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The Five C's

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On June 30, my company brought its contract to lead the Minneapolis schools to a successful conclusion. This was the longest and most successful agreement in the nation between a private firm and a public school board to lead a district. After 52 months and several unique pay-for-performance contracts, we completed our central task of turning the district's performance around. Now the Minneapolis school board and the Public Strategies Group Inc. have also successfully completed a planned transition in leadership.

This experience has left us proud and optimistic about the future of urban education. During our four-plus years of serving the children in Minneapolis, the district made remarkable strides in a number of areas. We, in turn, learned some profound lessons about schools, change, and leadership. These were perhaps best summarized by a 2nd grader one day in commenting on the job of the superintendent: "A leader is someone who changes things to make things better."

It takes tremendous energy to change an organization. The challenge is to focus that energy on changing the right things--the things that will really make a difference for students.

When it comes to public education, most people hardly know where to start. The litany of problem areas is well known: poverty, disrespect, lack of family and community support, frightening finances, weak governance, safety concerns, a hollow curriculum, wimpy accountability, lack of focus, a culture of fear and mistrust, low standards, alienated students and families, low morale, deficits, dilapidated buildings, ancient technology, and on and on.

As a result, there is also a lot of energy for change in public education. Citizens, families, civic organizations, mayors and city councils, governors, legislators, state superintendents, the president of the United States, business organizations, foundations, communities of faith--everyone, it seems, has a theory or a plan.

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to change an organization.

With all that is going on--including the rising number of court, state, and city takeovers and the prominence of education reform on the agendas of most state legislatures--one could reasonably conclude that education is in transition. But in transition to what?

Transforming education requires us to leave behind our ideologies and some of the most ingrained habits and beliefs that govern education today. The transformation requires us to move:

  • From accepting good intentions to rewarding achievement of results.
  • From a system in which employees and others follow rules to one in which they chase a sense of purpose.
  • From a system that assigns students and families to its choices to one that serves them with their choices.
  • From control over inputs to accountability for outcomes.
  • From organizations steeped in the traditions of bureaucracy to ones challenged by the imperatives of service.
  • From an ethic of distrust and mistrust to a culture of high expectation.

In their new book, Banishing Bureaucracy, David Osborne (a Public Strategies Group partner) and Peter Plastrik identify five strategies that must be pursued by any organization that hopes to win the competition for public support. They call these "The Five C's": core, customer, consequences, control, and culture. As applied to education, they help us recognize the possibilities for change that will actually make things better--change that we as leaders must pursue if we are to take our leadership responsibilities seriously.

Core. Schools are expected to do too much and, as a result, can't do any of it effectively enough. Performance will improve dramatically if we focus schools on their primary purpose: ensuring that students learn. This means clearing the decks of activities that don't support this central purpose. Beyond that it means focusing the core of the organization, its curriculum, on a combination of the critical basics plus the thinking and communicating skills needed to transform information into knowledge. Finally, it means uncoupling the steering function of leadership (setting standards and holding schools accountable) from the rowing function of management (running schools on a daily basis).

This last principle is perhaps the most critical. School boards and superintendents, those who should be most focused on standards and performance (the essence of steering), consistently find themselves drawn into operating issues and accused of micromanaging, of doing the actual rowing. The result, especially when governors, legislators, state education officers, and now mayors get too involved in "running" the schools, is way too much rowing and too little steering.

By separating those who steer from those who row, both can do a better job. This can be done in any number of ways. Possibilities include creating separate boards for each purpose, creating separate committees within the board, having separate jurisdictions (city and school district or state and school district) play distinct roles, creating both a chief academic officer and a chief operating officer instead of a single superintendent, and so on. The structure is less important than the separation of roles.

Customer. Schools exist to serve families and students. Schools must be accountable to those they serve. Accountability comes when customers have choices and providers face consequences (ranging from rewards to interventions) for the results they produce.

Families should choose the public schools their children attend. Options should include district-owned schools in their "home" or other school districts as well as charter and contract schools that obligate themselves to public purposes. Money should follow students to the schools of their choice. These arrangements make accountability to families and students clear and powerful.

Consequences. Right now, the only ones at risk in most of our education systems are the students. Student achievement needs to be consequential for all stakeholders. Performance agreements or contracts that specify the consequences both for success and for failure are essential. These agreements can tie consequences to performance for students, families, teachers, whole schools, support services, and the district itself. Such a performance-management system requires that schools collect and use information in ways that allow all stakeholders to track their performance, make changes when necessary, and anticipate the consequences of the results they produce.

Control. We can power up school performance by cutting the bureaucratic overburden in many of our systems. Doing so means putting authority (and accountability) where it belongs--in schools and classrooms.

Too much of what passes for change in education is nothing more than moving things around in hope that things will get better.

Central offices should become organizations serving their school customers in ways that contribute directly to student success. The community, and specifically parents and community organizations, should be empowered and expected to act directly in support of the learning of their children.

Culture. Schools must exemplify achievement, trust, and courage. For that to happen we must end the culture of failure, mistrust, and fear that pervades all that happens in too many districts. Doing so means breaking habits by creating new experiences that challenge "the way it's always been," including opening school doors to the increasing diversity of our communities; touching hearts by re-establishing a covenant for learning among all stakeholders; and winning minds with plain-spoken, research-based strategies and actions that directly challenge and support success in the classroom.

Changing things to make things better--that's real leadership. Too much of what passes for change in education is nothing more than moving things around in the hope that things will get better. Just ask the kids. Change for their benefit requires action that focuses on the core, customers, consequences, control, and culture of our schools. That's where the leverage is. Pulling those levers requires leadership.

Peter Hutchinson is the president of the Public Strategies Group Inc. of St. Paul, Minn. As part of the company's recently completed contract to lead the Minneapolis public schools, he served as school superintendent for 3-1/2 years.

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