Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Inquiring Manager: Developing New Leadership Structures to Support Reform

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Inquiring Manager: Developing New Leadership Structures to Support Reform

Article excerpt

Mr. Lytle describes a three-year effort to lead a group of urban principals and a group of middle management support staff toward the design of demonstrably effective educational organizations.

At a session of the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in 1993, eight professors of educational administration debated the proposition that, for meaningful education reform to reach our classrooms, "the traditional roles of superintendent and principal must be eliminated and new leadership structures invented and implemented at each school site." Their arguments followed the norms of recent scholarship on leadership, restructuring, and organizational change. But no "real world" examples were provided as evidence that these approaches would be workable.

I wish to demonstrate here that, even within such presumably conventional organizations as large urban school districts, efforts to reinvent educational leadership are already under way. Below, I describe a three-year effort to lead a group of urban principals and a group of middle management support staff toward the design of demonstrably effective educational organizations.

The Setting

In August 1990 I was appointed superintendent of a sub-district in Philadelphia, with responsibility for 30 elementary, middle, and special schools enrolling about 20,000 students. I was the fourth superintendent in five years. In the summer of 1991 a systemwide reorganization increased the district size to 36 schools and 25,000 students.

The region served by the district is diverse: in half of the schools, 75% or more of the students come from low-income families, almost all of them African American; a quarter of the schools are desegregated and have students from middle- and upper-middle-income families; more than 90% of the students in the region are African American, and more than 3,000 are special needs students. Of the 36 elementary and middle school principals, 12 were African American and 17 were women; all but two were experienced administrators. The regional office had 55 professional staff members who provided support services to schools.

As the new regional superintendent I was charged by the general superintendent to "break the mold" - to demonstrate that the job could be done in less conventional and more effective ways. Given that challenge, I determined that participant research and practitioner inquiry would encourage principals, teachers, and support staff members to become a community in which we would think, learn, and work together to better educate urban learners.(1) What follows is a brief summary of the activities we undertook in pursuit of that goal and a brief discussion of the outcomes.

Focusing on Retention

During the summer preceding the 1990-91 school year, I reviewed performance evaluation reports from the previous school year. I was nonplused to find that more than 20% of students in grades 1 through 8 were being retained each year and that retention rates in individual schools with similar demographics varied widely. Recognizing that retention is of little benefit to students,(2) I determined that a field research project focusing on retention needed to be an immediate priority. Furthermore, the project had to communicate to principals, teachers, and parents that the high retention rate in certain schools was a shared problem.

The first phase of the project, conducted during September and October, involved visiting two schools each morning, four days a week, to develop "first impressions." By the end of October I had visited more than 800 classrooms. I shared my impressions with principals and district support staff in early November, noting, for example, that the "holiday curriculum" was rampant and that calculators were rarely being used in math classes.

From November through February I conducted a second round of visits, focusing on classrooms and subjects in which failure rates seemed inordinately high. …

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