The First in a Series: Why Alternative Teacher Certification Programs and Research-Based Teacher Selection Together are Uniquely Designed to Meet the Needs of at-Risk Students

Historical Leadership in Wobbly Times:
How School Districts Can Balance the Scales of Justice with Systems Instead of Schisms
by Vicky Dill and Delia Stafford-Johnson

This is not a flashy series. It’s not full of righteous anger or finger wagging. What it does, instead, is attempt to look at historically reliable characteristics of successful organizations. The series looks at combating high-stakes testing fraud with 1) a data management system that encompasses the whole organization, from administration to classroom and makes it “transparent”; 2) finding and keeping personnel who face high-stakes environments with integrity; 3) balancing data and personnel systems to meet both district and campus needs.

High Stakes on the Grill. Certainly there has not been a time in our nation’s history when school districts have experienced so much pressure and, for the most part, to such ironic and unpredictable ends. “Stress,” many aver, is by its very nature, being responsible for that over which you have no control. High-stakes testing is a perfect example of being responsible for a world of variables over which little or no control seems possible and very little benefit emerges. Despite the advice of literally hundreds of organizations whose sole job is to professionalize education and base processes on evidence, policy makers seem intent on maintaining simplistic and counterproductive high stakes tests and all the pressures and fallout that go with this decision – predictable or otherwise www.aera.net/about/policy/stakes.htm.

Sharpstown (see Houston Chronicle, July 5, 2003) will not be the only catastrophe of this ill-fated movement. It is not surprising that such a tsunami would occur in Houston, seat of the high-stakes “reform.” There is a type of justice (except for the hapless clerk who has been victimized) in the whole fiasco. What occurred is an understandable but totally avoidable result of the pressures of the current “game”. For just as surely as high-stakes testing does not seem likely to disappear soon or mature into any type of real evidence-based reform is as surely as there are ways to handle the pressure the tests bring while demonstrating leadership, moral vision, and responsibility. The first of this series highlights systemic safeguards schools can employ to mitigate the undertow of high stakes testing.

Wrap the Bureaucracy. Safeguarding the integrity of any bureaucracy requires constant, thorough, and unflagging use of a management system that every employee regardless of political views, job security, mood, or position is expected to use. Such a system is non-negotiable. If every level of an organization keeps and shares relatively transparent data and displays it prominently, every employee will take responsibility for mutual goals. While large bureaucracies do seem more riddled with corruption, even small districts and organizations need to bear public scrutiny. What better way to raise public support for education than being honest about data?

While HISD and other districts accused of improprieties are now scrambling to cover up the misdeeds or conceal the cover-ups, some districts are learning to be less vulnerable to political whim and corruption. Ironically, they wrap themselves with data! The growing popularity of data-driven organizational management in the public schools – from the central administrative offices to individual classrooms – attests to the power of The Baldrige approach or any continuous improvement model. Itself a government-sponsored initiative, the Baldrige National Quality Program and the management system it espouses are based on industry successes in product improvement. The first school districts ever given awards under the program in 2001 demonstrated unbelievable strides in raising student achievement and increased customer satisfaction. The system and the Criteria for Performance Excellence for educators is available free to all public school administrators who wish to be open and data-driven (see http://www.nist.gov/). In such an organization, a plethora of data is collected and posted publicly on every aspect of school functioning – student, teacher, and administrator daily attendance; expenditures and expense reports \ from year-to-year for all groups; satisfaction surveys from all stakeholders – students, teachers, parents, principals, and (yes) administrators and many, many more measures. School districts misguided enough to let test scores be their primary data couldn’t deceive anybody. The wave of data available in such districts and available to the public would flag errant reports and prompt questions before rumors ever hit the press.

Small Change. Organization improvement is a studied art. It occurs data-bit by data-bit. Leaders cannot dictate, coerce, or threaten students into passing tests any more than they can use test scores to bludgeon teachers into improved teaching or student retention. As many writers have noted, the rewards for pushing students out of school, especially those who might fail the tests, are palpable (see “Who Benefits from Failing Urban Schools? By Martin Haberman). Millions and millions of dollars are funneled to “high needs” areas where funds unfailing cough up yet more boring worksheets, failing scores, and the dust cloud of dropouts fleeing. That’s the most poignant irony. To students who drop out, in increasing and mysterious numbers across the land, the problem is no small change. They will never go to college; they will never get good jobs. They won’t have health insurance; they’ll ride buses and go to jail. What kind of future does a nation have that not only perpetuates but also funds this fraud?

What is needed instead is an all-weather 24/7 system of data gathering and public transparency that will envision students as stakeholders, helps build genuine accountability, and measures quantifiable results. And who will implement such a system?

That is the topic of The Second in the Series: “Finding and keeping personnel who face high-stakes environments with integrity.”

Delia Stafford-Johnson and Vicky Dill are President and Senior Researcher respectively of the Haberman Educational Foundation,Inc. Foundation leaders, including Martin Haberman,travel nationally to provide principals and aspiring leaders in the “Star”teacher/principal selection training. The HEF leaders have a simple vision:” Finding principals and teachers of excellence for the children and youth of America.” To date, they have worked in 160 school districts across the states.

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