THE BLOG
05/12/2011 06:48 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2011

The Missing Link in School Reform

If the stakes for creating workable plans to improve the quality education for our school children weren't so high, the experiments being proposed by business-model reformers,who are inexperienced in either education or school management, would be laughable. They routinely exclude -- or ignore -- input from the leaders essential for effectively running schools, namely principals and administrators.

As a former Detroit public school principal and current president of the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA), it is clear to me that this omission reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how schools are run. If those recommending reforms lack this understanding, as they clearly do, the odds that their proposals will succeed are unfortunately as slim as their knowledge of school operations.

By ignoring input from the principals and administrators who are the school leaders, and often leaders in their communities, everyone, from the business model reformers to the Secretary of Education, is effectively silencing the voices of those best equipped to identify the problems at hand and assess the solutions being proposed. Such ignorance promises anything but bliss.

Turning around a school requires, first and foremost, an awareness of the complex set of skills required to run one in today's economic and cultural environment. While understanding teaching methods is essential, today's principals require skills as business managers, facilities managers, food service and nutritional mavens, teaching coaches, quality control managers, safety, security and community relations experts, and, as often as not, baby sitters, both before and after school.

All of these skills are required of school leaders on top of an ever-growing need to file reports on performance progress. The growth of the charter school movement has further complicated the calling. Many charters enroll children for a month, but then cut those who they deem "unacceptable" for their programs, whereupon they return to public schools, if they return to school at all.

Whether turnaround plans being advocated are the data-driven sort favored by the business-model reformers or the more thoughtful and informed recommendations of the teachers union, they both put the onus for school performance on principals and administrators. They are, in essence, perform-or-be-fired edicts for principals.

The problem is not that these proposals impute responsibility and accountability to principals; we understand that the buck stops with us as school leaders. The problem is that school leaders have not been consulted on the practical implications of implementing reform proposals, nor are either the resources or training necessary for executing them being offered as part of proposed solutions.

An approach that effectively silences us in the policy debate and then imposes upon us do-or-die circumstances, is neither practical nor equitable. Worse yet, such an approach is likely to create contentious environments between principals and teachers that are antithetical to the cooperative spirit and collaboration necessary for achieving the challenging goal of turning a school around.

Schools are not factories or businesses and principals cannot perform successfully as axe-wielding, performance-at-the-cost-of-your job managers, like academic Chainsaw Dunlaps. No matter the reform being implemented, it will require a nurturing environment in which the goal of achievement is reached through a collaborative work and study.

It's time to open up the debate about school reform to the people who will be responsible for the delivery of the promised results. To continue along the current, ill-informed path promises nothing but another failed experiment in giving our children the education they deserve and our society the independent thinking citizenry that it needs.