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The Bottom Line What is Missing in the Equation of “Reinventing” Schools?


“Change occurs in schools, often for the better, but it’s almost always gradual and incomplete.” So concludes Chester E. Finn, Jr., Senior Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a recent essay on the difficulties of “reinventing” schools.

Finn focuses on “break the mold” schools of the “America 2000” plan of the late President George H.W. Bush. Finn brings to light the fact that the “break the mold” schools concentrated solely on creating brand new schools while other programs focused entirely on transforming existing schools. He notes the deficiency of this approach: “In the former situation, ‘it ain’t broke,’ so why change it? In the latter situation, it’s tantamount to taking an education sow’s ear and striving to turn it into a silk purse.” In other words, the circumstances were difficult in either situation because neither plan dealt with the source of the issue: maintaining leaders for schools through design.

Finn continues: “Sadly, similar tales can be recited of many other efforts at large-scale, top-down education change, whether at the municipal, state, or national levels. After an ambitious launch, with great leadership, political support and seemingly ample funding, things begin to go awry. Funding priorities change. Revenues declined. Leaders leave or are fired. Elections happen. And the giant rubber band of American public education follows its inherent need to snap back into its original shape once the external tension is eased.”

He makes valid points; the top-down education change is not effective or beneficial, and at times you can have great leadership, support, and funding but things just do not go as planned. This mirrors the experience of Don Nielsen, Senior Fellow and program chair of Discovery Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education, and author of Every School, during his time serving on the Seattle School Board  [1993-2001].

Nielsen and the other members of the school board had appointed General John Stanford to the superintendent position and things were rolling smoothly until General Stanford passed away from leukemia “38 months after becoming superintendent.” Nielsen states, “By the time General Stanford became superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, he had honed his leadership skills to a very fine level. In his two-and-a-half years as superintendent, he not only transformed Seattle Public Schools but transformed the attitude of an entire city toward its public school system, achieving widespread support.” The way General Stanford was able to change the entire atmosphere in Seattle was through his leadership. He effectively “eliminated mandatory busing, decentralized decision-making, installed a new funding policy, and negotiated a union contract that eliminated seniority in the hiring of teachers” and through all of this gathered support from every stakeholder.

Unfortunately, shortly after General Stanford passed away, things started to go back to their old ways, maintaining the original status quo. This proves a point that Finn has missed: effective leaders can and do create a movement, even in an entrenched bureaucracy. However, as Nielsen points out “that is unlikely to happen in our education system, as we have so few effective leaders and the current leadership training system is unlikely to change that.”

Leadership change requires change at the state level, not the federal or municipal level. The reason for this is that the states control the curriculum, the selection of leaders, the certification programs for teachers, the compensation for those positions the money, testing, and graduation. As Nielsen argues “We must look at changing the laws that now govern the present system. To do that will take political courage, something that is in short supply.” He continues, “what is needed is a new type of leader: a ‘change agent.’ In a way, we are looking to create educational entrepreneurs who think of doing school differently, [like General Stanford] leaders who will not be satisfied to effectively educate only a portion of their students.” In essence what Nielsen is advocating for is “to create leaders ‘by design’ who will then create whole new types of school for the 21st century. These leaders would be placed in schools or districts that need and want change.”

Today, our public schools operate on an obsolete system and the change that has been implemented is mostly “gradual and incomplete.” Nielsen rightfully argues that what is needed is “a movement for change as opposed to a top-down dictum…ultimately achiev[ing] the desired outcome: a school system that effectively educates every child.” We have that plan—one state need only adopt it to lead the way for others.

Bailey Takacs

Development Program Coordinator, American Center for Transforming Education
Bailey Takacs currently serves as development program coordinator to Discovery Institutes' American Center for Transforming Education and Development team. Bailey has experiences which also include: campaign management and administrative roles with elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels of the government. He holds a B.A. in Politics and Government from Pacific Lutheran University.