The time of a school board election is a time for a local community to evaluate their system of local public education.
Two years ago, I heard a board candidate comment on the fact that his district had just received the state’s highest grade. He said the high grade given to the district meant that the only goal left for the district was to maintain this high standing. This board member saw no vision for improvement in his district, no vision of school purpose other than continuing to receive high grades from the state.
The grade the state gives to districts is almost completely determined by test scores, but, most voters, if asked, reject the notion that the excellence and merit of the district should be determined solely by test scores.
Voters want more from their schools than high test scores and, schools invariably promise much more. For example, Kettering High School says its mission is for students to “develop individual talents, to graduate with skills to attain a career goal, and to become contributing citizens.” This sounds good, but school mission statements are largely empty words. The relentlessness of testing and grading trumps everything; the importance of test results is hammered again and again by the media and by schools themselves. The broader mission of schools is given only lip service.
Dr. Deming remains the most famous person, most acknowledged genius, I’ve ever met and, since my brief personal encounter with him, my thinking has continued to be influenced by his teaching. Dr. Deming was an expert on systems — how systems work, how systems fail, and most importantly, how systems can be improved in order to produce quality. Total Quality Management (TQM) shows a way to think about systems.
It is aim / purpose that should drive the system, and, according to Dr. Deming, without an aim, there can be no system. Isolated departments doing their own thing, individual profit centers seeking their own ends together do not make a system. Right now, the unifying aim / purpose public education has embraced is the production of test scores, and making test scores is what drives the system.
Kettering is like a gifted adolescent with great potential. As Lucy once told Linus, “There is no heavier burden than a great potential.” The League of Woman Voter’s question to Kettering Board candidates is: “What is the biggest challenge facing the Kettering School system?” It seems to me that the biggest challenge for Kettering is for Kettering simply to live up to its potential. It could have a truly great system of public education. These are not just rah rah words. It’s a reasonable evaluation based on facts — Kettering is a prosperous community, it has great infrastructure, great traditions, it has with many civic minded and highly educated citizens. Kettering has advantages many other communities lack, but, the question is: How can these advantages be made to work together to make something exemplary?
Kettering should seek to live up to its name. It should develop a new system of public education that redefines the standards of “excellence” for public education. Kettering should be a leader. My answer to the League says, in part, “Public education needs transformation. To achieve 21st century quality, we must stop simply replicating the present system.”
“Transformation” is a Deming word and it may be a word that people who are loyal to Kettering Schools may think too strong. Why would a district that seemingly is doing so well need to be transformed? But from my experience in working in public education for thirty years, I believe, “transformation” is the appropriate word. Small change and tinkering improvements are not enough. There must be transformation built on a consensus view of purpose, built on a consensus view of the public good expected from public education.
But transformation is not easy. Making big leaps in quality and efficiency is not painless. Systems and bureaucracies resist change. But school systems are made of people who want their careers in education to become more worthwhile, who want their chance for professional advancement to increase. School transformation can happen only through leadership that authentically engages people in problem solving and gives scaffolding and support for the process to happen. Transformation is possible only if there is public consensus for it to happen and only if the educational community is empowered to make it happen. Transformation could be a long process — I’m guessing ten years — many of the older teachers and administrators in the system would certainly retire before the process is completed. Younger teachers and administrators, I believe, would come to be enthusiastic about working together toward a vision of school and education excellence. The point is to have a vision to work toward, the point is to articulate a worthwhile aim / purpose. The point is to think through a plan that, over time, can be accomplished. Otherwise, the present system is endlessly replicated.
In order for public education in Kettering to reach its great potential, the Kettering community must become democratically engaged. I agree with the Kettering Foundation’s CEO, David Matthews, that, “democracy is essential to education.” This is a big idea and a big insight and school districts should take this idea seriously. If, as Matthews says, it is only through democracy that big improvements in public education can happen, then school board members should do everything possible to encourage democracy to flourish within their districts.
An engaged public, a vitalized democracy, is essential to creating the high quality system of public education that, as a community, we need for our best future. Kettering School Board’s Biggest Challenge, I Believe, Is To Gain Public Support For Transformation. This is a challenge for leadership. If elected to the Kettering School Board, I would do everything possible — to inspire, to challenge, to think through, to reason together, to go the extra mile — in order to answer that challenge.