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Wish List for 2012: Six entirely plausible education reforms for 2012

By Matthew Ricchiazzi:
My background is in private equity, so I know very little about education policy, theory, or practice. But I’ve always found education a deeply fascinating case study from a management perspective. I often delve into issues of organizational behavior, in attempt to understand a firm’s performance, its weaknesses, and the incentives that implicitly motivate each cog of a complex system.
It seems to me that our public education system, as endemically flawed and woefully un-postured as it is, needs similar perspective and insight. There is nothing herculean or insurmountable about these challenges–they are eminently solvable, under the right leadership with the right priorities.
1: Centralized decision making creates instability
It may seem counterintuitive, but excessive centralization of decision making creates enormous instability within a complex system, particularly if the system is operating in an ever-changing environment.  When the decision makers on the eighth floor of City Hall are disconnected from on-the-ground realities in the classroom, they will be unable to foresee the full impact of their decisions on various extremities of the organization. 
In organizational behavior and management theory, the “Viable System Model” attempts to devolve decision makers throughout the organization as extensively as possible. When lower-level decision makers can fully identify, address, and correct problems before they require the attention of the Board or the Central Office, then the organization as a whole can fluidly and rapidly respond to emerging challenges or a changing environment without excessive bureaucratic hurdles.
In a serious way, we must architect a decentralized operating model – without the top-heavy Central Office – if we’re ever going to get the system to run smoothly.
2: Empower Principals to actually perform 
It is unfair and unrealistic to expect the world from principals after we’ve done them the disservice and disrespect of belittling their role. In our poorly managed system, Principals have become little more than liaisons between the Central Office and teachers, unequipped with the tools or authority that they need to effectively turnaround or improve their schools.
Instead, they should have full authority over their school’s budget, programming, curriculum, student services, and other operations. If we want Principals to be innovative leaders and effective problem solvers, then we need to untie their hands and encourage them to innovate. We also need to find entrepreneurial Principals with energy, drive, passion, vision – and who have the confidence to buck the system and the status quo. 
3: Integrate faculty into the governance of their institutions
In business, firms recognize that their greatest asset is their people. But somehow, in public education, there is an inexplicable disrespect of teachers. While I find great fault in the behavior, attitude, and posture of the Buffalo Teachers’ Federation, we must take a markedly different approach. Rather than engaging in a constant state of war with the union, let’s treat teachers so well that they have no need for the union.
Establishing a Faculty Senate at each campus will create an empowering forum for teachers to organize, meet, and address emerging issues unique to their campuses – without having to engage through their union. Giving faculty a structural role in the governance of their campus could be transformative. Faculty committees should be given responsibilities for curriculum planning, programming, and the design of student services.
In some ways, this model would be similar to a University, where Presidents and Provosts “lead from behind,” playing a more supportive role for faculty who are encouraged to innovate and drive the institution.
If we truly want solutions to sprout from the ground-up, then we need to structurally create the forums that will allow for the process of innovation on an on-going basis. I can’t imagine anything that would more quickly improve the quality of public education than to improve teacher morale. 
4: Without data, we don’t know where we’re going
The fact that we do not regularly collect extensive performance data on students, teachers, departments, and schools should be offensive to us. We have no way of knowing where we’re going if we don’t have the data readily available for analysis.  To make decisions about resource allocation and policy direction without this data at hand is unthinkably stupid. 
We should begin tracking student, teacher, department, and campus performance across a number of indicators – including standardized test scores, qualitative metrics, socio-economic data, and other subject-specific metrics. In an ideal world, principals would be able to constantly allocate and reallocate their budgets – constantly ending programs that don’t work and starting new programs with promise. We need the operating data to correctly make those decisions.
5: Establish and promote organizational values, identity, and culture 
The Superintendent is both powerless and enormously powerful. While the practical constraints of time limit her ability to oversee every management decision at every campus, her words will craft the organizational cultural of the district – which will be a determinative force in her subordinate’s behavior. She should clearly and thoughtfully identify the District’s organizational values, culture, and should motive her administrators and faculty around those shared values and goals. 
Leadership is that most intangible quality – the proverbial ‘X factor’ – that can speak to an individual’s emotions and motivate them in way that money does not. It’s an electric feel that inspires poor kids to believe in themselves; that energizes faculty to go the extra mile; that inspires principals to take risks and innovate. In organizations, leaderships is about words. It’s about setting the tone, establishing values, and inspiring performance. Too often, it is taken lightly – that would be a mistake.
6: Pervasively utilize technology to improve teacher and student productivity
Over the last few decades, the workplace has been transformed with technology. The same phenomenon is trending more slowly in public education. We should be adopting technology much more quickly and far more pervasively. Doing so will increase the productivity and effectiveness of teachers.
With such high caliber content being produced by television documentarians like National Geographic, PBS, The Discovery Channel, and CNN, I can imagine a bold and innovative school architecting a history or social sciences syllabus in which all of the lectures are professionally produced documentaries. Putting together lectures, I would imagine, is quite time consuming for teachers. This could free up an extraordinary amount of time that they could instead allocate to helping students one-on-one, or to engage in other teaching methods.
If something is standardized and repetitive, let’s teach technology to do it. There are more valuable uses of a teacher’s time: like developing new curriculum, tutoring students one on one, planning colloquium, motivating students, and – perhaps most importantly – serving as a mentor to young people who are looking for guidance and values. 

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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