OKCPS dysfunction

American Federation of Teachers president Ed Allen is correct in describing the controversy over the proposed closing of North Highland Elementary School as an example of the longstanding “dysfunction” that has plagued the district’s central office.

The Daily Oklahoman’s Tim Willert reports that Allen doesn’t put all of the blame on the superintendent, but “if the district functioned properly ‘it wouldn’t have come to this crisis point of just blowing up.’” In a system like the OKCPS, “things don’t work correctly and there are a lot of moving parts that can bring dysfunction.”

Personal agendas punctuate past

Frequent readers will be relieved to learn that I will not get back on my soapbox regarding the folly of trying to mandate that the same testable material be taught in the same way across our diverse district. In this post, I’m making a narrower point.

Historically, the OKCPS administrative culture has not dared focus on the big picture questions about the best ways to provide meaningful teaching and learning in all schools. Our past fosters a culture that spawns one individual agenda after another, with central office administrators promoting their personal policy preferences and then protecting the simplistic “silver bullets” that resulted.

Sixteen years ago, it looked like the OKCPS was on the verge of a new era. MAPS for Kids promised site-based management. The central office was to be realigned so that it supported schools. The reorganization was an effort to “flatten” the bureaucracy in a way that, hopefully, would spur “distributive leadership.” Our oft-repeated mantra was: “None of us, alone, are as smart as all of us are together.”

In the first planning sessions, however, I saw the same pattern. Community and education leaders were equally busy, so most committee members waited until the meetings to study their briefing materials. But the two groups read differently. Business and nonprofit leaders read for the big picture, seeking evidence about the effectiveness of policies. Educators merely glanced at documents as they intensely studied the committee members’ body language, looking for a sense of where the process was going. They obviously intended to endorse whatever path the big boys settled on.

At first, community leaders felt empowered to address the way OKCPS did business, but educators did not. Then, one daring principal after another began to cautiously express their professional opinions in meetings. Many became outstanding site-based leaders. Until we were derailed by No Child Left Behind, John Marshall H.S. exemplified the energy released when schools were granted more autonomy. Even when dealing with the budget cuts of 2002, our student performance improved dramatically, matching the outcomes of the best neighborhood high school, Northwest Classen.

NCLB coerced OKCPS to ignore community

Then came NCLB. MAPS was based on the assumption that schooling was a community process – too important to just be left to education professionals. NCLB incentivized a return to top-down management by bureaucrats skilled in “juking the stats,” or playing games with data to make it look like student performance was on track to meet the law’s impossible targets. Across the nation, the predictable result of accountability-driven, competition-driven reform was that education leaders followed the timeless dictum, “Don’t let the patient die on your operating table.”

Within a few years after NCLB, the OKCPS adopted a mindset that has dominated the national reform movement: Schools are too important to be left to the community. Education professionals should have the power to impose their preferred school-improvement models.

Restore autonomy, promote collaboration

It’s time to restore more autonomy to schools and educators, but we need to be cautious and learn from history when doing so. Site-based management is like democracy; it’s the worst possible system except for all of the others.

For decades, Title I regulations incentivized the investment of federal funding in instruction and professional development as opposed to the student supports that our poor schools need. The ubiquitous phrase was, “It’s just federal money.” Today’s systems are allowed to use Title I money in better ways, but principals can’t be expected to become experts in navigating federal law.

Similarly, school administrators can’t be expected to single-handedly scale up the partnerships necessary to create wraparound services for at-risk students. We need collaboration between the central office, schools and community partners to turn school improvement into a team effort.

Two things to discuss

I’d like to hear a conversation about what was similar and/or different about the John Marshall successes under site-based management and under its current enterprise school model, which was designed to provide autonomy to schools. Not only is today’s Marshall led by Oklahoma Principal of the Year Aspasia Carlson, but it also has teachers like OKCPS Teacher of the Year Shelly Campbell and the invaluable Denise Caton, who could provide insights into nurturing distributive leadership, then and now. (We also need a “lessons learned” process about what it would take to expand the OKCPS enterprise school model to our highest-challenge schools.)

It’s also time to discuss the AFT’s Allen’s recommendation for improving the system’s culture. As Willert reported last year, “Allen organized a meeting in Boston of union, district and community leaders, including [Aurora] Lora, with John Kotter, a retired Harvard professor who specializes in organizational leadership and change.” But, “those plans were put on hold because of the district’s budget problems.”

Allen is correct that transforming the district’s culture would “be expensive but necessary to implement.” I hope business leaders will offer financial aid for the challenge.

Oklahoma City is a major metropolitan center in the age of global-market competition. None of us want to see what could happen when dysfunction continues too long and neighborhood schools collapse under the pressures of underfunding and mismanagement.