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

The Essence of School Renewal: The Prose Has Begun

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Site-Based management is no longer an anomaly. But now that schools are immersed in the effort, we must think about how self-governance can become an enduring and sensible way to improve education.

The pressure of exhilarating events, which until then had aroused in me a surprising level of energy, abruptly vanished .... Many of my colleagues felt the same way. We realized that the poetry was over and the prose was beginning; that the county fair had ended .... It was only then that we realized how challenging and in many ways unrewarding was the work that lay ahead .... Vaclay Havel, upon the ascendancy of a freely elected government in Czechoslovakia
The quest for school empowerment flourished for a time as a countermovement to monolithic bureaucracies bent on control and standardization. As we built our network of democratic schools from 2 to 61, my colleagues and I experienced a headiness about being in the vanguard of site-based control, shared governance, schoolwide instructional innovations, and action research. Schools in our League of Professional Schools were knowingly going against the grain, receiving recognition for their fight, and gaining tolerance from most policymakers.
Now the current shift in reform has generated feelings of exhilaration and fear in many of us. After a decade of legislated reform without the expected results, policymakers have actively turned to our schools and others like them as examples of a new way to improve education. Our state is a microcosm of the shifting reform agenda throughout the United States. Prior reforms are being dismantled, replaced with policies providing for deregulation and return of control to local schools. External agencies are being reorganized to support locally designed answers.
These sudden changes have left many of us who fought for such changes in a fearful predicament. I think of the words of Havel. Can a countermovement now succeed as a dominant movement? Are we—teachers, principals, central office staff, superintendents, university personnel, professional associations, and local school boards—up to the task? Now that many of us have the freedom to decide how to educate, do we have robust ideas of our own? Ultimately, can the masses of practitioners in schools achieve massive changes through decentralization?
I fear the bandwagon. I fear the proselytizers. I fear the rush of excitement. Ultimately I fear that we will blow it unless we strip this reform to its essential principles, lay the tracks for its accomplishment, and allow schools to learn from one another. What must be done over time to make the site-based change movement an enduring and sensible way to improve education? Let's address our collective fear and replace it with confidence based on how we might proceed.

A Super Vision

In order for a school to be educationally successful, it must be a community of professionals working together toward a vision of teaching and learning that transcends individual classrooms, grade levels, and departments. The entire school community must develop a set of principles, not simply as an exercise but to establish a covenant to guide future decisions about goals, staffing, scheduling, materials, assessment, curriculum, staff development, and resource allocation.
  1. Learning should be an active process that demands full student participation in pedagogically valid work. Students need to make choices, accept responsibility, and become self-directed.
  2. Learning should be both an individual and a cooperative venture, where students work at their own pace and performance levels and also have opportunities to work with other students on solving problems.
  3. Learning should be goal-oriented and connected to the real world so that students understand the applications of what they learn inside of school to their outside lives and communities.
  4. Learning should be personalized to allow students, with their teachers, to set learning goals that are realistic and attainable but challenging and pertinent to their future aspirations.
  5. Learning should be documentable, diagnostic, and reflective, providing continuous feedback to students and parents to encourage students and to train them in self-evaluation. Assessment should be seen as a tool to develop further teaching and learning strategies.
  6. Learning should be in a comfortable and attractive physical environment and in an atmosphere of support and respect, where students' own life experiences are affirmed and valued and where mistakes are analyzed constructively as a natural step in the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.
By developing such principles, a school provides itself with a guide to compare current practices and to explore how it can act to reflect the principles more clearly and powerfully (from Teaching and Learning Task Force 1991).

A Process and a Commitment

Concurrently, the school needs to activate its covenant by determining the decision-making processes it will follow. How will schoolwide matters, such as approval of, and funding for, activities and materials, be decided upon? Will there be advisory groups? Shared decision-making groups? Will some person(s) hold veto power? Will there be direct referendums? Elected representatives? Ultimately who will be responsible for what decisions? Simply put, a school needs a constitution, which clearly explains the path to be followed for resolving schoolwide instructional decisions.
For example, schools in The League make shared decisions according to a democratic process (1989). No one person or position carries greater weight in decisions than anyone else. The actual procedures of League schools vary from consensus to majority vote; from representation including only teachers and administrators to representation including central office, students, parents, paraprofessionals, and other community/business groups; from a narrow school focus on staff development and curriculum to a wide focus on total site-based resources (including the entire budget, and hiring and evaluating personnel). Once a constitution is proposed, revised, and agreed to by those it represents, the tracks are laid for the “school renewal train” to run.
A vision of learning—the covenant—with a concomitant decision-making process—the constitution— needs approval by those it will affect. Superintendents, school boards, and district personnel need to understand, approve, work with, and support the school's vision and operating plan, as well as provide technical assistance and resources to the work ahead. As important, the principal and teaching staff need to publicly commit themselves to the integrity of the process for an agreed-upon time.
A commitment to principles and governance process does not mean that every individual pledges to be actively involved in all decisions; rather, it is a commitment to how the school will operate. Individuals are agreeing to support the process and implement the decisions that come from it. With a vision, a process, and a commitment, the implementation work can begin.

Assessment and Information-Seeking

Teachers and school-based administrators often groan when assessment is mentioned. Most practitioners are action-oriented. Stopping to collect data seems to them to be a fact-finding effort that simply slows a school down. Unfortunately, site-based innovations mean nothing if a school cannot determine if the efforts have had an effect on students. Most schools move from innovation to innovation (“We are doing whole language, or cooperative learning, or curriculum integration”) and define success as the implementation of the latest innovation. To be blunt, this is nonsense. What difference does any innovation make if a school cannot determine effects on kids?
Effects do not necessarily mean test scores. They might mean exhibits, videos of student work, portfolios, attitudes and thought samples, attendance rates, transitions to next levels of school and work, and so forth. Schools need to ask themselves what data currently exist or could be collected to assess the results of current teaching practices on students, as well as what information could be collected at a later time to assess progress of new efforts.
To determine equity of learning, data should be disaggregated by socioeconomic class, race/ethnicity, gender, and grade. Students should not be overlooked as data collectors, interviewers, surveyors, synthesizers, analyzers, and reporters. For example, they might conduct studies to earn credit for classes in government, science, language, civics, mathematics, and so on. If teachers, students, and administrators are to have the information necessary for further decisions as they move toward goal attainment, the school needs to be a center of action research.


After assessing current effects, a school needs to establish and clarify its most important learning goals. Does the school's assessment suggest goals such as: developing skills and attitudes for responsible citizenship, acquiring an appreciation for and facility with multiple forms of literacy, using science as critical inquiry across subject areas, graduating with prerequisites for employment and continuing education?
Such goal-setting needs to be thought of pragmatically. What is most worth spending time and money on? Should a school take a multiple goals with the corresponding assessments, or should it focus on one or two, branching out from there? For schools where a need is glaring and urgent, it is important to choose narrow goals—for example, improving mathematics performance or reducing the retention rate. On the other hand, some schools will want to forge out—pursuing multiple goals under their guiding principles. The result would be to change the entire educational experiences and environment of the school. The question is one of evolution versus revolution.

Resources Must Reflect Priorities

Depending on their district and state policies, schools have varying degrees of control over time (meeting, planning days, research); money (from staff development to the total school budget); and educational designs (curriculum, scheduling, assessment, grading, staffing, grouping, reporting). In our experience, for a school to begin site-based changes, it must have control over at least staff development time and money and at least some matters of curriculum. Staff development money and time should be used to plan and learn together those pedagogical methods, procedures, and skills needed to accomplish the school's goals. Curriculum should be planned and implemented, learning should be assessed, and the school should be organized in a way that reflects those goals.
Again, the issue is whether to seek improvement by working within current structures (curriculum, schedules, tests) or by trying to transform them into new structures. This decision will depend upon the covenant of principles, the readiness and history of staff in prior accomplishments, and the support of the district and community.

Seduction and Distraction

As educators struggle with these issues, the national publicity around “restructuring” can become a distraction to the most important strides a school can make toward long-term development. In other writings, I have outlined how many educators are mentally locked into dated conceptions of schooling (Glickman 1991). Some of these conceptions are that (1) schools are sets of individual classrooms, (2) with 25–30 students per teachers, (3) where teaching is for set periods of time within a fixed school day and calendar year, (4) textbooks are the materials, (5) uniform curriculum is essential, and (6) students need to be in grades and be assessed by grade-level standardized tests.
Such views of schooling have created impossible burdens for teachers and administrators to provide the best education for all students. These deep structures of schools press teachers to make classrooms routine and repetitive, with great emphasis on controlling, rather than finding ways to motivate students (McNeil 1986). Ultimately, optimal environments must spring from unconventional notions of schooling, such as allowing for longer blocks of time for students and teachers to be together, continuity of small communities of students and teachers, interactive materials and technology, interdisciplinary curriculum, extended school days and years, nongraded grouping, flexibility for differentiating staff, new assessments of learning, and built-in planning time for teachers through reallocations of instructional time and extended contracts.
The current problem with the national rhetoric about restructuring is that schools can be induced to try to make these changes without a thorough understanding of why such changes are necessary and why they are worth the inevitable confusions and conflicts that will ensue. Particular innovations, rather than teachers' professional and moral knowledge about what's right for their school, can easily become the litmus test of being “pedagogically correct.”
To prevent that from happening, schools need to restructure their vision and decision-making process first “as the necessary but not sufficient condition” for dealing with other structural changes (see Sarason 1990). Otherwise, if not derived from the deliberate, democratic discourse of the schools, such current innovations as whole language, interdisciplinary curriculum, cooperative learning, interactive technology, nongraded schools, heterogeneity, and authentic assessments are doomed to burn bright for a few years, then fade away—to reappear in the next cycle following another “back to basic” movement.

Getting the Point

The League of Professional Schools is first and foremost premised on bringing teachers and administrators to the table, where they can view themselves (and others) as caring, committed individuals who want to do right. A community of professionals with a spectrum of personal values and ideologies, they struggle as a school to become independent from external answers and authority figures. They laugh and cry together as they learn to be responsible stewards for the vision of their institution (Goodlad 1991). In time, they learn that the independence from hierarchical authority they have achieved needs to be reflected in their relationships and activities with students. This is the only way educators can come to understand democratic participation as an educative process for all who live in schools.

Glickman, C. D. (1991). “Pretending Not To Know What We Know.” Educational Leadership 48, 8: 4–10.

Goodlad, J. I. (November 9, 1991). “The Moral Imperative in Education: The Lawrence Kohlberg Distinguished Lecture.” The Annual Conference of the Association for Moral Education, Athens, Ga.

League of Professional Schools. (1989). “Orientation and Planning Manual.” Unpublished manuscript, The Program for School Improvement, Athens, Ga.

McNeil, L. M. (1986). Contradictions of Control: School Structure and Knowledge. New York: Methuen/Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sarason, S. (1990). The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Teaching and Learning Task Force. (1991). “Report on Learning.” Unpublished manuscript, The Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, Atlanta, Ga.

End Notes

1 V. Havel, (1990), “The Velvet Hangover,” Harpers 281, 1685: 18–21.

2 Schoolteacher and spouse Sara Orton Glickman coined the term “pedagogically correct.”

Carl Glickman is professor emeritus of education at the University of Georgia. He is the author of the bestselling ASCD books Leadership for Learning: How to Help Teachers Succeed and Developmental Supervision.

Overall, he has written 13 books, three of which were recognized by national education organizations as outstanding education books of the year. His supervision text, coauthored with Gordon and Ross-Gordon, is in its 10th edition and continues to be the leading text in the field. Glickman, once active in ASCD, has keynoted to audiences in the thousands at various conferences, including five major presentations, and served as a featured general assembly presenter.

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