Monday, November 28, 2011

Rethinking Administration Part II: Solutions

It’s time to re-conceive school administration as a set of tasks rather than as individual persons.  These tasks can then be distributed within the system, either to make administration do-able, or, more radically, to eliminate the traditional building level administrator entirely.  Improving education means reconsidering traditional ideas when those ideas get in the way of the end goal of the educational enterprise: great student learning.
Many would say that we need to do a better job of recruiting, training and inducting administrators.  There are also those that would say that we should look for administrative talent outside the ranks of educators, and recruit administrators from the ranks of business and industry.
Neither of these solutions has much promise.  If improved recruitment, training and induction of administrators were a solution, we’d already be doing it.  At best, it can produce a handful of superstars, when what we need is systems to elevate the practice of the average administrator.  Those systems are doomed to failure because the job is itself unreasonable – you have to be “superman” (or woman) to perform it.  Systems that speak to the average are an inefficient way to create the exceptional. 
Likewise, recruiting from outside the profession means you will recruit people with a subset of skills needed for successful administration, but certain skills, like evaluation, curriculum and assessment, are so deeply rooted in classroom practice that an educational leader from outside would be rendered dependent on others, or risk failure in these key categories.
This points to a simpler solution: why not re-conceive administration as tasks rather than individuals, and then distribute these tasks within the organization to people with the skills and talent to perform individual tasks well?  Then a range of administrative solutions become possible:
  • Elimination of the building administrator: The more radical solution is found in a handful of teacher led schools around the country.  At the Math Science Leadership Academy, an elementary school organized by union leaders in Denver, administrative tasks are distributed among a team of teacher leaders.  The existence of a strategic compensation model, ProComp, encourages leadership work engagement among teachers.  But to succeed, communities have to let go of traditional paradigms of the classroom and school: one teacher full time in the classroom (leadership work requires release time within the student day), and the single “go to” administrator as the ombudsman for every issue.
  • Reconceptualizing administration as traffic control: This model is found in the Plattsburgh NY City School District where superintendent Jake Short believes in cultivating and “driving down” decision making capacity in the system to the level of implementation, where the information to make good decisions actually exists.  Short monitors the resulting decisions for quality, and legality, and to make sure that the necessary decisions are in fact made and implemented.  When interviewing Short, I pressed him on how he would behave if he disagreed with one of the resulting decisions.  In matters pertaining to the legality of the decision, he is obligated to intervene, but otherwise it becomes a persuasion task; he avoids overruling the decisions of the people to whom he has delegated in the interest of nurturing a system with a distributed capacity for excellent decision making.

    An expansive Wallace Foundation study devoted to examining the traits of effective school principals has found that high student achievement is linked to “collective leadership”: the combined influence of educators, parents, and others on school decisions.
  • Distributing certain tasks or functions within the organization: This third possibility, breaking off discrete tasks in the interest of making administration a more reasonable job, is exemplified in the many districts nationally who have implemented Peer Assistance and Review Systems.  The first such system was the Toledo Plan, which dates back thirty years.  Evaluation and support of novice teachers as well as struggling veterans, is turned over to teachers and their union.  Involving teachers in the evaluation of peers works because teachers are affected by the presence of ineffective colleagues.

    Allowing teachers, through their unions, to take charge of quality in the profession, has been shown in the research to elevate practice.  When a consensus in the teaching community develops around practice, the union supports removal of non-performing individuals because teachers participated in the decision and the fairness of that decision cannot be impugned.

    The conceptual difficulty for boards will be paying teachers for work that is not direct instruction of students.
In my Vermont experience, evaluation is the piece of administration which gets short shrift.  Administrators, even when they have the skill set to do the job, do not have the time because of the myriad demands of the principalship.  Administrators also often lack knowledge to be genuinely helpful when evaluating teachers in specialized content areas. 
Breaking off this one piece and handing it to teachers and their unions seems to me a first step towards establishing a model of building and district administration that can actually be accomplished by the real flesh and blood people to whom we entrust the task.  But just a first step – ultimately resolving the issue of rural administration may well require more radical solutions.

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