The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "Empower Teachers to Improve Public Schools" by The Flint Journal, 9/2/2001.

Original Title:
School Notes from a Flint Expatriate
by Barry McGhan

The Flint School District used to be my family business -- from 1934, when my father, Lawrence, started teaching, until 1995 when I retired. McGhans enjoyed both the benefits of employment and the education services in Flint schools. My siblings and I all attended Flint schools throughout our youth and graduated there, as did my two daughters. This education enabled these grads to earn at least one university degree each. It's a story many families can tell. Like many other families, three generations of McGhans left the community. My parents died in Flint and the rest of us left for employment reasons.

My wife and I have lived in Ann Arbor for the past four years, close to her work. There are differences between Ann Arbor and Flint schools, but some similarities, too. For example, African-American students here score at about the same levels on the MEAP test as they do in Flint. This, in a district with many more resources and fewer social problems. It's shocking.

Also, board and administrative actions have come under fire in both districts. Ann Arbor, lost about $30 million in a court case involving mishandling substitute teachers. Flint had quite a dustup over the superintendent buyout and bond proposal failure.

I was heartened to read a recent Flint Journal article about the new school board's effort to mend rifts that had developed in recent years. Similarly, a Journal interview with new board president Jim Campbell had an optimistic and positive tone. A new spirit of cooperation can engender the hope, strength, and determination it will take to improve Flint's schools.

Campbell mentioned the importance of teacher morale as a key to turning things around perhaps because -- as a teacher himself -- he knows how important good morale is. If teachers could attain something like the autonomy and sense of professionalism that most college teachers enjoy it would go a long way to improving their morale.

In general, this is called "teacher empowerment," identified by several national committees as a key to school improvement. Empowered teachers make meaningful decisions that significantly improve their schools.

Empowerment has to be workable. Teachers cannot do their own jobs and those of administrators. Administrators perform important functions in schools, and as every teacher knows, a good one is worth his or her weight in gold. Teachers need to share power with administrators in a way that supports the teachers' central role in student instruction while important non-teaching work also gets done.

Ultimately, this means being able to share control over major financial and personnel decisions. Further, these decisions must be made at the school -- rather than district -- level. The alternative is to continue the top-down management style so widespread today -- where decision-making is often far removed from the realities of the classroom.

Finally, teacher empowerment has to be coupled with responsibility for improved results. Power and responsibility should always be matched. Nothing good comes from having responsibilities but little power to meet them, or power with few responsibilities for how it is used.

In a system where teachers and administrators in individual schools truly share decision-making a different attitude toward accountability should develop -- where educators actually look forward to using data to tell the story of their school.

If we trust teachers enough to empower them, and set up a fair assessment system (which teachers need to judge their success as much as anyone), then teacher morale should take care of itself. So will parent and public satisfaction with the results of educators' work.


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