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Building a Learning Organization.

Ms. Mohr and Mr. Dichter outline the developmental stages that faculties go through en route to becoming learning organizations - reminding readers along the way that building consensus is not an end in itself but a starting place, a structure that works no miracles unless it is used wisely and well.

WE HAD sensed for some time that something was wrong - site-based management had not been delivering the goods. We formed leadership teams. They met. Teaching and learning didn't change. "Perhaps too much had been expected from simply the transfer of power," suggest Priscilla Wohlstetter and Susan Mohrman in an extensive study on the outcomes of sharing decision making in schools. The idea was to improve education for students, but instead it seemed that there was always another meeting to attend and not much else was new. Wohlstetter and Mohrman looked at 30 schools in nine districts, each of which had at least four years of experience with school-based management. "Is the theory flawed? Is the current wave of decentralization just another swing of the pendulum?" they ask.1

Our own action research, added to the latest findings in the literature, paints a fuller picture. For more than 10 years we both were principals of alternative high schools in New York City, deeply involved in school reform. Our schools struggled incessantly with "group management," as it was called in the early days of Satellite Academy High School (Alan), and with "consensus-based decision making" at University Heights High School (Nancy). Our observations represent years of reflection on the process, some of which was joyous, some of which was not.

The question for us is not "Shared decision making - when does it work and when does it not work?" Rather, it's "How do you develop site-based management to the point where it promotes rigor in teaching and learning?" What is needed is a thorough understanding of a complex conceptual framework - one that requires continuing work and struggle to implement truly and honestly, but one that has the potential to genuinely transform what happens in classrooms for students.

The observations that follow outline the developmental stages that faculties go through en route to becoming learning organizations. Of course, these stages aren't as clear-cut and neat as they sound on paper. We've lived through them, and we know how little can be predicted and how much can go wrong. We also know that building consensus is not an end in itself but a starting place, a structure that works no miracles unless it is used wisely and well. We know that leadership is essential to the success of this journey, and we don't mean only principal leadership. We know that school communities have to work through some fairly predictable problems in order to emerge in a more mature state, truly prepared to view power differently, able to make learning more meaningful for students, and maybe even modeling a just and democratic mini-society.

The Honeymoon Stage:

A Sense of Community Emerges

This is terrific! Finally, I'm a part of a group that meets with the leader. I feel valued; my voice is being heard. I'm still not comfortable disagreeing with the group, especially publicly, but it's exciting to feel that we will be able to make real change.

The eager members of such a group may begin by thinking that this is going to be easy. They may neglect to build, earlier rather than later, some common goals. Is the intent to give everyone a voice or to improve the intellectual quality of the school? Making decisions without a clear sense of mission or a shared vision can create a battleground for personal interests. Now is also the time to clarify the method of making decisions and which ones are appropriately made by the group. Problems can be averted if consensus is introduced early. Voting leads to factions and polarization; consensus means having to look for the win-win solution, but it's not the same as seeking a unanimous vote and being held hostage by the holdouts.

In the early stages of working together, the leader is a designer. While multiple points of view make groups powerful, that variety does not always produce the most creative outcomes. At this stage, when a group does not yet have a lot of collective knowledge, it is sometimes useful for the leader to solicit input, envision a design, and then present a plan to the group. The group can digest it, modify it, and then look for agreement. Another strategy is for the group to brainstorm possibilities, with a small group or a leader putting those possibilities together into a plan. What does not work is for a leader to announce to the group, "This is your school, so it's up to you to tell me what you want to do." There is something a bit hostile to this approach; a leader needs to be clear about whether sharing leadership is, in fact, what he or she wants.

Nancy bought bagels for her staff every Friday to thank them for their hard work; it was a personal way of appreciating them. When students came into her office early in the morning, she gave them bagels too, as a reward for being early to school. One teacher expressed her sense that the bagels should be for the teachers only and "proposed" that there be no bagels for students. Nancy had to point out that these were her bagels, purchased with her money, and that she was going to give them to whomever she wanted. In the glow of the Honeymoon Stage, this teacher thought that teachers would now make decisions about everything that happened in the school. It was a learning experience for her to find out that the Friday bagels were not in her purview.

The Conflict Stage:

The Honeymoon Is Over

Who made that decision? I can't buy in unless I'm a part of what's going on. We're supposed to be talking about instruction, but we keep arguing about career day, the new schedule, the budget for art supplies. When are we going to work on something of substance? Sometimes I feel like going back to my classroom and closing the door; working with students is easy compared to this!

Group development theory tells us that not only is the conflict stage inevitable, it is essential to developing a healthy group. "In fact, a group without conflict may be in serious difficulty; points of view are being masked and inhibited, and good solutions cannot be worked out."2 The very same principles of conflict resolution that we use for students apply to adults - for starters, an absolute insistence on resolving (not hiding) conflicts, combined with a few ground rules for civil discourse. It is helpful to warn the group before this stage happens that it will come; knowing that it is inevitable will lessen anxiety. The group will do well to avoid being overly nice, trying to smooth things over, ignoring problems. Dealing with petty dilemmas skillfully will allow the group to venture into the important and difficult issues surrounding teaching and learning.

Everyone has to learn how to be a negotiator/mediator. The leader's job at this stage is to be both a mediator and a teacher of mediation and negotiation. Not dealing with conflict leads to resentment and the mediocrity that comes of too much compromise. Effective leaders have the courage to confront difficult issues of race, gender, class, and so on. However, they do not let people use the group to settle issues that belong in face-to-face, private conversations. "People around here are late a lot - I think we should do something about it" could be a legitimate topic for a group to take on if it really is about a slippage in group norms, or it could be a cover-up for the speaker's unwillingness or inability to confront one person who is chronically late. The temptation on the part of the group to revert to being top- down because it's "easier" or "clearer" must be acknowledged and stopped. The urge on the part of the leader to say, with pride, "See, they want me to make all the decisions" suggests that he or she may not be committed to shared decision making.

Alan's school, which had four sites, each with its own teacher director, had a history of competition among the sites. Resources were either strictly divided or allocated through a convoluted reliving of the history: Remember that time we gave you extra funding to buy books? Now it's our turn. Over time and through constant reinforcement, the culture of the school became one in which the sites began to see themselves as part of a whole instead of as rival factions. Alan needed not only to voice the new set of norms and beliefs but to ensure that they were being practiced. His role was not as an authoritarian but as someone whose responsibility it was to regularly remind the group of what it stood for and why it was there.

The process took several years; there just was no fast way. The members of the management team knew they had "arrived" when they readily agreed to a proposal from Alan that one site, which was going through a particularly difficult transition, be funded for an extra teacher for the entire year simply because it needed it. Rather than resenting it, the directors felt good about their collective ability to get beyond individual interests.

The Confusion Stage:

What's the Role of the Leader?

Sure, you say I'm empowered, but if we're all leaders, why do we need someone in charge? Sometimes decisions are made without me - why should I feel buy-in? Who decides who gets to make which decisions? We need specific processes and procedures. There's always a hidden agenda. I may be ready for empowerment, but I'm not so sure about the others. Maybe it's better to just let the leader do it all - then at least we know whom to blame.

Wise groups come to appreciate and value the different roles of their members. They realize that the role of leader is an essential one - after all, who is going to push us when we get stuck, do that work we'd rather not do, and remind us of our agreements?

Leadership can vary and move around, but when it comes down to it, no matter how much decision making is shared, there does have to be someone who is in charge - and we have to know who that is. Otherwise, we all spend an inordinate amount of time either duplicating one another's efforts or waiting for someone to be decisive. It is the leader's responsibility to regularly prioritize and re-prioritize and to help the group keep focused on what's important.

At this stage, the leader must strive to prevent the group from falling into "process worship," whereby following the procedures and processes designed to make sure that all voices are heard becomes the goal rather than the means to an end. Letting processes become a substitute for good judgment can lead to well-executed, terrible decisions - or worse, to stagnation and frustration. In fact, without a strong leader, our "democratic" process sometimes stalls because one or two people dominate the conversation.

This stage can be confusing to everyone, including the leader. The group still needs decisive leadership that can coordinate reform efforts and rally support for the school. Yet, if the leader is still following his or her own agenda too closely, a power struggle can ensue between teachers and the principal. Reconciling concepts that seem to be in opposition to each other is what makes the job of the leader so complex and so far above the more clear-cut management hierarchies of the past.

At one of Alan's school sites, during the early stages of its development of a peer accountability process, there was an ineffective teacher. The staff members, wanting to avoid an uncomfortable situation, asked the teacher director to deal with the problem. He did and ultimately asked the teacher to leave the school. The staff members were upset, saying it was their right to make decisions: they had wanted the director to deal with the problem but not make a decision on his own. They were told that the decision would stand, but that they would need to develop an immediate plan for an intervention process so that in the future it would be clear to everyone how personnel issues would be handled. There was resistance to making this plan: the crisis was over, and the staff wanted to "move on." The leader had to insist. While the leader's role had changed in regard to making unilateral decisions, it was essential to take the lead in making sure that there were procedures in place that ensured democratic outcomes and did not rely on peer pressure alone for accountability.

The Messy Stage: Now

Things Are Even Less Clear

This teamwork is sloppy; I need more clarity and control. I'm working harder now and getting less done. There's no time to do anything right, let alone get to the important issues. If this is supposed to make me feel "bought-in," it's not working. Sometimes I don't even remember why I agreed to something. It's fun to be collegial, but where is it getting us?

Learning to love risk-taking and ambiguity is a tall order; it's hard to avoid the safe route and celebrate mistakes. Good systems of communication can help that happen. Instead of a clear line of authority, there can and should be multiple forms of communication among all the members of the group - a sort of circulatory system for the organism, one that keeps the blood moving. Multiple groups with varied tasks and focuses keep power dispersed throughout the school and not simply vested in one group instead of in the principal. That makes for a lot of meetings, but well-run meetings can themselves be learning experiences.

The leader can help the group be comfortable with messiness, pointing out that it is part of real life. When members of the group say, "I'm not comfortable with that," they can be gently encouraged to understand that their comfort is not the major goal of the school and that maybe their discomfort is a sign that learning is taking place. The goal is to feel safe enough to indulge in risk-taking. The leader should not try to prevent mistakes but should stress that they are to be welcomed, examined, and understood as natural phenomena - as a necessary part of learning.

At the same time, leaders are striving to develop those systems and communications that will eventually bring order out of chaos. The leader plays a key role in fostering professional practice by putting in place processes and structures that promote teacher collaboration and collective responsibility. Through professional dialogue, through seeking out information and evidence, through self-reflection and a feedback process, the group begins to make better decisions, and its processes gradually become more seamless (and more efficient). The group and the leader are now able to use more effectively the skills they were developing in earlier stages. They are becoming a professional community.

The leader faces his or her own particular problem of messiness at this stage: being expected to strengthen cross-fertilization and collaboration; to maintain calm, order, and the sense that someone is in control; to promote strong cultural norms, values, and beliefs; and at the same time to include everyone's voice in setting the agenda. Making sense of these seemingly disparate goals is hard but critical work.

Nancy came to understand that her role as professional development leader not only meant that she was responsible for designing and running professional development activities at staff meetings (where announcements were banned). It also required her to spend the entire school day in a variety of meetings - with the leadership team, curriculum planners, office staff, long-term planners, and so on. Each of these meetings was a part of the professional development web in the school. Because it was easy to spend meeting time perseverating about administrative details, it became the rule that half of every meeting would address a professional topic, which would come first. As this became a habit of the school community, it was understood that the purpose of each team meeting, first and foremost, was to learn together, which included reading articles and building on prior knowledge. It was Nancy's job to keep these multiple conversations going, which meant doing all her other principal's chores early in the morning and late in the day.

The Scary Stage: Where Are the Authority and the Accountability?

I know I said I wanted to be a part of a professional community, but maybe "they" do know better than we do. Actually, sometimes I hope so. I mean, whose fault is it if something goes wrong? Suddenly I don't feel so powerful; I just feel more of a heavy responsibility. Where's the validation? What are the rules? I'm not sure I want to be responsible for talking about what's going on in other people's classrooms, about what the standards should be, about what we should teach. If we open that up, then I have to be willing to hear stuff about my own work - and that is truly scary.

Participation in making decisions does not in any way ensure that the group automatically takes on real responsibility for what happens; in fact, the group can sometimes get the urge to back off and look around for someone or something to blame. So it is important that the group build an accountability system based on information sharing and self- evaluation. Such a system ensures that decisions are grounded in substantive information and data and not solely in the opinions and preferences of the group members.

It is at this stage that the group begins to see itself as a professional learning community rather than merely as a decision-making group. The work is shifting to an instructional focus, aligning teaching practice with shared values and beliefs. The group is moving into genuinely shared leadership and understands that what makes a community truly professional is a systemic approach to collective rather than individual accounting.

What can be really scary is when there is no improvement in student performance after the group has been working so hard. Remember the findings: higher student achievement has been directly linked to the building of professional community.3 The group has to make sure that it is not only working hard but working together in productive ways. Patricia Wasley, Robert Hampel, and Richard Clark identify four key conditions that must be created in order to foster teacher learning:

* adequate time and appropriate conditions for adult learning;

* a culture of collegiality rather than of individuality and isolation;

* the analytical capacity to determine whether changes are effective; and

* a readily available support system of knowledgeable experts.4

Peer assessment and accountability in Alan's school had, over the years, come to exist more in theory than in practice. People met in "peer groups," having found many reasons not to visit one another's classes. Or if they did visit, they gave each other, by all accounts, very superficial (and very positive) feedback. There was growing concern that teachers who were in need of substantial support and help were not getting the kind of "critical friendship" they needed. To revitalize the procedure, Alan kept bringing questions to the table: What are we doing about this? Why are we resisting? What's so difficult about giving and getting critical feedback? How can we stop letting ourselves off the hook? Staff members had told him privately that they were concerned, but they were reluctant to say it out loud. His goal was to make their voices public. His role was not "enforcer" but "relentless advocate" for the group to grow and look collectively at the problem, to make sure the environment was safe and respectful, and to reduce the tolerance for collective denial.

The Mature-Group Stage: A Learning Community Is Born

Finally, we're proactive and make our own agendas rather than reacting to those of others. We've also learned to be inclusive; we avoid us/them scenarios. We rarely make decisions before we have enough knowledge, and we make better decisions because they include more points of view. Giving up some of our own preferences allows us to see the bigger picture and to work on the common good. Our meetings are now professional development opportunities instead of battlegrounds over details. We're talking about teaching, and we're learning about raising standards and not merely setting them. And we're all taking responsibility for making sure that happens; we've stopped pointing the mental finger at one another.

Focusing on adult learning is only really useful if we always remember that student achievement is the overarching goal. "Teachers who are empowered to make decisions about their school will structure their classrooms to empower students in the learning process, encouraging students to take greater responsibility for their own education. . . . Empowerment's true target is not teachers . . . but the school. . . .To achieve it requires an authentic leader to take the primary role in both shaping the framework and nurturing the capacity of others to help shape it."5

We have both come to understand that, as principals, we have to be learners and teachers ourselves. Learning doesn't happen just because we set up structures, bring in outside experts, or send teachers to workshops. Authentic learning requires an authentic learning community that learns from research, from its own experience, and from its analysis of that experience. And building such a community takes leadership that does the same thing. Setting up a leadership team is like planning for a class - a good teacher doesn't approach a class in a rigid, arbitrary manner; nor does he or she turn the class over to the students. Good teachers know that it is their job to teach the students how to be good learners, how to take on responsibility, and how to value one another's voices. Good teachers don't leave that to chance. Neither do good leaders.

1. Priscilla Wohlstetter and Susan A. Mohrman, "Assessment of School- Based Management," Studies of Education Reform, U.S. Department of Edu- cation Online Library,

2. Matthew B. Miles, Learning to Work in Groups (New York: Teachers College Press, 1971), p. 25.

3. Fred Newmann and Gary Wehlage, Successful School Restructuring (Madison: Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, University of Wisconsin, 1995).

4. Patricia A. Wasley, Robert L. Hampel, and Richard W. Clark, Kids and School Reform (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997).

5. Robert Evans, The Human Side of School Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996).

NANCY MOHR is a professional development consultant with the Professional Development Laboratory at New York University and the National School Reform Faculty, Bloomington, Ind. She can be reached at ALAN DICHTER is an assistant superintendent for executive leadership development with the New York City Public Schools. He can be reached at
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Title Annotation:school-based management for principals
Author:Mohr, Nancy; Dichter, Alan
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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