It’s the Governance, Stupid!

Circle of Youth & AdultsIn the Education Week March 19 article, “It’s the Classroom, Stupid: School Reform Where It Counts the Most”, author Kalman R. Hettleman is at least attempting to address the issue of governance that I highlighted in my piece yesterday on “Defining Governance”. Hettleman says…

The mismanagement of classroom instruction is the ugly secret and fatal flaw of school reform. Everyone knows that school systems are horrendously mismanaged. The media keep us fully informed and outraged at foul-ups like overspent budgets, computer glitches, bungled paperwork, defective maintenance, and unresponsive bureaucrats. But these failings, as serious as they are, tell only a small part of the story.

Though he does not use the “G-word”, I believe what he is addressing in his article speaks directly to school governance, specifically who is empowered to make school management decisions and what is the process for making those decisions.

According to Hettleman, schools lack good management because educators (teachers, principals, and others) are not taught management skills in college or on the job, and are in fact predisposed to be weak managers because of their personal temperament to strive to “nurture the growth of children” along with “their professional culture of insularity”.

Specifically to temperament, Hettleman says that most educators “are more at ease with informal and collegial, rather than formal and hierarchical, relationships, and they resist being squeezed into a corporate-management mold”. Essentially, that they are not good soldiers, not trained to follow the orders of their superiors. I strongly disagree with his point here, recalling that the teachers that had the greatest positive impact in my life tended to be more informal, more about relationships (with their students) than rules, and more free-agents than compliant worker-bees.

Regarding their professional culture, he says that teachers tend to want to isolate themselves in their classrooms with their students, away from parents, politicians and management experts whom they see as “grandstanding quarterbacks that constantly second-guess their own expertise”. This speaks to what I would say is the hierarchical top-down, “command and control” nature of educational governance, where teachers (at the lower end of the pyramid of control) are generally not empowered to make their own professional judgments, but expected to follow the dictates of their “superiors”.

Further, Hettleman says that school reformers don’t pay attention to this lack of management skills. I would reframe that assertion to say that school reformers (along with most everyone else) do not pay attention to school governance (or governance in general). Who is empowered to make decisions and what the process is to make those decisions is in my opinion the unheralded key to success or failure of most of our contemporary institutions. Teachers are not slaves, serfs or trained monkeys, but members of an educated citizenry that can contribute greatly to management challenges when empowered to do so by more egalitarian “circle of equals” governance practices.

So then Hettleman lays out his take on the specifics of the problem…

Teachers aren’t given strong support in their daily classroom activities: when core curricula are not carefully selected; when training for teachers in implementation of the curricula, including sequence and pacing of lesson plans, is neglected; when tools for gathering and analyzing student data are not provided; when there is not a proper alignment between what is to be taught and the capacity of teachers (for example, the instructional time allotted and the class size) to address the continuum of fast to slow and struggling students; and when there is insufficient supervision, monitoring, and feedback loops.

(That is quite a sentence, brazenly longer and with more clauses than even I would fling onto the printed page!) I do agree with his first point that teachers need more external support in their work with students. But some of the forms of support that he calls out are more in line with the hierarchical “command and control” model of governance where teachers need to be instructed by their management “superiors” on the proper way to deliver a standardized curriculum. This rather than creating more of a “circle of equals” governance process, leveraging what he cites as teachers’ proclivity to be “informal and collegial, rather than formal and hierarchical”.

Hettleman states that the key to reform is better focus on the “daily interactions between teachers and students”, which he feels is the hardest change to achieve. His recipes for that change features a move away from traditional educational management by school “superintendants” toward school “CEOs” who will act more on the contemporary entrepreneurial business model. This new approach includes contracting with and outsourcing to “charter-management organizations” to run individual schools, and “nonprofit corporations such as Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools, which recruit and train nontraditional teachers and principals”.

He admits that these unorthodox approaches have had mixed results so far, but he firmly believes that moving towards more “professional” management practices is the path forward to more successful schools…

Still, management reforms must find their way onto the public radar and into classroom teaching and learning. Even the best and brightest teachers must get more support than they now get. It’s the classroom, stupid. The future of school reform won’t succeed otherwise.

I don’t see it quite that way. In my thinking, “It’s the governance, stupid”, that will transform schools, rather than this endless and perpetual tinkering of reform. Flatten the org chart and empower teachers to work more collegially and collaboratively as a circle of equals (and even, heaven forbid, include students) with a key role in school decision-making rather than just taking orders from above.

Let’s not continue to give governance short shrift. The business world (at least in my 23 years of experience in perhaps more enlightened corporate work environments) has gone a long way towards “flattening the org chart” and empowering individual workers to become full stakeholders, including “stopping the assembly-line” when they think something is not right. This is all part of our culture’s historic transition from patriarchy to partnership, from hierarchies of command and control to facilitative management empowering circles of equals.
Tags: school reform, school transformation, classroom reform, school governance, educational governance, governance transformation, circle of equals, patriarchy to partnership, hierarchy of control, command and control

4 replies on “It’s the Governance, Stupid!”

  1. I find this article very informative.
    May I use this to support my view on “The Formal Models of Educational Management”? I will post it with attribution, of course.
    I am enrolled in Diploma in Teaching/ M.A. in Teaching and I had a hard time doing researches until I found this article in your blog.
    Great Blog!!

  2. I think that you are both right. You are correct to focus on governance, but a flat hierarchy can be overly confusing and hard to execute. I think that Hettleman over-states the use of rigid management. Paul Adler wrote a paper about coercive and enabling bureaucracy. I think this captures the middle ground quite well. Bureaucracy or governance is necessary, but successful bureaucracies have a set of features that allow them to be enabling.

  3. Ben… thanks for the thoughts on this… I believe it to be crucial topic at this point in our human history that gets way too little play.

    I will have to read Adler’s paper on different types of bureaucracies. Sounds like the difference between directive and facilitative leadership, the latter being what promotes a more egalitarian process of group consent. I’m not against bureaucracy totally, it is needed for institutions to function, but I have trouble with top-down bureaucracy, particularly with enough degrees of separation so that the decision-makers and those affected by the decisions don’t have a relationship or even actually communicate at all. Also see my next piece on “Power (Over) Corrupts”.

    Unfortunately the folks that host my blog have already done the backup, so when they reformat and restore the backup (hopefully on Friday or Saturday) your comment and my response will dissappear.

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