Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

Glasser Comes to a Rural School

In its quest for quality, a Utah elementary school is making thoughtful improvements in every area of the school's operation, including communication, curriculum, and assessment.

It's better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.—James Thurber
In August 1990, William Glasser visited our small, rural elementary school in central Utah to answer questions about improving our school. He came at the request of one of our innovative teachers, Chris Roberts, who had attended his workshops and initiated a telephone dialogue with him. Based on what he saw and heard, Glasser invited us to be one of the first six schools in his Quality School Consortium.

Expanding Our Vision

At Rees Elementary School, 15 teachers serve 300 students, ranging from handicapped preschool to K–5. The socioeconomic and ethnic mix includes predominantly lower middle-class Caucasians and a few Hispanics, blacks, Native Americans, and Polynesians. The 75-year old structure is bordered by several mobile classrooms and a spacious playground.
Our school has a growing reputation for self-examination and change. Because of the principal and faculty's initiative, we were invited to become a partner school in the Brigham Young University-Public School Partnership. As a result, we work on a continuing basis with university professors in preparing new teachers, promoting the professional development of our own staff, reforming the curriculum, and inquiring through action research into questions that we generate with our university partners (Harris and Harris 1992).
Over the last three years, our faculty had begun such practices as multiage grouping, experiential and cooperative learning, thematic study, and global awareness. These changes were interesting to Glasser, as they were living examples of the principles he suggested in The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion (1990).
After Glasser visited with parents and teachers at our school, we were all motivated to learn more about such quality principles as lead management and site-based management, control theory (Glasser 1986), and noncoercion. Some innovations were already in place, but our vision for doing even more unfolded as we joined the Quality School Consortium. Since that time, we've made changes in how we as teachers approach our work, in the school setting, in parent involvement, and in curriculum, assessment, and discipline.

New Outlook for Teachers

As teachers, we knew that change must begin with us, so we donated one week of our summer and raised funds to receive training through Glasser's Reality Therapy Institute. Through that training we've become sensitive to the language we use as we speak about ourselves, our school, and our students. For example, are we choosing to show anger in frustrating situations? Are we taking responsibility for a student's misbehavior? Are we continually aware of children's five basic needs: survival, freedom of choice, power, love and belonging, and fun? Some of the ways we've acted on our new awareness are to make control theory charts for our classrooms, to discuss the quality school bulletins at faculty meetings (Glasser 1992), and, in every area of the school, to explore the idea of quality with our students.

Big Friendly Groups

For 12 years Chris Roberts had successfully taught his special education students in self-contained classes. However, he realized that his students would progress better in a more realistic environment. After reading about multiage grouping (Clark 1986), Roberts enlisted the aid of teachers who shared his concern. With parent input and consent, our school grouped special education students with 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders.
Although multiage grouping appealed to teachers of the younger grades, they did not feel ready to convert their entire classrooms to such an arrangement. Instead, they designed a brief multiage experience (about 20 minutes) for 1st through 5th graders. At the beginning of each day, these youngsters came together in small cooperative groups, which we call Big Friendly Groups or BFGs. Each adult in the school, including the principal and the resource teacher, leads a BFG. After a while, we reduced the size of the groups from 18 to 6 students to promote more interaction and collegiality. We call the smaller groups Little Friendly Groups or LFGs, and the same teacher works with these. In other words, one BFG of 18 students contains three LFGs of 6. A teacher works with the BFG developing social skills and then directs students to move into their LFGs for continuing dialogue.
Each BFG selects a name and exchanges addresses so that members can contact one another outside of school. Some of the awareness-raising activities the groups have engaged in include: making wall banners to illustrate quality work, creating advertisements for building school quality, selecting group goals, planning service projects, and organizing volunteers to call and offer help to absent students. Even our PTA uses the groups to rotate students through a reading celebration activity. In short, BFGs have brought a sense of unity to the entire school, simplified schoolwide activities, and encouraged the use of more multiage settings.

Getting Parents' Input

Next, we sought to involve parents. At the beginning of the school year, before any work had gone home or any discipline problems had surfaced, we sent forms home asking their views of what their child needed most to succeed in school (fig. 1). Of all the educational goals on the survey, parents most often named self-esteem and self-confidence as the number-one priority for their child.

Figure 1. Parent Priorities Survey

Priorities for the education of ____________________________________________ (student) for the _________ school year

Please rate the following educational goals 1 through 10, according to your child's needs, in terms of what you feel is most to least important for the school to help you accomplish:

___ Health and Physical Development. Nutrition habits; physical fitness; strength, endurance, agility, and skill in sports, games, and life activities.

___ Human Relations and Communication. Getting along with others, leadership, cooperation, courtesy, respect, listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

___ Identity and Individuality. Self-esteem, self-confidence, self-discipline, responsibility, moral character, and the development of individual talents, gifts, interests, and abilities.

___ Inquiry, Thinking, Learning. Curiosity, eagerness to learn, study skills and habits, problem solving, creativity, and decision making.

___ Science and Math. Knowledge and skill in mathematics and the physical sciences.

___ Arts. Knowledge, skill, and appreciation for literature, music, dance, and the visual and performing arts.

___ Work. Initiative, self-motivation, self-direction, persistence, following through, and evaluating work; understanding of attitudes, knowledge, and abilities needed for various vocations.

___ Responsible Citizenship. Respect for and understanding of the workings of a democracy, appreciation for political processes and free enterprise.

___ Environment. Respect and maintenance of personal and public property, enjoying and protecting nature.

___ Other. (describe): __________________________________

Source: Stoddard, L. (1992). Redesigning Education: A Guide for Developing Human Greatness. Tucson, Ariz.: Zephyr Press, p. 32.

Second, we arranged parent-teacher conferences. At these twice-a-year scheduled meetings, teachers learn of parents' specific concerns—perhaps a health problem or the adjustment of the child to a death in the family—and parents come to understand teachers' goals and expectations. In addition to these formal conferences, parent-teacher teams meet whenever necessary throughout the year as specific needs arise.

Thematic Curriculum

To change a fragmented, lock-step procedure to a thematic, integrated curriculum, we've used several resources: The World as a Total System (Boulding 1985), Education 2000: District 4J Integrated Curriculum and Planning Guide (Shoemaker 1990), as well as Educational Leadership's theme issue on integrating the curriculum (October 1991).
To begin the process, each of the five teachers selected a theme for a six-week unit. The classes then rotated so that, by the end of the year, students had explored all six themes: power, communities, change, interactions, form, and systems. Reading novels, preparing portfolios, and writing with the process approach are some of the whole language activities the children engaged in. In mathematics, teachers' use of a self-paced program contributed to our 5th graders scoring 25 points higher on the Stanford Achievement Test than our expected range.

Assessing Quality

The next big change was in our assessment process. Our school has accepted Glasser's definition of education as “the process through which we discover that learning adds quality to our lives” (Glasser 1992, no. 11). Although we still administer the Stanford Achievement Test and end-of-the-year tests, self-evaluation is our primary means of assessing quality. We emphasize how quality is reflected in the life of each child by asking: “Is this quality work?”
To assess quality, we have designed specific observation tools for both teachers and students. For example, on a particular day a teacher may say to students, “As you do your writing today, I will walk around the room looking for active, interesting verbs. Check your work for quality in active, interesting verbs.” To evaluate their reading, students keep Super Silent Reading logs in which they record the books they read, the time spent, and their assessment of the quality of their reading for that day. Students rate their reading on a scale of 0–3:
3 = focusing on reading the whole time and not disturbing others,
2 = focusing most of the time, if it is your very best effort,
1 = reading some of the time but disturbing others and not doing your very best,
0 = not reading at all and being totally off task.
If a teacher does not agree with a student's score, he or she will ask the student to justify the rating. If the student does not judge fairly, the teacher will ask the class for a response. Occasionally, a teacher will ask the whole class to report their participation scores in Super Silent Reading in order to initiate discussion of expectations of quality.
At our school, portfolios have taken the place of letter grades. Students assemble samples of their quality work in every subject area. Included in the portfolios is a one-page report describing such aspects as participation (for example, the number of poems a student memorized in each thematic area), math levels, and the completion rate for each area in the form of a narrative. The choice of how to display their learning about a theme area is up to the students. For instance, for the “power” theme, students may decide to make a poster about a famous person who used power in a unique way, create a video presentation, present a class report to the younger grades, or prepare an art project.

Democratic Discipline

The final area of change for our school has been discipline. In a quality school, the setting produces a climate for democratic discipline. As our desire is to build an educational community, we have villages instead of classes. Instead of a school, we call ourselves a nation—a learning nation. Instead of rules, we agree to respect ourselves, others, and property. Instead of boss-management, our teachers participate in lead-management. Teachers are the lead-managers, and students are the workers. Lead-managers understand that consistent, quality performance cannot be forced. It is only achieved by workers who are treated in the way all human beings want to be treated, which is to be able to satisfy their basic needs as they work. Lead-managers understand what these needs are and that they must be continually kept in mind as they manage (Glasser 1992, no. 1).
Displayed in every classroom is a sign that states: “All problems will be solved by the staff and students talking with each other without anyone threatening or hurting anyone else.” When discipline problems arise, a student or a teacher, following the method of Glasser's Reality Therapy, asks: “What are you doing?” “Is that keeping our agreements?” “What's your plan?” “How can I help you with your plan?” If students cannot come up with a plan to make their behavior consistent with quality standards, they are given time to formulate one before they resume their activities. No matter what they do, the message from the staff has to be as follows: we run a caring school; teach useful skills and knowledge; give all a chance to improve what they do and therefore, to succeed; talk to all students in a warm and friendly way; teach them and encourage them to work together; demonstrate that we know what we are doing and that we believe it is good both for them and for us, and try as hard as we can to persuade them to begin to do quality work (Glasser 1992, no. 17).
However, a quality school is not a permissive school. Students who are not in good order cannot be in school until they are orderly. When students misbehave, a time-out area is designated. When students are ready to rejoin the class, they must have a plan for their future behavior and share the plan with the teacher and class, if necessary. If students are totally unwilling to respond with a plan after being in time-out for an extended period, they are suspended and put in the care of their parents. To return to school, students must write a plan for their behavior and bring their parents to school for an appointment with the principal.

Reaching for Quality

Quality is a topic about which we still have a lot of questions. Glasser suggests four conditions and four procedures for building a quality organization (1992, no. 18).
  1. Quality is always useful in some way and is never destructive.
  2. Quality is the best that everyone in the organization, working both separately and together, can achieve at any particular time.
  3. Quality can always be improved.
  4. Quality always feels good; it is never destructive.
  1. Education is a continual process.
  2. Lead-managing is practiced as taught by Deming, Juran, and others.
  3. Understanding is stressed, and control theory is practiced.
  4. All those who work in the organization are treated as professionals.
As our small, rural elementary school moves toward quality, we are pleased with what we are experiencing. A special education student wrote in his journal: “I am doing more in school than I ever thought possible!” This statement applies to all of us.
We are also having a pleasing impact beyond our own school. Because of partnership with the university, our faculty has been invited to make presentations at other partner schools as well as regional and national conferences (Harris et al. 1991, Roberts and Harris 1991).
This dissemination has not only enhanced our own professional self-images but has also resulted in numerous inquiries and visitations from more than 70 educators. Other schools in a neighboring district are making plans to implement a similar model. In addition, our principal recently won a state award as the Most Innovative Principal of the year, and our school won a $10,000 Governor's Grant for Excellence in Education.
As we stretch in our reach for quality, we remember this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimension.

Boulding, K. E. (1985). The World as a Total System. Beverly Hills, Calif: Sage.

Blankstein, A. M. (1992). “Lessons from Enlightened Corporations.” Educational Leadership 49, 6: 71–75.

Bonstingl, J. J. (1992). “The Total Quality Classroom.” Educational Leadership 49, 6: 66–70.

Clark, B. (1986). Optimizing Learning: The Integrative Education Model in the Classroom. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill.

Glasser, W. (1986). Control Theory in the Classroom. New York: Harper and Row.

Glasser, W. (1990). The Quality School: Managing Students without Coercion. New York: Harper and Row.

Glasser, W. (1992). The Quality School Training Program. Bulletins 1–18. Canoga Park, Calif.: Glasser Institute.

Harris, R. C., and M. F. Harris. (1992). “Preparing Teachers for Literacy Education: University/School Collaboration.” Journal of Reading 35, 7: 572–579.

Harris, M. F., C. Roberts, B. Beyal, S. Creer, and J. Ballard. (October 3–5, 1991). “Helping At-Risk Students Succeed Through Cross-Age Grouping and Collaboration.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Northern Rocky Mountain Educational Research Association, Jackson, Wyoming.

Rhodes, L. A. (1992). “On the Road to Quality.” Educational Leadership 49, 6: 76–80.

Roberts, C., and M. F. Harris. (October 29, 1991). “Change Through Informed Choice.” Linking Workshop, Partner Schools, BYU-Public School Partnership, Provo, Utah.

Shoemaker, B.J. (1990). Education 2000: District 4J Integrated Curriculum and Planning Guide. Eugene, Oreg.: School District 4J.

End Notes

1 See also the March 1992 issue of Educational Leadership on “Total Quality Management” (Bonstingl 1992, Blankstein 1992, Rhodes 1992).

Melanie Fox Harris has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 61192149.jpg
Improving School Quality
Go To Publication