Process as important as the plan

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Paul Vallas can’t abide discussions about process. “We’re not going to get caught up in process here,” he tells Catalyst Managing Editor Lorraine Forte in her article on plans for revamping vocational education. “We’re interested in action.” No doubt about it; process can tie everyone in knots. But when the challenge is to improve 557 schools, process is just as important as program. If the administration does not pay attention to the process of getting people to change, its program may falter.

For example, Vallas and his critics on voc-ed reform agree that all students must have a solid foundation in academics. Vallas would ensure mastery of academics by devoting more time to them, principally by trimming voc-ed courses from the school curriculum and enlisting businesses, City Colleges and other institutions to conduct needed training outside school hours. In contrast, advocates of “school-to-work,” a program that aims to prepare students for both work and college, would use academics and voc-ed to improve the teaching of each other; academics would include practical applications, and vocational education would go beyond narrow skills training to include, for example, the scientific principles underlying technical skills. Certainly, spending more time on academics without improving the quality of instruction isn’t going to help kids very much. School-to-work is one way to improve the quality of instruction, so long as teachers buy into it.

The Milwaukee Board of Education has embraced school-to-work, reports writer Curtis Lawrence. Like Vallas, though, it is intent on a citywide solution and, not surprisingly, has run into pockets of teacher resistance and problems lining up enough business partners. Says former Milwaukee Supt. Howard Fuller, who launched school-to-work there: “I always thought that it was overly ambitious to say every school would be a school-to-work school.” Fuller says he would have made school-to-work an option among several reform strategies. Ah, yes: options, process.

Providing options and letting schools choose go a long way toward generating the staff energy and enthusiasm that are needed for any program to succeed. Then, if some options prove to be more successful than others, the administration can make that abundantly clear to schools and the general public. In the area of voc-ed, the Edge/Up program at Senn and Lake View high schools is one model that should be offered; it deserves not only support, but also extra resources to share what it has learned. Vallas’ disdain of process was evident, too, in the selection of schools for probation and remediation. Switching standards from last year without telling anyone was contemptuous of principals and teachers, the very people who have to carry out reform. Throwing schools that had made significant progress directly onto probation instead of remediation was contemptuous as well. “I’ve had several teachers come into my office, and they kind of just slump down in these big chairs here and say, ‘This doesn’t motivate me at all,’ ” reports Audrey Donaldson, principal of Gage Park High School. Process.

ABOUT US It’s with mixed emotions that I report the departure of Lorraine Forte, managing editor for the last five years. She’s off to the Chicago Sun-Times. I’m sorry to lose a great partner. But I’m delighted Lorraine has this new opportunity to spread her wings and that the broader Chicago metropolitan community will get another top-notch journalist.