Sometimes the weight of experience demands that we re-examine our most deeply held beliefs and assumptions, re-evaluating them in light of what we have learned. As a 25-year veteran school administrator and a third-term school board member, we have long been ardent supporters of public school reform initiatives. However, over the past seven or eight years, we have become convinced that simple reform is not enough to improve our schools- systemic change is needed.
Poor student achievement, ballooning costs, and the overall failure of "quick fix" reforms to improve education for Michigan children have caused us to question the future of public education as an institution. Reform results are needed, not simply reform efforts, and in light of this fact, educators must now be willing to examine fresh approaches to education even if those approaches seem too different or "radical."
Consider the following. Many proposals to improve the public school system have come and gone over the past 20 years, but none has had any lasting or meaningful success in improving educational quality. Increased school funding, expanded Internet access, countless curriculum innovations, local and national education standards these and other proposals have not proven to be comprehensive, measurable solutions to the alarming decline in student performance.
But why have all past reforms been so ineffective? A significant part of the answer lies in the fact that the public education system is funded and operated as a government bureaucracy, which breeds in schools a command-and-control management structure and a change-resistant work culture. The vast majority of previous reforms have done nothing to change either this structure or culture.
Public school governance is based largely on "top-down" assumptions about how to manage people and organizations. These assumptions have been rejected in the private sector, where Total Quality Management and other business concepts have popularized decentralized decision making and individual employee empowerment. The private sector has eschewed the command-and-control model for a very good reason: It no longer works, if it ever did.
In the realm of education, technology has now made it possible for learning to take place at any time and at nearly any reasonable location. The public schools' heavily bureaucratic leadership structure must be dismantled and reconstructed before educators and students can fully take advantage of the many new technological innovations as well as new models for leading and managing twenty-first century organizations.
Many educators fear the changes to their work culture and environment necessary for positive, lasting reform because these changes challenge the core beliefs and principles underlying public education. These beliefs simply do not support broad options for parents in a competitive environment for educational service providers. As a result, excellence and quality in the current monopolistic system are too often left to chance or to only those educators willing to stand above the crowd, take risks, put students first, and commit to their own programs of accountability and continuous improvement.
It is time for dramatic and wholesale, not piecemeal, changes to the present structure and culture of our public schools. Educators at all levels whether school board members, teachers, or administrators, must consider and even embrace such ideas as broadened school choice, increased incentives and competition, some form of vouchers, charter and home schools, standards-based education, tuition tax credits, public school deregulation, public/private partnerships, and other innovative reform concepts. They must also be willing to learn from the ideas of their customers i.e., students and parents, and their critics in the search for a new model of schooling which integrates many options.
The process of developing an integrated, systemic solution to the problems of public education must be open, inclusive, and driven above all by the goal of meeting all students' educational needs. It's time to focus on creating a new model for schooling that will effectively meet the needs of our kids as Michigan and America move forward into the twenty-first century.
Gerard Pound has nearly 28 years of service in public schools. He has served in three school districts and held administrative positions in finance, curriculum, community and adult education, personnel, and employee relations and the superintendency.
Sandra Nadig has been a public school board member for over 10 years and currently serves as board president. She was named by the Michigan Association of School Boards as an Ambassador for Public Education in 1997.
Together, Pound and Nadig assist school administrators, board members, teachers, support staff, and community members in developing collaborative partnerships in schools. Additional information can be found on their Web site at www.lni.net/becon .