Second Opinion by Cliff Slater
June 16, 2003
Celebrating a nation at risk
This month we celebrate the 20th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.”(1) The report was by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, comprised of leading university presidents, school district superintendents, school principals, businesspeople and a Nobel Laureate.
Their conclusions were that, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” and that, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
One would have thought that these comments from such a distinguished group of citizens twenty years ago would have galvanized us into action.
Instead, we did nothing. We did nothing nationally; we did nothing in Hawaii.
Locally, in the 1980’s we came up with slogans and posters for School/Community Based Management—S/CBM—theoretically to “restructure the school system [and] shift a significant degree of decision-making authority from the state and district levels to the school's community.”(2)
It was our reaction to what we all had known for more than the past 20 years; our statewide education bureaucracy had to be slimmed down and restructured. However, S/CBM died over time with barely a whimper.
The problem was that we asked the very people we wanted restructured, to restructure themselves. To imagine the likelihood of that happening we should imagine a burgeon(3) of bureaucrats convening to discuss how they are going to restructure themselves. The Superintendent suggests that half of them go back to teaching, some should take early retirement, and some become school-level administrators. To imagine the ensuing discussion, is to understand why nothing has happened.
You cannot ask people to restructure themselves; it is just too difficult. This is why the directors of troubled businesses will normally go outside their enterprise for specialist turnaround executives. These specialists have their own association, the Turnaround Management Association, with its own Journal and, for those who qualify, the professional recognition of Certified Turnaround Professional.
The very fact that such widespread organizations exist both in the U.S., and internationally, is recognition that, by and large, people who may ably run day-to-day operations usually cannot do the more difficult work of restructuring.
Of course, the use of turnaround professionals is not necessarily appropriate for organizations that are as political as the Department of Education, but their very existence does point out that if we are going to restructure the DOE we need to bring in seasoned and experienced managers who are unencumbered of long personal relationships with the DOE bureaucracy.
How do we do this?
First, the legislature has to show it is serious about restructuring by removing principals from the union and substituting contractual arrangements with them.
Second, we have to remove the elected Board of Education. It is quite clear that most BOE members have absolutely no impact on educational change. If they had, there would have been change—and there hasn’t been.
Third, we need a serious board of education appointed by the Governor with the concurrence of the legislature. We need people the likes of Chatt Wright, head of Hawaii Pacific University; Rod McPhee, former Punahou President and former public school district superintendent; John Radcliffe, former head of HSTA, the teachers’ union, and currently associate director of UHPA, the UH faculty union; Mary Anne Raywid, professor emerita of educational administration and policy studies at Hofstra and today a member of the Graduate Affiliate Faculty at the University of Hawaii; and former Governor George Ariyoshi. Such people would be seen as representing all facets of the community while at the same time not being pushovers.
One would then hope that such a board would hire an interim management team who, with the appropriate mental toughness and delicacy of approach, could restructure the DOE into something workable.
Now, how hard can that be?
Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater
(1) “A Nation at Risk.” (http://www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk.html)
(3) burgeon (bûr¹jen) noun
1. A flock of bureaucrats. See synonyms at flock.
A cluster or group: “A burgeon of bureaucrats is a
sufficient number to keep themselves busy without any external influences.”