Teaching a School System How To Learn

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It's been just over two years since The Public Strategies Group became the first private company to assume leadership of an entire public school system, the Minneapolis public schools. Some days, it feels like it's been a lot longer than that. But I have an important marker to help me keep time--my daughter. Just as we began the work of reforming the Minneapolis district, I went home on maternity leave. During those first months, I kept up with our efforts, all the while doing radio talk shows across the nation about our one-of-a-kind arrangement with Minneapolis. Admittedly, it was pretty strange to answer questions like "What values will you be imparting to our students?" for cellular-phone callers in Memphis.

Eventually, I became woven into the work of running the district. It was late August 1994, with the start of school just around the corner. Little did I foresee that the first major crisis we'd face that fall would be just getting the kids to school. School opened and our transportation system was a disaster. Buses were one to two hours late, scores of students never even got on the bus, and new bus drivers got lost weaving through unfamiliar Minneapolis streets. The phone system in the transportation department crashed. Getting home was no better. Parents waited two hours or more to see their children arrive home, and at least one child was lost. That was just day one.

Imagine, then, what was going on in our heads this past fall. But despite all the worrying, we had the best school opening in the district's history. The turnaround in transportation was just short of miraculous. It illustrates the value of building a culture of continuous improvement, one of four challenges we face in transforming the Minneapolis public schools. Others include seeing information as a resource, building leadership throughout the organization, and being accountable for results. What we are really doing in the Minneapolis schools is teaching an educational system how to learn. Ironically, it seems the system that teaches kids how to learn every day in the classroom is also a system far from reaching its own potential as a learning environment.

Whether we change that depends on how we meet the challenges of which I spoke. The first, seeing information as a resource, not a tool of power, will not be easy. In the bureaucratic tradition that built all of our public schools, information is like money. It's finite, it's meant to be controlled, and having more of it means having more power. That's why all the best information in bureaucracies is shared after meetings, not during them, in the hallways or the bathrooms.

In the Minneapolis public schools, there has been a constant tension between using information for power and using information as a resource that can be shared and multiplied. Ideas, once discussed aloud by the superintendent or district administrators, were usually seen as edicts. Even the word "draft" meant "final." And in a system with archaic telephone technology and limited access to voice or electronic mail, the rumor mill was in its heyday. This was a stark contrast for members of our company, who openly share information. I can't count how many times we were accused of having some secret plan we were supposedly going to foist on the district.

Today, there are still power struggles over information, but to a lesser degree. In many ways over the past two years, the district has become more public, openly telling the truth about how well our kids are doing and how we're acting as stewards of taxpayer dollars.

To fully use this resource, however, we have to build an infrastructure that improves access to the information we already have as well as to that in cyberspace. Bringing the district into the 21st century technologically is a challenge involving millions of dollars. But we can no longer expect students to function as well-trained, capable adults if they do not have access to today's technology in our classrooms.

The second major challenge for the district is building leadership throughout the organization, not just at the top. History shows that, as the leadership in our district has changed, so has its direction. Without the strong grounding in purpose, without a commonly held belief that we exist to ensure that all students learn, the district has suffered regular changes of course as the person at the helm was rotated. The residual impact we're still fighting in this culture is that of the "survival" motivation. Employees subject to dismissal with the entrance of a new superintendent learned that in order to survive you had to just keep on doing what you'd been doing for years. It's a motto I've heard before: "Lay low, go slow."

Today, we are trying to broaden and strengthen the concept of district leadership from the superintendent, one individual, to that of the superintendency, a team of leaders. The superintendency in Minneapolis today includes the superintendent and 11 other district leaders whose job is to pursue strategies that ensure that all students learn. As a group, they are becoming stronger in their capacity to lead and manage as a team.

In the schools themselves, principals, too, have taken on the challenge of building their leadership capacity. Their focus is on meeting all the demands in a site-based environment: being instructional leaders; team builders among parent, teacher, student, and community constituents; financial managers; school-operations managers; and more. Each principal has a development plan that addresses the many educational and management skills required to build a school site that excels in student achievement. Our job at the central office is to support these plans and then get them created with assistant and interim principals. Our leadership is only as strong as our bench. Today, it's pretty thin; roughly 60 percent of our principals have five or fewer years of experience. Nevertheless, I believe these leaders and those we'll recruit to the district are capable of building the depth of leadership necessary to stabilize the course of the district.

Building a culture of continuous improvement is the third challenge. By and large, in public organizations, employees believe there is only one right answer and that innocent mistakes can become morning headlines. We could have fired the transportation director in 1994, for example, but that would only have reaffirmed the old message that the system doesn't tolerate any mistakes.

Instead, we and the transportation director together asked, "How will transportation be improved so that kids are transported safely each day?" The problems were many. The department had a new computerized scheduling system which, unfortunately, only a few knew how to use. The communication system between the department, its drivers, and route supervisors didn't work. New bus drivers were wholly unfamiliar with the city of Minneapolis. Perhaps most astounding, our transportation director learned while charting the scheduling of bus routes that his employees had anywhere from 10 to 12 working definitions of "bus stop." That was just the beginning of a full year spent improving every facet of a large transportation system. Today that system performs wonders.

Our employees don't yet fully embrace the idea of continuous improvement. But our motto is "progress, not perfection." What has characterized progress thus far is that people are involved in improving their own work and seeing how it connects with the district's mission, to ensure that all students learn.

The biggest challenge we face in the Minneapolis schools, however, is being accountable for results, not activity. Two years ago, The Public Strategies Group asked to be held accountable for results, including student achievement. We wanted people to understand that accountability means being in a position to experience the consequences of one's actions, not blaming others or ducking for cover.

Initially, this drew much skepticism. People asked: "Why should we pay you for student achievement when the real work happens in a classroom between teachers and students?"

Our answer? Until we all become accountable for each of our actions, the students will bear the consequences, not us. If we don't become accountable, students will continue to struggle to achieve and we will fail in living up to our mission to ensure that all students learn.

Fortunately, we are making headway. This year, the district and the teachers' union agreed to a contract that requires teachers to assess their development against "principles of effective instruction." It provides incentives for teachers who excel and also provides outplacement for teachers who cannot meet those expectations. Our teachers, arguably the group with the most impact on students, are putting themselves on the line for delivering on student achievement.

Another example of accountability comes from operations. Each month, just like you and I, the district pays its bills. Last year, a vendor payment went unpaid for six months--all $1.6 million of it. (Yes, I wondered too how a vendor could let $1.6 million go by for six months, but that's another story). What interested me was that someone had made a mistake. She just forgot to cut the check. She found that by admitting her mistake she eliminated any opportunities to blame someone else. Because of that, she gave herself and others the opportunity to engage in a conversation focused on learning, not blaming; a conversation in which the central question was not, "Who did it?" but "How can we improve our accounting and payment systems to avoid this in the future?"

Being accountable for results is not easy, and some of our toughest challenges lie ahead. We are learning that teaching to learn is a very difficult task and becoming more so every day. The stakes for our children are incredibly high, and our employees know it. Teachers and school professionals deserve all the support we can give them, particularly if they are parents, too. There is not a more important job than theirs.

Vol. 15, Issue 33, Pages 36, 38

Published in Print: May 8, 1996, as Teaching a School System How To Learn
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