Opinion
States Opinion

A Dialogue With the Governor and the Professor

By David S. Seeley — January 19, 2005 7 min read
In schools, the product desired is learning, and learning has to be produced by students and supported by parents, neither of whom are employees who can be organized bureaucratically.

Two Commentaries appearing in the Nov. 17, 2004, issue of this publication—one by Gov. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, and the other by Professor James W. Guthrie of Vanderbilt University—highlight the importance of better communication between the worlds of politics and academe. Both essays make important points, but they speak past each other.

Gov. Warner’s “Demanding More of Our High Schools” is on target in reminding us that the nation’s governors “have taken the lead on school reform.” In the 1980s, when national political leaders were in a state of confusion over President Reagan’s support for ending federal involvement in public education while, at the same time, his National Commission on Educational Excellence (in A Nation at Risk) called for urgent action, the National Governors Association was busy hammering out a national agenda of higher expectations and substantial school policy reform to meet them. Even more important, they were doing this on a bipartisan basis, with leadership from both Republican governors, such as Thomas Kean of New Jersey and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Democratic governors, such as Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Richard W. Riley of South Carolina.

When the senior President Bush convened, in 1989, the first national summit of governors on public education, many people hoped it would lead to a new era of bipartisan cooperation between the states and the federal government. Once the summit disbanded, however, national leadership reverted to partisan initiatives and battles, and a considerable disconnect developed between federal policy and state, local, and community reform efforts. One hopes that Mr. Warner, as the new chairman of the NGA, can help regenerate the spirit of bipartisan cooperation that developed in the 1980s. Public schools have to be trusted and supported by people of all parties and backgrounds.

The governor’s call for redesigning the American high school is also positive. But here is where the political world can benefit from the perspective of Professor Guthrie’s “An Education Reform Agenda for the Recently Elected.” High school reform has not “largely been overlooked” in recent decades, as Gov. Warner suggests. On the contrary, there has been massive attention to it for years. What Mr. Guthrie points out, however, and what policymakers need to understand, is that most of the widespread reform efforts of recent decades have only added more to the existing system, without accomplishing, as he writes, the “less politically popular, but possibly more powerful, structural changes” that would actually enable schools to work more effectively and productively.

Because basic system problems have not been adequately addressed, let alone resolved, reform attention keeps shifting from one component of the existing system to another, hoping that each separate focus will bring the solutions that are needed. On the contrary, this piecemeal approach has been one of the major reasons for reform failure.

Because basic system problems have not been adequately addressed ... reform attention keeps shifting from one component of the system to another, hoping that each separate focus will bring the solutions needed.

Gov. Warner’s other education initiatives indicate that he is alert to the need for comprehensive and systemic reform, but this particular Commentary, which is admittedly focused only on high school reform, gives the impression that school reform is simpler than it is. To his credit, the governor says that “the status quo is unacceptable,” but his essay is not clear enough about what kind of change is needed, or that it must be systemic to be effective.

Here is where Professor Guthrie’s focus on deeper reform is needed. He says that “American public education suffers from deeply rooted misalignments that substantially restrict managerial effectiveness, dampen adoption of innovation, and dilute productive deployment of added resources,” and that “authority and accountability are misplaced, performance incentives are misdirected, labor conditions are misportrayed, revenue distribution is misinformed, and connections between institutional levels (K-12 and postsecondary) are often misguided.”

Mr. Guthrie’s essay points out some of the more important systemic problems: A wide range of research, for instance, has confirmed that the individual school is the key unit of the system “where a culture of achievement is either constructed or absent,” and “where organizational cohesion and purpose are infused or absent.” Yet, schools are too often hamstrung by public school systems’ bureaucratic structure and culture that “eviscerates accountability and undermines incentives to perform effectively,” with principals “often powerless,” and teachers lacking in “professional discretion,” responsibility, and morale.

Gov. Warner’s essay doesn’t deal with these fundamental problems, and political leaders really need to understand them if their efforts are not to continue failing. In recent years, policymakers have seen the so-called “business model” as an appropriate template for school reform. But the business model applied is too often the simplistic 19th-century, top-down, chain-of-command business model on which the present public school system was modeled a hundred years ago, rather than the more recent business “systems” approach that adds factors such as shared vision, staff buy-in, teamwork, and accountability for quality performance throughout the enterprise.

Furthermore, as Mr. Guthrie rightly insists, schools are different from businesses. He explains the inapplicability of bureaucratic business organization to schools in terms of the less developed technology in education compared to more technical settings. But there is something more fundamental involved: In schools, the product desired is learning, and learning has to be produced by students and supported by parents, neither of whom are employees who can be organized bureaucratically. This is why, as Mr. Guthrie points out, teachers need “discretion to interact with the complexity of each student, and a principal needs discretion to interact with the complexities of each teacher and many parents” (and, I would add, communities).

It is also why the focus of productivity and accountability has to be brought down not just to the school level, but to the level of the teacher-student-family triads that are the basic production units of school learning, each of which functions with different dynamics and different results. These key three, very different, participants of these triads have to first hold themselves accountable for high-quality performance, and then hold one another accountable for cooperating to produce quality learning—more like a special kind of partnership than a bureaucracy. The prime responsibility and accountability of all other layers of the system have to be to make sure that this crucial relationship is established and working well.

There is nothing comparable to this student-teacher-parent relationship in business. If political leaders want advice on school reform from corporate leaders, they must seek out business people who can adapt modern high-quality performance concepts to the special nature of schooling, character development, families, and communities, rather than those who see the problem as a simple application of “old-fashioned business know-how,” such as competition, tightening up the chain of command, and quality control defined as multiple-choice testing.

Students aren’t products whose defects can be remedied after they go through the production line.

An education-oriented systems approach would also aid Gov. Warner’s proposal for helping at-risk high school students through “a comprehensive remediation effort starting at the end of junior year.” But why wait until junior year? By that time, many students have already dropped out, and many of those who haven’t have endured three more years of the kind of unsuccessful school experience that brought them to high school turned off to learning and without the preparation and dispositions needed for success. Students aren’t products whose defects can be remedied after they go through the production line.

It is clear that the system of top-notch high schools the governor calls for will be possible only in conjunction with fundamental redesign of lower grades to ensure high-school-ready freshmen, and that, in the meantime, emergency measures are needed for those who arrive at high school unable to do high school level work. Parents, community resources, and these students themselves need to be mobilized from day one of high school (or earlier if possible) to a whole new regime to set them onto pathways for success instead of almost-certain roads to failure.

Professor Guthrie also points out that, despite several decades of school finance and standards-based reforms—and in some instances because of them—states are still mired in irrational financing, accountability, and incentive systems that have not responded to the piecemeal reforms typically enacted by politicians. Court decisions from time to time intervene to prod change and mandate more funding, but they often result in hasty, ill-considered distribution of new funds, rather than opportunities to redesign relationships, refocus accountability to the school level, and build a strong accountability core of student, teacher, and family.

Academic and management-expert communities have their own hang-ups, jargon, and misleading concepts (such as defining teaching as “the delivery of instructional services”), but they have learned a lot in recent decades that the political community has to pay attention to if it wants to be successful in reforming public education.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as A Dialogue With the Governor and the Professor

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