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Home / Articles / News / Letters Archives /  First Person: Shifting Focus

First Person: Shifting Focus

January 16, 2008, 12:00 am
By
Sam Millington earned a PhD in Applied Anthropology from Columbia University and heads nueva ola management consulting based in Santa Fe.


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Men do not all prize most highly the same
virtue, so naturally they differ also about
the proper training for it.
            �Aristotle, The Politics


New Mexico�s rich cultural heritage and diverse community resources offer a unique opportunity to rethink, restructure and re-energize the K-12 public education system. 

But first we need to summon the collective courage to deconstruct the current institutional paradigm. We need to acknowledge and confront the politically charged reality that substantive, transformative change cannot take hold as long as a command and control management model remains the default operating system across much of the public education continuum in New Mexico.

Throughout the nation�and New Mexico is no exception�the public education system has historically been beholden to flawed, ineffective organizing principles that clearly answer to the wrong master. As a result, far too many public schools are hardwired to respond to centralized bureaucratic mandates that ultimately promote stability and quasi-stasis at the expense of flexibility and innovation. The result is a top-down management system whose controlling grammar paradoxically undermines the very same principles it articulates when promoting the concepts of reform, performance and accountability. 

This is precisely why we should embrace an ambitious and expanded commitment toward community empowerment, reconfigured local control and private-sector investment. This shift will necessarily entail the disciplined, consensual support of educators, policymakers and a broad coalition of community stakeholders. Perhaps even more importantly, embarking upon such a journey will require visionary planning, vigorous leadership, focused implementation, shared sacrifice across multiple sectors and equal doses of patience, perseverance and sustained political will over the course of many years, perhaps as long as a full generation. 

Of course, an enhanced push toward local control is not the answer in and of itself. But what if we built upon the foundation of the 1980s site-based management movement and extended its core organizing principles so that individual communities were vested with historic responsibilities for the management, performance and accountability of their schools?  Moreover, what if we looked to the private sector for an instructive metaphor and then reconfigured our local school boards so that they operated as community-minded venture capitalists who, in turn, hired savvy, performance-oriented superintendents charged with managing a diversified portfolio of schools that were ultimately responsive to community stakeholders (shareholders)? And what if site-based principals were fully empowered CEOs with unfettered decision-making power over budgets, hiring and curriculum development?

In this model, the most far-reaching transformation would take place at the district level.  School boards and superintendents would be tasked with overseeing community-based asset inventories, needs assessments and comprehensive resource alignment activities that would guide their strategies for investing state dollars as productively as possible. As part of this process, board members and superintendents would build an educationally profitable portfolio of diverse educational options, each tailored to address specific and clearly articulated needs in their respective communities. A range of such options would include, but not be limited to, traditional neighborhood public schools, hybrid private-public educational ventures, charter schools targeting specific needs or interests, alternative schools for at-risk students, college-prep programs, online distance learning courses, GED initiatives and intensive, integrated apprenticeship opportunities.

Within each district, principals (or their equivalents) would be empowered to run their schools much as a CEO runs a business. This means school leaders would be vested with sole discretionary control over their budgets. They would also assume ultimate authority over all site-based hiring, which includes the ability to negotiate individualized contracts as a means to recruit and retain the best possible teachers.  Similarly, school leaders and their staffs would be empowered to implement the curricula and teaching practices they felt were most appropriate for their students.
      
This model will also rely on a creative, outside-of-the-box partnership between private-sector resources and existing governmental programs in order to turn school sites into more productive neighborhood assets. By braiding public- and private-sector resources, we can strengthen school-based educational products while also making better use of facilities that, in effect, should serve as safe neighborhood hubs and community anchors. For example, underutilized school facilities would stay open longer (e.g. until 9 pm) in order to address a wide range of community-based needs, which would include after-school tutoring, mentoring, expanded sports and recreation activities, arts and music programs, family strengthening, health initiatives, adult education, vocational training, child care and many other potential options that will increase the odds of parents becoming more committed stakeholders. To realize this vision, school boards would work closely with a leveraging mix of public- and private-sector resources to secure a diversified, sustainable funding base.

Ultimately, if we are committed to providing our children with an enhanced educational product, one that will better prepare them to compete in an increasingly complex and competitive global economy, we must be willing to recalculate the roles of government and bureaucracy in a way that further empowers community stakeholders. By doing so, we will be re-articulating student interests and needs so that these students, and not the system itself, will become the primary beneficiaries of a visionary, results-oriented reform process.

 

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