They worked at Ford, Xerox; can they work in schools?

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Principals Rudy Lubov, Mattie Tyson and Elena O’Connell are innovators working in diverse environments with a common, but until recently, largely untested approach.

To help fix what was ailing their schools, Lubov, Tyson and O’Connell turned, with our assistance, to a model that was originally developed for use in corporations. It’s a model of continuous-improvement leadership principles that had proven itself capable of turning failing companies—Ford and Xerox to name just two—back toward success, but is only now being applied to an educational environment.

Lubov, Tyson and O’Connell, effective leaders in their own right, were willing to employ the new ideas. For one thing, many of the principles just make good intuitive sense:

Help create a shared vision and a set of beliefs about learning for the whole school community that will inspire change.

Create a school culture that fosters respect, fairness, open communication and teamwork.

Develop a staff that feels empowered to continuously improve the quality of their daily work.

Model the behavior you would like others to follow.

Put the needs of the students first.

The concepts were developed by the University of Southern California’s Warren Bennis, W. Edwards Deming, the quality expert, and others, who argue that the most effective leaders in today’s organizations are more facilitators than order givers. They want staff to take more responsibility for improving the quality of teaching and learning. This involves creating a shared vision, mission and strategy, and a culture of teamwork. True change, these theorists argue, involves setting clear goals and then empowering people to reach those goals.

The end result in a school setting is that all of the players—principal, teachers, students and even parents—feel that they are active participants in the job at hand: continuously improving student performance.

“When empowered, people sense that they are the center of things rather than on the periphery,” Bennis writes in the article, “Leading Change.” “When organizations are effectively led, everyone feels he or she contributes to its success. … Empowered people … live in a culture of respect, trust and system-wide communication where they can do things without getting permission from some parent figure.”

It sounds good on paper, but can it work in Chicago’s schools, where the past often dictates the present and major transformation can be painfully slow? Not easily, these principals say. But the results they’re having are making the effort quite worthwhile:

At Bateman, on the city’s North Side, Lubov sees it in a veteran teacher who once stuck to herself, using the same teaching material year after year. This woman now takes a leadership role in pushing her students— and colleagues—toward better results.

At Johnson, in West Garfield Park, Tyson sees it in a faculty so motivated that they don’t want to go home at night. “I have to put them out, actually,” says Tyson. “I don’t get them to do it—they want to be here. It’s a sense of pride in what they’re doing.”

And at Corkery, in Little Village, O’Connell hears it from a local high school teacher, who calls to congratulate her for the thorough science education her students have received. “Our kids were way over and above the other kids in the high school science classes,” said O’Connell. “That made us feel very good.”

These three schools are in vastly different neighborhoods of Chicago. Each has its distinct strengths and weaknesses. But Lubov, Tyson and O’Connell share common goals and use the ideas of continuous improvement to lead their schools—and their students—toward excellence.

The Bateman Experience

It is nearing the end of the year at Bateman school, and about 50 teachers are huddled at five library tables, celebrating the successes their teams have had this year and discussing the concrete benefits they have seen from such teamwork.

“This school has gone from the Dark Ages to the 21st Century,” Carol Schmitz, a nationally recognized 6th-grade science teacher, remarks enthusiastically.

During a professional development day at the beginning of the school year, the teachers had brainstormed to determine the five biggest obstacles they saw to improving the quality of teaching and learning: poor discipline, inadequate communication between staff and administration, inclusion of special education students in regular classrooms, lack of planning time and lack of staff development. The teams worked throughout the school year using a multistep problem-solving process. They created “action plans” to address the obstacles. Some were easily overcome—things such as ensuring that all school clocks were set to the same time; while others—such as restructuring the day—proved stickier.

Some problems certainly remain, but these educators say many things are getting better. And much of the true progress they have made has occurred because of their teamwork together. In red magic marker, they list several advantages of the team approach: “fresh insights,” “opportunity for input,” “shared ideas,” “collective brightness.”

Lubov, at her job for five years, says she would now send her own two daughters to Bateman—which was not the case when she first arrived. This, even though her school is stretching at its seams—enrollment soared from 908 last fall to 1,025 by year’s end—and poverty levels continue to rise: from 65 percent to 90 percent during her tenure.

Lubov knows that good things are happening at Bateman, not the least of which is better test scores. Scores have consistently risen at Bateman, she says, except for a slight dip in 1993-94, when 22 of the school’s 53 teachers were new. As just one example, when Lubov encouraged her teachers to focus on writing skills, she says her students’ scores jumped 50 points in one year.

When Lubov first arrived, she encouraged her teachers to create a vision of what the school could be. “Before we could start, we needed to get on the same philosophical train,” she says. To establish a common educational vocabulary, she says she flooded teacher mailboxes the first couple of years with reading material to “heighten the level of dialogue.”

Teachers like James Phelps say one positive attribute in his principal is the ability to be flexible. “Each day is an adventure,” the former real estate salesman turned 5th-grade teacher says. “You have to remember to adjust and remember what the ultimate goal is.”

Phelps knows that children are truly at the center of the school and believes that innovation brings them closer to the learning process. Take, for example, his “reverse” science project. In this experiment, it was teachers who did the projects, and children and their parents who came to view them. Not all teachers participated, but those who did tackled such concepts as balance, the center of gravity and the physics of responding to two forces at one time.

“We wanted to make a connection between parents and teachers and children,” Phelps said. “We wanted to see the teachers do it—and more than half participated.”

Lubov couldn’t be more pleased with Phelps’ initiative, and says it is an essential element for change. “I wanted to create a culture in which you could take a risk and fail. If you don’t do that, nobody is going to try.”

And while Lubov acknowledges that “democracy can be messy,” at Bateman teams are even responsible for hiring—selecting the top three teaching candidates from which Lubov draws her choice, which, incidentally, almost invariably is also the team’s top choice.

“When people feel empowered, there’s no end to what they can or will do,” Lubov says. “Cynical people just don’t stay here.”

The Johnson Experience

Six years ago, Johnson was a broken-down, graffiti-ridden physical plant; teachers didn’t seem to believe in the potential of the school’s 400 elementary students; students doubted their own talents. The school’s parent group was so out of control, they changed a lock on an upstairs room and occasionally retired there to drink alcohol.

“Some people had the attitude that, ‘We’ve done it this way for 30 years,’ and weren’t willing to realize that it had been done wrong for half the 30 years,” said Tyson. “Parents were struggling with teachers, and teachers were struggling with other teachers as well as parents.”

“The hall stayed loaded with kids all day long. I was running around like crazy trying to just get fights settled. … It was just a mess!”

But that Johnson school died a deserved death when Tyson took over, and isn’t likely to rise from the grave anytime soon.

“You can’t address the needs of the child if you don’t address the needs of the total family and the community— because it is going to impact what the child needs,” says Tyson.

Tyson didn’t begin by tightening the reins and issuing edicts. Leadership, she believed, meant teamwork and shared responsibility, and so she, like Lubov and O’Connell, put teams in action.

Bennis and others underline the importance of such an approach. “Whatever shape the future takes, successful organizations must take seriously— and sustain through action— the belief that their competitive advantage is based on the development and growth of the people in them,” he writes.

Working in teams, teachers at Johnson have begun to articulate a system of shared values and goals, and recognize that they, too, and not just their principal, are responsible for the school’s success.

The curriculum team developed and implemented a plan to improve the quality of student work. To do this, they set out to integrate the Chicago Public Schools Learning Outcomes with new curriculum and authentic assessment methods. This included the creation and testing of rubrics, which are criteria for evaluating student work that provide more than letter grades. The team did much of the inservicing of the staff and got assistance from consultants. They created a new lesson planner that for the first time brought together in one place for each grade the vision, mission, outcomes and standards—plus enough space to do the daily planning.

Tyson sees a tremendous change in her faculty, from once an isolated, discouraged group of people to now, by and large, an eager group willing to accept responsibility for their students’ education.

“I think the major barrier I have had to overcome—and still do to some extent—is people who resist change,” she says. “There’s always a fear of the unknown and a new person coming in: They’re going to change things. … It’s going to threaten my job. … And I think you have to make people comfortable with you and let them know that you are a team player, that you’re here to assist them in what they’re doing, to make it better for everybody.”

Her teams used a tool that corporations have used successfully to improve analysis and management: force field analysis. She describes it this way:

“We look at where we are, determine what are the things that can assist us to go where we want to go, and what are the things that inhibit us from reaching our goal. We brainstorm ideas. We go from there to develop action plans to overcome any barriers.”

As had been the case in the corporate world, Tyson found not all teachers were ready or able to adapt to the changes that shared responsibility and staff development entailed. As a result, many are no longer at Johnson.

“A lot of people are not here that were here when I first came,” she says. “A lot have left on their own accord. I have encouraged others to leave.”

“I know I still have some people who don’t really belong in Johnson,” she continues. “Maybe they could be successful somewhere else. But they just don’t have the right attitude: the feel for the student population and the community itself that one should have if you are going to work in a community like this.”

Tyson worked hard to develop community financial support, successfully targeting Amoco, United Airlines, the Leaf Candy Co. and the Urban Education Partnership Program of the State Board of Education.

Slowly, a culture that had been more interested in preserving itself began to seriously address its challenges.

To help keep her teachers motivated, Tyson encourages each individual to develop at least one professional goal a year. “They don’t have to necessarily share that with me. If they want to, I’m all ears; but if not, that’s OK.”

The Corkery Experience

Elena O’Connell knew what she wanted when she arrived at Corkery a little over three years ago. “In order to be effective, you have to have four things present,” this soft-spoken Hispanic woman said recently. “These things are: [motivated] teaching staff, children who buy into the plan, involved parents and an involved community.”

A high priority was improving the quality of teaching and learning in the classrooms. The staff followed the lead of the curriculum and staff development team, whose focus was interpreting the Chicago Public Schools Learning Outcomes, curriculum and assessment. The team inserviced all the teachers, plus a group of parents, during a three-week summer institute.

There were also the considerable problems of the Little Village school’s physical plant—which was dirty, mice-infested and achingly overcrowded with 1,000-plus students.

Bennis and others define effective leaders as those who identify problems and rally resources to solve their problems. “The first critical component of character is purpose, a willful determination to get what you want,” Bennis writes. He could easily have been describing O’Connell.

She brought in a new building engineer and fought successfully for a new school extension, which includes a cafeteria. She found an outside corporation—State Farm Insurance—to plant gardens around the school to help beautify it. O’Connell knew instinctively that unless students and teachers felt good about the place they worked, their motivation would never increase.

Ninety-seven percent of Corkery’s students are poverty level; 81 percent are Hispanic and 17 percent African American. Like Lubov, O’Connell is seeing some progress in test scores, especially in science and social studies, subjects she has placed particular emphasis on.

O’Connell believes that seemingly small measures—a new microwave and a refrigerator for a teachers’ lounge— can go a long way toward improving morale. She works to model behavior that other staff members will perhaps model in turn.

“I [try to] pitch in and do things with them,” she explains. “I take duties sometimes. I go outside and help take care of kids. I sometimes do lunch room duties. I might take a classroom every now and then.”

At Corkery, the children are buying into O’Connell’s new system, beginning to recognize how important it is even as youngsters to push for the best education they can get.

A student court, for example, solves discipline problems. “It is the children telling children [that] they are getting tired of their behavior because it prevents them from learning,” said O’Connell. “They recognize that when they get to high school, they are not going to be prepared. That is how I want kids to start thinking. … I think the children feel really good about themselves and that is our focus.”

Leadership principals, principles

Principals interested in learning more about leadership for continuous improvement can follow several routes:

Visit other schools that have begun to employ the principles of continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

Network with other principals and leadership teams.

Begin by establishing a shared vision and a strategy with the whole school community.

Encourage democratic decision making and give proper recognition to those who move forward. The three principals all realized that they needed to reflect on their own behavior. Were they modeling how they wanted others to work with each other? What did they need to do to improve?

Some suggestions for local school councils in identifying principals that can advance the school:

Look for someone who begins with a sense of the shared urgency about the project at hand, someone who will begin with a careful analysis of the data for their students and school.

Seek a leader who is likely to help the school collectively develop and implement a shared vision and cooperative culture.

Can the person you’re interviewing coach others to become winners?

Look for someone who has a clear mental model for transforming the school, not vague promises, someone who knows how to develop shared goals and then empower the whole school community to check to make sure they have been achieved.

A potential principal should be willing to ensure that the staff benchmarks its classroom practices against the best practices in the country.

Your principal should be able to recognize and celebrate the successes of her staff.

O’Connell has some advice of her own for LSCs in quest of a true leader. “You have to find someone who is really interested in education, [who] believes the children in that school can and will succeed.”

Principals Lubov, Tyson and O’Connell have listened hard to identify the needs of their students, parents and staff, then helped them set priorities. They have then been persistent in empowering the school community to address those priorities. While they realize that transforming schools and student performance takes time, they have a passion for not wasting a minute of a student’s school experience. The results are clear to any visitor.

For more information, contact John Simmons at Participation Associates, (312) 935-5858.