Sunday, May 04, 2008

When School reform works - and then is crushed

Liberating the Schoolhouse

By Wellford Wilms

Eighteen teachers, Baldwin Park High School’s “leadership team,” sit in a semicircle with their arms folded across their chests looking at the floor. The year is 2003 and the new principal, Julie Infante, an exuberant 44-year-old woman, explains how they are going to lead this high school out of its academic doldrums together. The teachers are clearly skeptical, either distrusting what Infante is saying or disbelieving that they can do it. The Los Angeles County school has hit bottom. The campus is littered with trash, fights are common, students cut classes without penalty, test scores are so low that the school’s accreditation is in jeopardy, and the faculty is demoralized. The stakes are high because failure is an invitation for the state to take over.

Remarkably, in three years, between 2003 and 2006, with coaching from UCLA’s School Management Program, the teachers and the principal accomplished a stunning success. By every important academic measure, the school made impressive gains. The campus was cleaned up, the number of disciplinary cases fell, student absenteeism declined, and test scores improved dramatically. Not surprisingly, the teachers felt more positive about the administrators and less isolated from one another, and their job satisfaction increased. But, in 2006, in an equally astonishing turn of events, the board of education and the superintendent removed Infante, replacing her with a new principal who began to reverse the bold steps that had produced the turnaround.

What happened? Why would the board and superintendent undo the actions that had produced such remarkable results? It was because they failed to understand what Infante and the UCLA coaches had accomplished. They were blinded by their own ambitions and by their conviction that administrative top-down control is the only way to run the schools. What they could not see was that Infante had turned the leadership of the school upside down, leading from behind the scenes and encouraging teachers to take control. As the teachers expanded their responsibility, a new professional authority began to emerge among them that translated into new norms for the school. Instead of blaming everyone but themselves for the students’ failure, the teachers took on collective responsibility for the students’ success.

This is a story about why bottom-up educational reforms that work cannot survive in the face of top-down control. It is ultimately a story about the use of power. The dominant belief is that top-down control is the only way to hold principals and teachers accountable for measurable results. The less prevalent belief is that bottom-up collaboration between teachers and administrators is a source of innovation that builds commitment to and support for successful reforms. The conflict has become especially important in the face of the federal No Child Left Behind initiative, which requires administrators to produce high test scores or risk their jobs. The pressure for test scores leads school boards and superintendents to mandate what is to be taught and to reward principals and teachers who comply and punish those who do not. The effect of the law, says author Jonathan Kozol, is like placing a “sword of terror just above teachers’ heads,” causing many of the best of them to leave the profession.1 As boards and superintendents usurp authority, the teachers who stay often become docile, as do other workers in stifling bureaucracies, resigning themselves to being told what to do. It is little wonder that without authority and leadership at the schoolhouse, gains made one day are so often erased the next.

Amazingly little research has been done on the subject of why school reforms are rarely sustained. Most of what passes for research is really little more than polemics. Books with promising titles like “Failure Is NOT an Option” and “Creating a Positive School Culture” invoke rhetoric about what should be done, without analysis of the underlying problems. How many years has education been a top national priority, and how much have we learned from the billions of dollars spent? Quite a few, and not much. The few research studies that have been done show that reforms do not last because leadership changes, districts change their focus, teachers lose their motivation, and energy for innovation diminishes.2 But a close examination of the shakeup at Baldwin Park High School reveals an even more fundamental culprit: adherence to the belief that power can only flow from the top to the bottom.

I have seen the clash of these beliefs in every organization I have studied over the past 30 years, from schools and universities to trade and teacher unions, to corporations and police departments. The research is clear: Collaborative decision-making invariably improves employees’ productivity, the quality of their work lives, and their job satisfaction.3 But these improvements always wither with the introduction of top-down control, which strips employees of their professionalism, weakens their commitment to the organization’s goals and dampens their motivation to work hard and do a good job.4 In Baldwin Park we see both sides of the conflict play out. Once the board and superintendent decided to impose their control on the school, they destroyed the collaboration between the principal and teachers that had made it so vital. They also squandered the chance to build a new model of school-led reform that could have sustained the improvements over time. Unfortunately, Baldwin Park could be any school district in the country because the automatic and destructive use of top-down control is such a familiar and discouraging story.

The Turnaround

Baldwin Park is a medium-size city about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The school district comprises 14 elementary, four middle and three high schools, one of which is Baldwin Park High School. Baldwin Park High has an attractive campus built in the 1950s with low-slung buildings now housing about 2,400 students, 88 percent of whom are Latino. Nearly 20 percent speak little English. Students come from the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, with more than half receiving reduced-cost or free lunches. The school employs 84 teachers, who have taught there for an average of 10 years.

Before 2003, for as long as anyone can remember, the school had operated in the traditional manner. Teachers talk about how power had always been held by administrators, which had been the cause of many of the school’s problems. Recalled one teacher, “We’d always had a top-down management style from time immemorial, and most of the problems on the campus were the result of the administration rather than the administration preventing them.” The school also had a reputation for being rough. Sergio Corona, a school board member who was its president during the turnaround, had attended Baldwin Park High School. He called it a “gladiator school.” “People would come in from other cities every day and there were fights. I’ve seen rumbles at that school, and they were bad,” said Corona. It was little wonder that Baldwin Park also suffered from a poor academic reputation. Mark Skvarna, a 53-year-old career Air Force man with a graying crew cut, came to the district in 1998 as its fiscal officer and became superintendent in 2001. He acknowledges that the school had the lowest possible statewide ranking on student test scores. “Its numbers were in the dumps. It was the worst of the worst,” Skvarna said.

By most accounts, hiring Infante was an act of desperation. The students’ low academic performance, measured by the California Academic Performance Index (API), was an embarrassment to the district, and the school badly needed new leadership. The API, a scale that runs from 200 to 1,000, is determined by annual testing. “At the time, the school was a 475 or 479, and it had been dropping and dropping. I think they were at a loss to know what to do with it,” said Infante. Corona recalled that he asked Infante during her hiring interview: “We know that it’s not the greatest school. What can you do?” Infante convinced him of her “game plan,” explaining that the teachers felt alienated and that she wanted to empower them. “She was not telling me things I wanted to hear, but she had a coherent, logical plan ... that focused on learning,” said Corona. Infante was hired. Though the board and district office hoped that her ideas would work, no one grasped how radical her plan really was.

Shortly after she took over as principal in 2002, Infante brought in UCLA’s School Management Program to help her organize the teachers to rebuild the school. The program had a reputation for teaching principals and teachers to work collaboratively. The UCLA staff had helped Infante when she was an assistant principal in El Monte, a neighboring district. Now in Baldwin Park, two UCLA coaches signed on to support Infante and the 18 teachers who made up a new “leadership team.”

In early 2003, Dan Chernow, executive director of UCLA’s School Management Program, who knew my research and my interest in education, asked if I would like to join the project to document its progress. He showed me the school’s abysmal statistics and described UCLA’s plan to coach teachers to take responsibility by running their own meetings on the assumption that, by setting their own priorities and being responsible for follow-through, they would become school leaders. I told Chernow that I thought his strategy would fail. I had learned from my industrial studies that changing an organization’s culture required changing how the work was done. In the case of Baldwin Park High School, I told Chernow, it meant changing what happened in the classroom. I was certain that his plan, like other reforms, would never reach the classroom or, more likely, that it would be swept aside by some new idea. But Chernow persisted, assuring me that I could write about whatever I found. Despite my skepticism, I agreed. Baldwin Park presented the chance to test my own ideas while I documented what I knew would be a certain failure. I was in for a surprise.

When I began the research, observing meetings, running focus groups and interviewing teachers and administrators, I was struck by the firmness of Infante’s convictions about sharing decision-making power. One day I asked her if being a woman had anything to do with it. She drew up her short body in her chair and retorted: “I’m not the nurturing kind. I’ll nurture kids, or someone in a professional way, but I’m not a touchy-feely person.” Though not “touchy-feely,” she had been deeply influenced by a principal in her former district who had taken her under his wing when she left teaching to become an administrator. He called her “the young one” and made sure that she was exposed to the school’s operations. Infante recalled that he “was looking at me as not just an assistant principal but thinking about what he could do to help me succeed. It shaped a lot of my dealings later with teachers because all of us want the same thing—to be motivated to try different things and to expand our horizons.” She said she had learned about sharing decision-making in El Monte, where she helped build a new school from the ground up. “It has to be a team effort,” she told me, weaving the fingers of both hands together. “Teachers and administrators have to do it together.”

Infante’s Vision

Months before Infante took over at Baldwin Park High, she visited the campus, talking with teachers to get a better picture of what was going on. She describes sitting in on meetings where teachers passed the time talking about housekeeping and pointing blaming fingers at the administrators and at each other. It was common to hear teachers talk about the school’s “culture of failure,” she recalls. “The teachers felt completely isolated. There was no trust among them, there was no concern to know what each other were doing. The teachers were overwhelmed and just trying to survive.” The teachers’ sense of isolation was passed along to students, who were oblivious to the shadow their test scores cast on the entire school community. “Students had no idea how their behavior shaped the school’s poor image and that their failure ultimately came back to hurt them,” said Infante. “The adults didn’t know how to communicate with the students, so it was clear that it was going to take a lot of dialogue to turn this into one school [community].”

To reverse the school’s course, Infante knew that the teachers had to become part of the decision-making process, something they had never done. “I wanted to develop a leadership team from a cross-section of the school—not just the cheerleaders,” she explained. John Otterness, a former mathematics teacher who was one of the UCLA coaches, recalled, “Julie tried to make it a diverse group, not just the traditional leadership thing where you pull in the department chairs and that’s about it.” Infante said she asked for volunteers who “wanted to be part of an earth-shattering experience. I wanted them to feel honored to be selected and to know that they were on the ground level of change.” Infante also included the local teachers’ union representative to ensure that the union would feel part of her plan. After consulting with members of the faculty and department heads, Infante chose 18 teachers to be the new leadership team.
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