Education Opinion

Restructuring Has A Down Side, Too

By Martin Carnoy — November 07, 1990 9 min read

The latest round of educational reform, called restructuring, puts America’s teachers center stage in educational change. Because committed teachers are the bottom line of improved education, this makes good sense. But it may also spell trouble for the reform, especially when the other constraints our schools and teachers face come into play.

Once past the media hype, governors’ conferences, and Presidential declarations, school restructuring really boils down to getting teachers and pupils more motivated about doing well in school. Taking a leaf out of recent business-management techniques, a handful of school-district leaders, such as the late Edward Ortiz in Santa Fe, Phillip C. Schlechty in Louisville, Joseph A. Fernandez in Miami, and Deborah Meier in District 4, Manhattan, turned over much of the responsibility for what goes on in their schools to classroom teachers. Working together with those principals who, in one teacher’s words, “know how to lead by allowing others to lead,” activist teachers in these districts are developing new practices and new curriculum that work for their particular students.

There are many reasons why a reform that brings responsibility for educational improvement down to the school level should work. For one, no matter where the curriculum and evaluation criteria are produced, what happens to children educationally seems to be greatly influenced by school environment. How teachers and children feel about each other and how well they define their goals affect what they produce and the effort they expend in reaching such goals.

Schools are not like private companies, no matter how much America’s business community would like them to be. And it is not because private enterprises are efficient and public enterprises are bureaucratic and inefficient. A typical business--unlike a school--produces well-defined products for well-defined prices. Its bottom line is profit, which it can measure every quarter. And when C.E.O.’s make decisions for their businesses, they have every reason to believe the decisions will be carried out. Employees are usually closely supervised, there are clear financial incentives to increase productivity, and clear sanctions against those who do not perform.

In the education business, products are fuzzier and prices even more vague. We would like to think that schools have an unequivocal mission to produce the most pupil achievement possible. But who defines “possible”? And are not schools also held accountable for developing good citizens and for protecting children from the worst excesses of life outside schools? The current restructuring reform argues that if each school has a say in defining what and how it produces, at least everyone will know what the product goal is and how they plan to reach it.

Neither are there direct command or incentive mechanisms in schools that translate educational decisions made at the state and district levels into classroom action. Teachers are not like most employees in private businesses. Although getting more effort and more quality effort out of typical private-sector employees is a complex process, with teachers it is more complex. Each teacher is an independent professional who-to a large extent-controls what goes on in his or her production workspace and is fairly immune to direct orders from above.

Getting teachers to be more effective “producers” is complicated by another factor: schools share responsibility for their product with parents and the community. This is like saying that the night shift at the auto plant is run by a different management and a different set of workers, and neither the day- nor night-shift team has much to say about how the other performs. If one team does its job exceedingly well, it does put pressure on the other to meet the standard. But if parents-who get the first crack at educating their children- are not very effective, teachers often feel that they can only do so much. In education, it is easy to point the finger at the other shift when ''productivity’’ is low.

Enter restructuring. One key term is motivation--get the day shift motivated so that the standard goes up, effort in the classroom increases, and teachers turn on parents and the community. A motivated school can raise the quantity and quality of outside-school educational effort. The second key term is professionalization--give power to the teachers to organize curriculum, change practice, and initiate new programs. They are the only ones who can make the classroom an exciting place. The third key term is leadership--decentralize control so that innovative leaders can flourish at the school site and raise educational quality.

For a public demanding educational improvement, any reform that looks promising is immediately attractive. Restructuring provides another dimension-its broad political appeal. Conservatives like it because it smacks of entrepreneurial spirit and makes each “firm” a semi-independent operation. Progressives like it because it solves the labor problem (more effort) in a way that gives “workers” greater control of the workplace-schools become less hierarchical and more cooperative. In a nutshell, restructuring is highly consistent with American values of decentralization, individual initiative, and individual responsibility, where “individual” in this case is the principal, the teacher, or the school team. It is a properly antibureaucratic idea that meets today’s feeling about bigness and bureaucracy.

So, what’s the problem? What could go wrong with a reform that is so consistent with both the institutional nature of schooling and our political culture? In a word, the problem is time. It is teachers’ time and energy that drive the reform and no matter how organizationally efficient or politically appealing, it is not going to work unless they think it makes sense.

The up side is that restructuring reprofessionalizes teachers, increasing their self-image and the psychic reward they derive from teaching. But it also places severe demands on an already precious resource-teacher time. Developing school goals and refining them as the school goes through changes requires lots of planning meetings. Getting parents involved also means meetings-many more than current parents’ nights and school-site councils. In typical innovations, such as improving on the state-mandated curriculum, developing after-school programs for at-risk pupils, or providing increased contact between pupils, teachers, and counselors, active teachers (and the principal) have to put in a lot of extra time, including coming in on Saturdays.

The sense of teamwork is strong, making such commitments easier, but time away from families also often creates stress and other pressures. And since most teachers are women, already holding a second “job” at home, extra time is not always available. One teacher told me, ‘1fyou want to support this [type of change], we need to be provided with time in our regular workweek to implement these programs.”

The added teacher time needed is greatest in those communities where the quality of parent input is the lowest. If educational outcomes are to improve for these at-risk pupils, either parents have to be brought into the process as active, better-informed participants, or the school has to substitute for lack of parent time and resources. In either case, teachers need to devote additional hours each day on top of an already relentless schedule.

It is not surprising that most teachers and principals are leery of the reform, and many of those who have bought in are verging on burnout. Surveys of restructuring around the country show that the term has become a catch-all for any change in the way school districts organize education, but is seldom the real thing. Even if teachers in a school want to initiate a full-fledged restructuring, principals often resist so that they not lose control or have to take on more work.

In Santa Fe, Superintendent Ortiz, totally dedicated to teacher control, was able over three years to convince fewer than half his schools to engage in restructuring. He told me, “Most teachers try to please the principal. If they have any inkling that the principal doesn’t support the process, they won’t do a thing.” And teachers in the most active of Santa Fe’s schools admit that they are never sure how long they can keep up the pace.

The traditional answer to the time issue from teachers and their unions is higher salaries. In Santa Fe, where teachers are grossly underpaid and nonunionized, higher pay would at least keep the best from moving away. Higher salaries nationwide might also create more respect for teachers professionally (or greater resentment) and would certainly make teaching more attractive to the best and the brightest. But more income does not really solve the time problem. 1n Rochester, N.Y., teachers’ pay was raised mightily, yet they still cannot cope with the myriad of new tasks they are expected to handle, including social-work visits to pupils’ homes after school.

Much of the solution lies in recognizing that restructuring requires a variety of supporting resources, both technical and financial. Often, where salaries are already attracting well-qualified teachers, more income is less the answer than resources strategically placed directly in the schools. A major focus of Santa Fe’s school-improvement effort has been to find practical and creative ways for providing teachers the release time needed to be professional decisionmakers. This includes using instructional aides, part-time specialized professionals, teaching interns, and volunteers, and raising money from local corporations to pay for these people. In Houston, the teachers in one restructured school voted to increase their class size marginally and use the savings to hire a full-time school counselor. The counselor will coordinate parent involvement of the heavily low-income, Latino community. But these are ad hoc and often inadequate stop-gaps. Demand for more teacher time in both districts is constantly outstripping current available supply.

Other resources of a more technical nature are also required. Teachers can set goals and have some know-how to achieve them effectively, but most are without the skills to convert well-thought-out aims into a clear-cut set of management decisions. Neither do most principals have the training to be managerial change agents. Along with the idea of restructuring, someone has to provide new kinds of inservice assistance. In Santa Fe and many other districts, private nonprofits, such as the Matsushita Foundation, have underwritten technical aid. Yet, the foundation is the first to admit that it is hardly enough.

If we value good education and think that restructuring is the right idea at the right time, we should be ready to support committed, innovative schools with the kinds of strategic resources required to make the reform work. Young lawyers fresh out of Yale or Stanford might be willing to work 16 hours a day, seven days a wee~ for $85,000 a year, but they know that in 10 years they will be earning three or four times that much and working at a quieter pace. Teachers are not in the same boat. For restructuring to succeed under today’s fiscal constraints, they can look forward to 12-hour days, six days a week, for the rest of their professional lives. Most are not willing to sign on for that trip, and those that are will not last long without help.

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 1990 edition of Education Week