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School Management        < Previous        Next >



How to Improve School Decision-Making


Q. There are a lot of things going on in our school that I don't agree with, and I know other parents and teachers don't like them, either. How do busy parents go about finding out why certain decisions are made, and how do we influence the decision-making process more effectively?


You have to stay on your toes, because bad data flow, fraud, stupidity, and any number of other factors can cause bad decision-making in schools, the way they can in the private sector, other government operations, and anywhere people are involved.


But specifically, in education, these conditions can contribute to bad leadership:


-- Educators tend to be reactionaries. They are usually "people persons" who tend to be more sensitive, rather than less, and so they often overreact to stimuli and demands.


-- Educators are often meek, mild, compliance-minded people, rather than bold, confident, innovators who aren't afraid to bend the rules when the rules need to be bent.


-- They tend to be "clubby" and self-isolating; even their marriages tend to be to other educators; they hang out mostly with other educators and don't gain the breadth of business understanding and experience that comes from having friends and associates who are in a broad range of other lines of work.


-- They tend to recruit school-board members to run for office whose chief qualities are loyalty and enthusiasm - a prominent doctor's wife, an aspiring politician, a busy sales executive on the lookout for lucrative school contracts - rather than business, management and finance experience as befit someone who is supposed to hold school administrators accountable.


Consider these bad business decisions in school situations:


n       A small Midwestern school district experienced an enrollment bulge in two grades. Administrators used the opportunity to make a 10-year projection based on that bulge to justify a multimillion dollar school construction project. They said the trends indicated that student enrollment would double over the next 15 years and that the district had to prepare. Luckily, there were business people on the school board, and after a more professional analysis of the data, it was determined that the projections were bogus; the district barely avoided building a huge new school. As it turns out, enrollment has declined 45% over the last decade.


n       In early summer 2005, voters in Clark County, Nev., were treated to a tour of their school district's new $14.5 million administration building. It has a marble foyer, three kitchens, several showers, a conference room with plush furniture, leopard-skin carpet, $500,000 worth of art and furniture, even remote-controlled curtains in the executive suite . . . but no space large enough to hold a school-board meeting. No one on the school board had raised so much as a whimper of protest or questioned a cent of the expenditures.


n       A homemaker asked to serve on a district's calendar committee listened to administrators present a case for changing to year-round schooling, and asked for the data proving that students learned more on a year-round calendar. She was handed a box of clippings from popular magazines, brochures from consultants, and propaganda from the year-round education organization. She learned that there WAS no data behind the district's push for this hugely expensive change. That kind of smoke-and-mirrors approach does not work very often, if at all, in the private sector, where executives are more accountable to stockholders. Fortunately, she was able to sway the rest of the committee away from what would have been a disastrous experiment. But it left her wondering how many other big decisions were being made based on opinions and administrator wishes rather than what's best for kids.


What's the answer? Vigilance on the part of parents and taxpayers just like you. Contact your school board members; get to know them; become active in your parent-teacher organization; encourage other parents and taxpayers to start attending school board meetings, serving on district committees, and speaking out. At election time, hold candidate coffees in your home and cover important topics like the percentage of kids in your district who can't read at grade level, or pension underfunding, or a high percentage of graduates from your district who have to take remedial courses in college. Don't get "snowed" by the same sorts of things that can yield bad decisions in schools. Instead, help create an environment where good ones are the norm!


Homework: There's interesting work on educational administration and how it needs to change its management and planning practices in the book Why Johnny Can't Think: The Other Achievement Gap, by Tony Wagner of Harvard University's graduate school of education, due out in 2008.


By Susan Darst Williams School Management 2008


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