Chapter 11 - Focus: Concentrating on Essential Issues and QuestionsEnergy diffused over a broad surface hardly makes a dent. So it goes with schools. Long lists of goals and objectives are unlikely to make much difference in the lives of children. Focus is an essential ingredient of successful school improvement programs.
In some states the school council has no choice but to consider a long list of issues mandated by the state department of education. In Texas, for example, the council must assist the principal in setting goals with regard to what are called "excellence indicators." These are *** items such as improvement of SAT scores which are easily quantified.
Such lists make better politics than they do school improvement, generating more heat than light.
The best way for a school council to proceed is with more focus upon two or three key issues. Each school will want to pose its own essential questions like the ones below:
How can we best create an environment which encourages children to be active, curious, independent and successful learners?
What instructional strategies and learning experiences are most likely to generate success for students of all learning styles?
How can we make the development of reasoning and problem-solving skills a core element in our students' lives?
What can we do to strengthen the partnership between home and school so that factors contributing to student success are emphasized by all?
These kinds of questions go to the heart of schooling, but they have the advantage of simplicity and focus. They are broad strokes, perhaps, but ones which would require 6-8 years of hard work in order to see major change. Unlike the test score driven improvement plans so popular these days with legislators, these kinds of questions focus on kinds of thinking and learning, not just the outcomes.
The danger of developing school improvement plans around certain constellations of tests is that we lose sight of the bigger picture . . . the integration of learning across all areas. We seek to raise generations of children who can apply their skills in new settings and under surprising circumstances. Those states like New Jersey which have encouraged districts to teach to particular tests have found little measurable progress on "secure tests" even though scores went up dramatically on the freely available state tests. Teaching to tests is a kind of cheating because it is not preparation for life. The issue before educators is how to build school programs which will equip students with a kind of thinking power which can handle surprise.
After two decades of so-called reform, education seems to have made little progress. To some extent this may be explained by the tendency to make action plans which are too closely tied to the perspectives and practices of the past. We invent schools of the future by trying to improve 1950s, smokestack test scores.
A more powerful approach to inventing schools would be to take a few lessons from Stanley Davis' Future Perfect. Davis criticizes traditional planning as being too closely wedded to old paradigms and perspectives. He encourages leaders to travel mentally to the future time being envisioned. Instead of staring out into the future to see what this time might look like from here in 1991, the school council imagines that it is actually visiting the school in the year 2000 or 2005. The group tries to be there as a child.
What should be happening? What should it feel like to be a student? What kinds of activities should there be?
The group asks these questions free of any practical considerations. They are planning in a "Future Perfect" sense -- asking the most of their school's future. They cast off the anchors of the past, the obstacles which usually inhibit dreaming, and they imagine or visualize a wonderful learning experience.
Once the group has shared these visions and formed consensus around key goals, the wise council asks how they might engage other players in this process. How can they best unleash the dreaming of other staff members and parents so that the school achieves a common vision?
All too often a group send a two page summary announcing their dream to those who were not present. It is like the joke which wins no laughs and the jokester comments, "I guess you had to have been there."
If the whole community "isn't there" with regard to the basic dream, then site-based management may easily fall prey to the no laugh phenomenon.
The trouble with sharing the dream before the action plan is developed is the doubt which is likely to greet dreaming. Change is often so unsettling that most proposals are greeted by suspicion and cynicism. The Future Perfect strategy, by emphasizing the outcome rather than the path and the tactics reduces the danger of attack.
"We want to know your highest hopes for the classroom and school of tomorrow. Inventing the path to this school will come later in the process."
This first stage of site-based management should take a good half year or more if all groups are to emerge with a strong sense of involvement. It is not enough to hold a single PTA meeting, share the dream exercise and consider parents "taken care of." The school council must develop a plan to reach all segments of the staff and parent communities, holding as many as a dozen or more sessions with various groups. It may be necessary, for example, to schedule a series of coffees in parents' homes or out in the churches. If the only parents who participate are the same ones who always have shown up, then the resulting dream will not truly reflect the insight of the school community.
What does the school community have at the end of the process? A list of 3-4 essential questions similar to the ones listed earlier in this chapter which will drive the research and invention process described in the next two chapters. But more importantly, the council emerges with a mandate for change around key community values.
Copyrighted 1991 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.