Educational Transformation? It’s the Governance, Stupid!

In my most recent piece “Schools: Trying to Balance Coercion, Inspiration and Facilitation”, I put forward that many American public schools are on increasingly shaky ground because they are tasked with at least six very challenging and at times conflicting goals, and are being asked to achieve all of those goals with shrinking budgets. In this increasingly difficult juggling act of doing more with less, the focus is generally on curriculum, teachers, and even at times educational methodology. But I believe the mostly unexamined element in transforming our schools (as well as other institutions in our society) is the governance model – who makes the decisions and how.

Like the cautionary reminder made famous from Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, whenever I think about our society’s developmental path forward and I forget to focus on who the decision-makers are and how the decisions are made, I need to be shaken out of my stupor and reminded that, “It’s the governance, stupid!”

I believe that in any venue where people are brought together to try to accomplish something important, who makes the decisions on what to do and how those decisions are made (that is… the governance model), is easily as important as the content of those decisions. That said, I think there are a large number of people who would disagree with this statement, and would be happy to be (or support) the “enlightened despot” who makes all the right decisions to get things done. As the conventional wisdom goes, at least Mussolini (though not a very enlightened despot) made the trains run on time.

My Personal Experience

I have come to my belief in the critical role of the governance model (who makes the decisions and how) from a lifetime of experiences as a youth and later as an adult. I have seen that when people (myself included) are involved in decisions, they are generally more engaged in implementing those decisions and more willing to accept and abide by them. And where the people impacted by the decisions are not the decision-makers, the more communication and fewer degrees of separation between the “deciders” and those affected the better and more effective the decisions tend to be. And finally, I have witnessed that this wisdom applies to youth as much as it does to adults.

During my older youth I was involved in a unique youth theater group, Ann Arbor Junior Light Opera. When most people hear the words “youth theater group” they imagine a group of adults directing every aspect of a theatrical production with the young people as actors and perhaps back-stage crew as well. The conventional governance model is that the adults make all the key design and staging decisions and the youth implement those decisions and are responsible for performing the play for the audience.

But in JLO this was not the case. In the theater space where we rehearsed and otherwise mounted our productions, the director of our company was often the only adult present. Along with him, there would be some twenty to fifty youth present, depending on the size of the production. The youth cast members and back-stage worker-bees, ages 6 to 18, were being led by other youth (generally on the older side) making all the key staging decisions as producer, director, choreographer, set designer, costume designer, light designer, and stage manager.

The JLO governance model was hierarchical, with our adult director picking which plays we did (though with our input), selecting the key youth production staff for each play based on who was interested and available, and having essentially veto power over any of our production decisions. But over the course of doing maybe eight to ten plays a year, all of us youth participants had the opportunity to both be in charge of an aspect of one production while taking direction in the next from one of our peers.

It was an incredible life experience for me, and I probably spent as many hours over the course of a year willingly working on a series of JLO productions as I was required to spend in the high school I was attending at the same time. And looking back, those hours willingly spent contributed so much more to my skills and overall development.

By contrast, in the high school I attended during those same years, decisions on the curriculum and when we were expected to learn it were made by legislators and educational experts for the State of Michigan who had no knowledge of who I was and whom I never met or had the opportunity to give input to. Further, in each class I was required to attend, the lesson plan was developed and the classroom was run by the teacher, and with a few notable exceptions, without either the advice or consent of the students. Though a few of my classes were really significant in my development, most of my school time involved going through the motions and doing just enough to get a “B” and move on.

My Kids’ Experience

My own kids have had comparable experiences where the governance model of the groups and venues they participated in has made all the difference. Our son Eric pretty much enjoyed school when he went to a small private school in the early grades, where the school director and his teacher solicited and listened to and often acted upon his ideas and concerns. But when he transitioned to large public schools, where teachers ran the classrooms with little or no input from him and his fellow students, and most of what he was required to do was mandated by faraway decision-makers, our son’s experience became more and more negative. Homeschooled during his older youth, he again had more positive experiences getting involved in youth camps and conferences sponsored by our Unitarian-Universalist denomination, where he and other youth played a major role in programming, staffing and running those camps and conferences.

Our daughter Emma attended a particularly large urban public high school for one year and had the experience of having teachers with little input or control over what must be learned and at what pace. As the prime example, her geometry teacher confessed to me during one school open house for parents that there was no time to make the material interesting, there was just too much he was required to cover and most of the kids in class (including our daughter) had little or no interest.

To me, this was all about a failure of governance. Many of the students attending the class (including my daughter) were their against there will. The teacher was not empowered to set the pace for what was covered, and might have had more success given a mostly disinterested audience if he could have maybe slowed down and related some of the mathematical concepts covered to his students’ real world experiences. And the state legislators, superintendent of schools and education board members got no input from anyone in the classroom beyond the aggregate statistics of grade point averages and math scores on standardized tests.

It appeared to me that every aspect of our daughters high school suffered from too many external mandates from above along with too little feedback from below, leading to too little empowerment among the teachers, the school’s principal, let alone any empowerment among the students. The school had no sense of being a community or any sort of functioning social organism where everybody their shared any sort of common goals.

Other teachers I know in our school district have had the same complaints about dealing with a Byzantine hierarchy of regulations and protocols and the real decision-making being far removed from them and their classrooms. Every day in class they are very aware of trying to meet those six goals I called out in my previous piece. Every time I see them they can cite various anecdotes of an inefficient, top-heavy and hierarchical governance structure that requires so much of our educational spending to be made on staff, facilities and consulting outside of the actual learning venues (schools) where kids and their teachers interact. Part and parcel of a governance model that requires that most of the key decisions on who learns what, when, how and where will be made by decision-makers far removed from that learning venue, with little or no consent or even any input from the key participants – kids, teachers and parents.

This is the outmoded governance model of monarchies, the Soviet Union, and “command and control” economies. It is the Henry Ford assembly line rather than Toyota “Lean” manufacturing.

Educational “Martial Law”

It almost feels that, like some Middle Eastern countries, the US school system has been operating under some sort of “martial law” for decades. Ever since the Russians launched Sputnik in 1956, which was interpreted as a metric that the communist Soviet Union might be ahead of the US in the “space race” (or more broadly, the technology race), schools became a politicized focal point like they had not been before. The social engineering of big government was focused on getting more American kids trained up in science and math so the US could reassert its primary world position and communism could be defeated.

As a side note, it is interesting to me that until the recent addition of the essay portion of the SAT, math was half the test, even though the kind of abstract math concepts tested were only relevant to work in science and particularly engineering.

The other big series of events that shook our schools and our entire society was the whole civil rights movement. We still see the political ramifications of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the ideological division of our two main political parties and our country into “red and blue” states. In terms of schools there was a valid criticism that kids of color were being “tracked” away from academic subjects into vocational education. This was a glaring unfairness, and due to regional resistance to civil rights there was a valid concern that many localities and their school systems could not be trusted to give every American youth equal access to education. The solution adopted was another government social engineering effort which in bureaucratic terms boiled down to trying to ensure that every kid in America was put on the preferred academic track and had the same curriculum as every other kid. Differentiating curriculum to meet individual student needs risked discriminating against that student and violating their civil rights.

Based on these two prime national social engineering goals, this sort of “martial law” really got rolling in the schools in the 1980s with the Reagan administration’s “Nation at Risk” report, followed by Clinton’s “Goals 2000” and the Bush/Kennedy “No Child Left Behind”. But like real applications of martial law, if used briefly to protect public safety and civil rights, that’s one thing, but to institutionalize it into the governance model (like what happened in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries) it leads to dis-empowerment, corruption and stagnation.

Under this national mandate, the natural instincts and professionalism of teachers got subsumed in a politicized national crusade for more science and civil rights, and dictates from above replaced the wisdom of the individual teacher and their more informal low-stakes interactions with their students.

But using this national crisis management top-down governance model for education means leveraging little or none of the wisdom and internally motivated sense of purpose of the school participants. The teachers must teach what they are told to teach, when and (increasingly) in a prescribed way. The learners must learn what the teachers must teach them “for their own good”, whether they would choose to learn this or not. Add to that the expectation that “good teachers” will frame this exercise in such a way that the students will be internally motivated to learn and will go with the program without their opportunity to freely give their advice or consent.

With our current fiscal climate, going forward we seem to realistically be looking at less rather than more funding of our public schools. In the Ed Week article, “Stimulus’ End Puts Squeeze on Education Budgets”

Over the past few years, even as federal stimulus aid rolled in, districts were forced to cut extracurriculars, after-school programs, and elective teaching positions… Many face the prospect of more painful reductions over the next year or two to core academic classes, such as mathematics, reading, and science… Many state officials do not appear to be inclined to provide relief to districts by compensating for the loss of federal aid. Several governors, including a crop of freshmen elected in November on promises to rein in spending and oppose tax increases, have proposed budgets that would reduce state aid to schools for the coming academic year.

Moving Towards More Effective School Governance

Realistically, moving towards a more sustainable school model that leverages engagement of kids, their teachers and their parents in the educational process will likely happen as a number of small steps rather than some cohesive movement.

From Detroit, perhaps the US city with the biggest problems in their hierarchical school system, the Detroit Free Press article, “National Group to Recommend Charters for Detroit’s Big Conversion”, reports that the…

National Association of Charter School Authorizers… that helped to set up charter schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina will help Detroit Public Schools in an unprecedented effort to convert as many as 45 schools to charter schools by fall… “We want to encourage local educators, parents and community organizations to consider starting a charter school in Detroit,”

Earlier this year also from Detroit, I wrote a piece about teachers taking over the administration of their school…

At Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, teachers are gradually assuming administrative duties to become the city’s first teacher-led school. An extended day, part of the district’s reform policy, gives the staff time every afternoon to compare teaching strategies. And finally, a new, pilot schedule for 7th and 8th graders… [an] attempt to get concrete about the much-touted but often vague concept of “differentiated instruction” for students, especially for those who have struggled to grasp key concepts and risk falling further behind.

Out here in the Los Angeles area, I wrote a piece about an effort underway by parents in the Compton area to use the charter school laws to take over their local neighborhood school.

And though charter schools offer a unique opportunity for more governance by the key school participants, democratic governance principles can be brought to every sort of school, whether private, charter or district run. The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) is developing programs to bring students into the process of school governance…

Founded by educators from across the country, IDEA is committed to bridging the disconnect between our democratic values and the way we educate and treat young people. This disconnect is striking, as the learning experience today is largely determined by a standardized, high-stakes, and de-personalized approach that alienates young people from learning and drives gifted teachers out of the profession… In contrast, democratic education starts from the premise that every young person is unique, and that all young people ought to have the opportunity to live and learn in an environment that practices meaningful participation, that supports self-initiative in learning, and that is directed towards greater equality and social justice.

I say we move away from “martial law” in our educational governance, dial down the high stakes in the national educational expectations and let learning be the natural human drive that it is, let teachers apply their artistry to facilitate that learning process, and give the kids, teachers and parents who can address each other face-to-face more real power to decide what is learned, when, where and how.

6 replies on “Educational Transformation? It’s the Governance, Stupid!”

  1. Hi,
    I just found your blog and have added it to my list. We are a homeschooling UU family, who practices Democratic Education.


  2. Karen… cool! So if I may ask, what part of the country do you live in and what sort of homeschooling are your kids doing? Academic or more on the unschooling side?

  3. We lean more towards unschooling, though I would call us eclectic. I require the girls to do math and reading daily, but how or what they do is up to them. I also believe in setting the enviroment (ala Montessori), which is based on the children’s current interests, which for the moment is Frogs and Musicals. As far as being democratic, decisions are made together during a weekly meeting. Of course, the kids can call meetings if they want or need a meeting. We sort of fell into unschooling, as it just made sense to us and in the last few years I have found that much of the Montessori approach works well with unschooling.

    We are in the Western New York area.

  4. Karen… Initially when we pulled our oldest out of school in 8th grade, we tried to set up an academic-like curriculum at home, but he resisted it as he had done the curriculum at his school. After about maybe a year of trying this version or that of some semblance of English/math/social studies/science, we gave up and let him just pursue whatever interested him. His self-directed focus became on-line fantasy role-playing games along with community building on line and in the real world. Math and science were pretty much jettisoned.

    I am happy to report that he is now 25 and doing well for himself as an adult.

  5. We are also eclectic homeschoolers (my 15-year-old son and I) and he is primarily responsible for the content of his learning. His interests are astronomy, physics, and computer science and I just try to keep up– although he’s excellent at finding resources for himself. I’m an English nerd, but he has not studied English directly since fifth grade. Amazingly enough, he has a strong grasp of grammar and spelling and is learning to express himself clearly in writing.

    I believe in public education, but the combination of its compulsory nature, funding cuts, and gigantic student populations is a recipe for disaster. Who can learn in that kind of environment? Who can teach?

  6. I agree with you that those sorts of environments impose huge difficulties for young people trying to develop themselves, and for the adults that are trying as teachers to facilitate that process. IMO it boils down to the conventional school governance model which is authoritarian, whether explicitly or implicitly so.

    You might enjoy my posts about my own kids’ unschooling experiences…

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