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Published:April 7th, 2008 07:02 EST
Educational Change

Educational Change

By Glenn Brandon Burke (Mentor/Speaker)

Successful school districts are run like successful businesses! -gbb

Every principal must be an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is the opposite of a bureaucrat. Bureaucrats, especially good ones, know the rules backwards and forwards and always follow them. In a routine, stable situation, that's a good thing. When confronted with the non-routine, though, bureaucrats cannot act until a higher-up gives them a new rule that they can follow. In schools, where each day brings new and previously unknown situations, bureaucracy is deadly. Bureaucracy is not limited to large, urban school districts. Even small, suburban districts can become rule-bound. Bureaucracy flourishes wherever customers have no choice. Bureaucrats act the way they do because they can get away with ignoring customers. Don't blame the people who work in those kinds of organizations, because if you worked there, you'd probably act like a bureaucrat, too. Do blame the organization and its managers-- they know better, and it's up to them to see that customer’s matter, especially those customers, namely, students who have no choice but the public schools. In business, health care and education, you will find bureaucracy in both large and small organizations.

Every school district, even old-fashioned, rule-bound school districts, has a few entrepreneurs. And in successful school districts, everyone is an entrepreneur in spirit and in behavior. Usually, an entrepreneurial principal in a bureaucratic district is viewed by the central office as a renegade, an outlaw and a troublemaker. She fights for her teachers and students every day, hangs way out there taking chances with the central office, and gets no thanks from above for her accomplishments.

Every school controls its own budget. Imagine…it's now considered politically expedient to be in favor of local neighborhood control for schools, rather than central office dictatorship. Almost every school district has adopted school-based management, school-site management, local school councils or something similar. Your superintendent surely claims to be granting great leeway to each school to make its own decisions. Chances are, though, that he's lying to you. Fortunately, when you know what to ask, it's easy to tell the difference between talk and action concerning neighborhood control.

I’m a former Board of Director member for the Community Alliance for Reform Education (C.A.R.E.) in Clark County Nevada. When Clark County School District Superintendent, Dr. Walt Rulffes attended our first meeting, he listened for nearly two hours as to the benefits of a decentralized school. He did not seem to favor our beliefs. The following week in the Las Vegas Review Journal, Dr. Rulffes announced his great idea for the “Superintendent School Program.”

Everyone is accountable for student performance and budgets. “Accountability" has become one of the most overused words in all of education. Politicians demand school accountability, superintendents vow to demand it and businesspeople who become involved in school reform often conclude that it's at the root of the whole problem. To these people, accountability means getting tough on teachers. It's really just another form of teacher-bashing, and it misses the point.

Accountability should mean openness, so that everyone from parents to teachers to the community at large gets regular, understandable and credible accounts of what is going on in the schools. Three categories of reports matter most: student performance, budget performance and customer satisfaction. Budgets are the key input to schools and student performance is their key output.

In a successful school district, the superintendent knows exactly how much progress each school is making, knows from annual questionnaires how the students, parents and employees in each school rate the principal's leadership, and knows which principals are using their money wisely. The principal in a great school will usually be able to tell you exactly which teachers are delivering good student progress in each subject, and which ones are not. She will have a plan for helping the teachers who need it and for removing the few teachers who won't improve.

Every school is a community of learners. In a school that is a community, there is a consistent set of shared beliefs about what the school should be in order for its children to succeed. In a school that is divided into conflicting cliques, children suffer because they are presented with inconsistent expectations and incompatible demands.

In a unified school community, scarce resources still must be allocated among competing demands, but these decisions do not lead to outbreaks of fighting among the adults over the basic values of the school-- because those issues have been openly confronted and resolved. What does it take to transform an ordinary school into a true learning community? It's not magic-- it's plain, old-fashioned hard work.

The school must reach out to the outside community that it serves and put in the time and the work that it takes to understand what the community wants and needs for its children-- and then come up with a plan that meets those needs. This doesn't mean compromising or having winners and losers. It means continuing to debate the issues until the school locates that space where the many competing demands intersect.

Education in the state of Nevada ranks among the lowest and worst in the country in nearly every aspect. From standardized test scores to teen pregnancy, to teen suicide, to the dropout rate to SAT scores. The old adage, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” doesn’t apply here. The state of Nevada, and more specifically, Clark County School District, is broken and must be fixed!

Glenn Brandon Burke, M.A.Ed.