Site-Based Decision-Making

Chapter 4 - Powerful Educational Ideas

Site-based management may be a waste of everyone's time, suggests labor leader Al Shanker, unless it is focused upon some powerful educational ideas -- classroom strategies which will significantly improve the performance and the lives of children.1 Avoid the trap of arguing about rules and procedures for two or three years.

People talk today about having school-based management and shared decision-making. Those things are process. That's important, but people can sit together in a room and accomplish nothing. What's needed is an infusion of substance -- a discussion of ideas that are out their and their strengths and limitations.2

What are some examples of powerful educational ideas which might be worthy of a school council's attention? How about the following . . .

1. All children can learn and all children can learn to reason.

In Powershift, Toffler argues that the countries with the broadest percentage of citizens who are brainworkers will have the strongest societies and economies during the next few decades.3 We must shift away from the smokestack paradigm which saw the schools' job as preparing most people for mindless factory jobs. The fewer than 10 per cent of American eleventh graders who can perform reasoning tasks on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests (NAEP) must be expanded to something more like 85 or 90 per cent.

The old paradigm encouraged schools to sort and sift students by their "potential," using tracking and grouping to aim a stream of workers toward their intended occupations, establishing academic expectations accordingly. Those in the honors and AP sections -- usually about 10 per cent -- were expected to perform the most reasoning and ultimately become lawyers or managers. Descending the ladder, the expectations and requirements lessened dramatically.

The employee of today, including the front line service worker, is called upon to make decisions and solve problems in ways which contrast strongly with what was expected in the smokestack economy.4 They are expected to exercise judgment, demonstrate flexibility and convert data into information and then insight.5

This holdover from the past is an excellent place for site-based management to start. How might a school substitute the new paradigm -- that all children can learn and all children can learn to reason -- for the old one?

Too few students -- even AP students -- are given opportunities to wrestle with this puzzling process of converting raw data into information by recognizing or discovering patterns and relationships. Too often the teacher provides students with the insight and the students' job is memorization. They are too rarely required to "make meaning" for themselves. They are too rarely confronted with puzzling problems or surprising problems. If they were doing jigsaw puzzles we would show them the picture before they tried to put the pieces together.

Toffler's point is that times of turbulence and rapid change render much knowledge tentative and inconclusive. Today's students and tomorrow's workers and citizens must be able to struggle through the puzzling process of making sense out of nonsense.

For students to learn to reason, to make meaning and to puzzle things out, they must be encouraged to perform such thinking each and every day in every class they visit. Each campus council might begin with an assessment to determine existing practice with regard to reasoning (see Appendix A). A review of existing instructional practices and materials will help the school team determine how much work needs to be done.

2. Accelerate, don't remediate.

Henry Levin and his associates at Stanford have started a successful national movement around this paradigm shift:

Our premise is very basic: at risk students must learn at a faster rate than more privileged students -- not at a slower rate that drags them farther and farther behind.6

This group describes the following as main features of Accelerated Schools:

Changes the entire structure of the school instead of simply grafting remedial classes onto a school with a conventional agenda.

Empowers teachers to plan the school's educational program.

Requires substantial parental involvement (parents are expected to sign an agreement detailing their obligations to their children).

Utilizes the services of businesses, college students, senior citizens, and other community resources.

Uses an extended-day program with emphasis on language and problem-solving.

Stresses acceleration rather than remediation, intending to bring students to grade level by the end of sixth grade.7

Either one of these two powerful ideas represent major challenges for any school to consider, but the list could easily be expanded. The important issue to remember is Al Shanker's warning that site-based management not be a mere exercise in process. Each school council and school district should make certain that all the meetings and the talk end up benefitting students in some important and identifiable way.

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Copyrighted 1991 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.