A TIME TO INNOVATE

3/6/09

          

            I admire the people in the Obama administration who in the midst of an economic upheaval see the opportunity the difficult times ironically provide to address difficult issues like providing universal health coverage.    Great leaders see opportunities in the worst of circumstances.   

            On my way to work this morning, I was listening to a BBC interview with the CEO of Cisco Systems, a company that has been central to the development of the internet and an organization that prides itself on its encouragement of innovation within its business.  CEO John Chambers, while acknowledging the challenges in the business environment, talked about then opportunities for innovation and speculated that those companies that tucked in their heads to wait out the economic storm were infinitely less likely to survive than those that boldly try to position themselves for the inevitable recovery.   Part of the innovation at Cisco according to its leader is a very rapid movement from a command business structure to a more collaborative one.  Modern management, Mr. Chambers maintained, understands collaboration between workers in an enterprise as the engine of innovation and quality.  

            Although the recently enacted federal stimulus package will protect most of America ’s school districts from the worst of the economic downturn, it is still safe to say that most will do with less resources than they had last year.  Almost beyond any doubt, they will not seize the opportunity to rethink how schools are organized to accomplish their task.  Much more likely, they will predictably increase class size, defer the purchase of new books and materials, take a hard line on union negotiations and in general school management principle that in challenging times, the more miserable a school manager can make his district’s employees, the more likely it is that he will be seen as a good leader by his board of education.  Those who see themselves as reformers these days, the Joel Kleins and Michelle Rhees will strengthen their command structures with their data driven drivel that passes for thinking about education in our country today.  When they accomplish little to nothing, they will blame the teacher unions, and, thus, the same old story will get told again.  

            Our state and national unions will oppose most of the reformers and attempt to do business with others on stupidities like pay for performance.  They will probably get themselves and us co-opted with the result that we will be left with schools that are no better, probably even worse.  The bureaucratic structure of our schools will go essentially unchallenged, there will be no imaginative ways to ensure teacher collaboration and in the end a generation of children will be undereducated.     

            In Plainview-Old Bethpage, we will maintain the status quo.  Many will see that as an accomplishment, including I fear some PCT members.  On one level, I suppose it is.  But in a much more important sense it’s not.  But what might we have been able to accomplish if we had seriously challenged the status quo, rethought our educational priorities, re-engineered the bureaucracy to make it supportive of innovation and excellence, began to build a professional, collaborative work environment in which people’s sense of ownership generates new ideas and common purpose.  Just yesterday, I had an experience that reminded me that such circumstances could come about.

                        As part of our union’s campaign to elevate the academic standards and expectations of our district, we’ve formed a number of union committees and invited central office to participate.  Yesterday’s meeting of our literacy committee had a dozen teachers and one administrator sitting around a table at the union office discussing what we might do to deal with the fact that young children are entering our schools less linguistically able than they have heretofore.   They weren’t being paid a cent for their participation; they were all tired from a long day working with children; most of them looked forward to going home and having to parent their own children.  Yet, until 5:30 in the afternoon, they sat engrossed in a thoughtful, stimulating exchange of ideas that I think is going to lead to some new kinds of collaborative, professional meetings that just may begin to give us the beginning of a new approach to the language deficits of many of our elementary students.  Several of them made the effort to e-mail me that evening, wanting me to know how much they had enjoyed the discussion.  How different their experience was from the command model of staff development they regularly experience.  

            In a school district that was serious about improving so-called educational outcomes, such meetings would be a part of every teacher’s workday.

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