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October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

On Restructuring Roles and Relationships: A Conversation with Phil Schlechty

    A new role for the teacher is as inventor of engaging work. The school board's role is to educate the community about the conditions of schools. And the superintendent's role should be not so much to make decisions as to cause decisions to be made.

      “Schools are organized on the principles of Monopoly while our kids live in a Nintendo world,” Phil Schlechty told educators at the ASCD Annual Conference last year. The president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform, Schlechty believes strongly that the rules for schools must change. In this conversation with Educational Leadership, he spells out how teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members must become more focused on developing the capacity of students.
      Phil, what would you say is implied in the term “systemic change”?
      It means changing the system of norms: the regular and patterned ways of doing things—how power is distributed, how decisions are made, what our business is.
      If we say our business is selecting and sorting students, which is what our present schools are designed to do, we structure the system one way. But if we say our business is developing the capacities of all students, we design the system another way. One reason many innovative curriculum materials of the 1960s didn't work very well was the way schools were structured.
      Are you saying there's been a shift in what people see as the basic purpose of schools?
      Yes, we're struggling with that. We're being asked to serve a purpose we don't fully understand, and because we don't understand it, we're trying to respond to it in terms of the old purpose.
      I call it the Post Office effect. The postal service was designed to be a reliable deliverer of the mail at low cost. The promise was, “We'll get your mail there some time, and it won't cost much.” After World War II, businesses began to ask for fast, time-certain mail delivery. They wanted to know exactly what time a letter was going to get there.
      I think that's where we are. We're being expected to teach every kid how to do algebra and we're still trying to make sure that most kids know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.
      You spoke of the way schools are “structured.” You seem to be saying that systemic change and restructuring are the same thing.
      They're synonyms. It doesn't make sense for people to say, “Restructuring is failing; let's try systemic reform.” Restructuring is changing the system of rules, roles, and relationships that govern the way time, people, space, knowledge, and technology are used and deployed. That's what systemic reform is, too.
      I'm sure that's right in theory. In practice, though, we've seen efforts at the state level to encourage restructuring at the school level, with the idea that “We don't have to change; they have to change.” For example, when a state would mandate teacher and parent participation in decision making, it was considered restructuring. But then, observers began saying, “You know, without broader change, site-based decision making isn't making a difference; we have to change the whole system. The state has to start by changing its own policies, its regulations, its incentives.” I think that is what's implied in the new language of systemic change.
      I agree that's how some people are using the words. It's like Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” But such terms have special, technical meanings that can be very powerful.
      Take restructuring. A great deal of restructuring has occurred in the last five years, but it hasn't affected anything, because we restructured the wrong things. For example, there's no question that local boards of education have less authority than they had 10 years ago; state education agencies have more authority. And we've still got the same dumb decisions being made. We've got to focus our attention on the things that need to be restructured.
      What things?
      Things that make a difference in what happens to kids in classrooms.
      Such as?
      As I said before, time, people, space, knowledge, technology. Take time, for example. You've got to restructure the rules, the roles, and the relationships that govern the way time is used. The students are our customers; what we do is design work activities that engage our customers. And we have to use time flexibly in order to do that. You can't do it by saying, “Everyone must do this within the next 50 minutes.”
      What are some other things that need to be restructured at the level of teaching and learning?
      People, and how they're organized. For one thing, we should totally reorganize schools in the sense of grades. The nongraded primary is not enough; we should have nongraded schools. Another thing is the size of the basic unit the student belongs to. I don't care how big the school is, I want to know how small the unit is. There are a number of ways you can take a 1,500-student high school and turn it into a place where 1,500 people of different ages are grouped into small, cross-age units.
      We need to see every person who comes into the school as a part of the instructional environment, and that includes the kids themselves. And we need to think of students as part of the instructional staff.
      Most of the things you're talking about aren't totally new, are they? Most have been done somewhere, haven't they?
      Yes. But I don't know of any school where all of it is being done in a systemic way. To do that—to put it all together—schools need to be a part of a total system committed to these things. It takes a supportive system—a school district—to do it.
      Is that why you recently entered into an agreement with a few school districts to work with them over a long period of time?
      Yes, I formed the Center for Leadership in School Reform because I believe that school districts need to have access to a single-purpose outside source of consultation, help, and advice. At this point, we have a relationship with Tupelo, Mississippi; Lake Washington, Washington; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Hammond, Indiana; and a couple of school districts in Connecticut. Basically, what they are buying into is the notion that you have to develop district-level capacity to support and sustain school-level change.
      In that connection, let me ask about a topic that's attracting a lot of attention these days—Total Quality Management. Is that something different from what you've been talking about?
      It is as some people talk about it. TQM will be nothing more than MBO (Management by Objectives) warmed over unless we change the fundamental paradigm we use to think about schools. If we continue to think about students as products, and test scores as significant measures—as the qualities that we are trying to control—we're just going to beat ourselves to death again. If, however, we think about the student as customer for work, and we think about the work itself as the product, and we talk about variance in the quality of the work provided to kids, that's different.
      Then we understand the fundamental logic of W. Edwards Deming's Total Quality Management, which is very simple, really. Basically it involves just three things: understand processes, get control of processes, and—where possible—improve those processes. Deming is saying that you can't control something you don't understand. A lot of the charts and so forth used in TQM are just ways to get some understanding of what might be going on. Then, how much of those things can you control? Sometimes we try to over-control things. But it doesn't work because some variance is normal; it's built into the system.
      What's an example of a process you can control?
      A very important one is decision making. Actually, we know some of the variables in effective decision making. One, for example, is whether the group that makes the decision knows what results the group members want the decision to produce—before they make the decision. If you have clarity of results, you are going to get a better decision than if you don't have clarity of results. And you can measure the degree to which a decision was made on the basis of a clearly specified result or outcome. Related to that is asking those in the group to articulate how they'd know that the result had been produced—what indicators they would accept as evidence.
      That's just an example of the kind of thing you can do. If you begin to train teams to think that way about their own decision making processes—to understand those processes and get control of them—they begin to understand the power of statistical process control.
      You mentioned that people are confused about the role of students. I've heard about “student as worker,” but I'm afraid I don't understand “customer for work.”
      I am very much with Ted Sizer; I have no trouble with seeing students as workers. But from the school's point of view, the student is our customer for work. Big people populate the school all the time; little people pass through it. The big people have to be customer-centered. Students must be the focus of all our activities. Our job is to design activities that meet our customers' needs.
      I think of work as what the students do, but you're thinking of it as what they are assigned to do.
      What they are encouraged to do, inspired to do.
      Can you make that a little more specific?
      Well, for example, encourage students to use mathematics to solve real problems, not just do numbers. You see a similar emphasis on connection with the real world in many writing projects and in the best science curriculums.
      Let's turn, then, to the teacher's role.
      The teacher has to be viewed as a leader and an inventor. The job of the teacher, often working with other teachers, is to invent work that kids will do, and to lead them to do it. It's not what the teacher does that's important; it's what the teacher gets the child to do that's important. That's why we need to see the teacher as a leader and inventor.
      And if teachers are leaders, then the principal is a leader of leaders. I don't consider the principal as instructional leader; instead, I see the principal as leader of instructors. Now, that's more than just semantics, because instructional leadership and curriculum leadership are embedded in the job of teaching. But you still have to have leaders of leaders—that's where the principal comes in.
      And you must have a leadership system. I think of the superintendent as the Chief Executive Officer of what is typically the largest single knowledge-work enterprise in the community. The Jefferson County school district in Kentucky employs a higher proportion of college-educated employees than any other single employer in the community. And all those people work with and on knowledge. Go to a small rural community and you'll find that half the college-educated people in the town are employed with the schools.
      So the superintendent should be viewed as the CEO. Now, that is a very different role for a superintendent: to be called on not to solve all the problems, but to decide which problems are worth solving, and then create conditions in which those problems get solved; to be a decision causer rather than a decision maker.
      Another role that people are concerned about is that of board member.
      They should be concerned. Board member is one of the most critical roles we have. Unfortunately, the way things are now, board members cannot afford to be thoughtful.
      I'm not blaming board members, though. I watch what happens when boards of education and superintendents are communicating with one another—when the superintendent is really listening to the board and the board is really listening to the superintendent. The consequence is that every Monday night when they have votes of 7-0 or 5-0, the newspaper says, “They're a rubber stamp board.” They're supposed to be rude and nasty. And if they're not that way, the community will get someone to run who will be.
      But that's not how it should be. The role of the board member is to understand the issues deeply and to educate the community about the conditions of the schools. Board members must learn to carry on a dialogue with the community. Too many board members see their job as simply representing the constituency that elected them. That's only half the job; the other half is to educate that constituency—because board members ought to be the wisest people in the community. The job of the board—paraphrasing John Dewey—is to ensure that what the wisest parents in the community want for their children is what all children receive.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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