from the top, the bottom, the middle, or the side, but it must come from somewhere. If those at the top are not prepared to provide leadership or to respond in a constructive and inviting manner to leadership by others when it is offered, the needed discussions may have little prospect of occurring.
  • Top-level leaders prepare themselves to offer such leadership by thinking through and rehearsing the answers they will offer or nominate should the group not be prepared to do so. Further, they must be in agreement among themselves regarding what they believe; otherwise, they are in a poor position to lead others to a consensus on any set of beliefs.
  • Democratic leaders are not without ideas and commitments of their own that they are prepared to advance, defend, and argue for, but when they are in positions of authority, they renounce the right to exercise that authority unless they are empowered by the group to use it on behalf of beliefs endorsed by the group. Those who use authority to impose their will regardless of the sentiment of their followers are authoritarians; those who use positions of authority to insert their beliefs and proposals into the dialogue are strong leaders.

The important point is that someone, somewhere, must frame the initial argument. In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, for example, the original focus for the discussion was provided by a set of nine propositions advanced by one set of delegates. Later, as the focused discussion became more heated and less civil, other groups formulated alternative resolutions and alternative plans. It was out of this dialogue, which started in someone's head, that the greatest consensus document known in human history was created. It would not have happened without the presence of leaders who knew what they believed and were willing to speak those beliefs and who were also willing to listen to others who disagreed with them.

Leaders must ensure that everyone participating in the discussion understands what it is about and what its intended result is to be. The result in the case of the discussion of beliefs that should guide schools must be a well-articulated belief structure, that is, a publicly communicated (and communicable) set of statements and propositions that is complete, comprehensible, and compelling and that if endorsed by parents and other relevant constituencies could serve as a guide for all district operations.


Reprinted with permission from Inventing Better Schools: An Action Plan for Educational Reform, by Phillip C. Schlechty. Copyright 1997 Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.

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