ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum


Online Edition - March 2001

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Issue Highlight — Someone To Watch Over Me
- Peter Block discusses how technology and aggressive measuring can damage learning behaviors and the importance of human connection to the education of a child.

 In This Issue...
With A Little Bit Of Luck
Using Both Eyes
In The Face Of Change
Answering A Big "What If?" In Chicago


 Features...
Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Pageturners
Heard on the Street


Return to NFC Index



Answering A Big "What If?" In Chicago
How Public Schools in the Windy City Found Hope in Quality and Participation Methods

It has been said that when it comes to the education of America’s youth, “We’re in this together.” But are we really? While many willingly express their opinions on the subject, for the most part educators bare the burden of enacting change. But the Chicago school system chose to share the weight of that responsibility.
  A new way of aiding the education system, created by John Simmons, founder of Participation Associates, centers around the formation of local school councils. This idea, which puts an end to teachers’ isolation by bringing together comprehensive groups to provide guidance and support—has resulted in a modern-day success story.
  Now, with councils at nearly 600 schools, Simmons believes he has found the right equation. Read on to see how Chicago discovered a way to bring together their faculty, administration and, most importantly, their community—for the betterment of their educational system.

When John Simmons moved to Chicago in 1989, little did he know that his work in quality and participation was about to take an entirely new direction. His work and the work of the company he founded, Participation Associates, had largely been in the private sector with companies such as AT&T, Columbia Aluminum and World Bank. Those organizations knew that attention to quality and continuous improvement were necessary components for survival in a competitive marketplace. “But what if,” Simmons thought, “the competitive environment was not present, or measures such as ROI and customer satisfaction were gone?” “What if,” Simmons thought, “these same techniques were used in our schools.”

  Chicago in the early 1990s was just the place to test that theory. As a result of neighborhood complaints about the quality of the education system, the Illinois State Legislature passed a law that established local school councils at each of nearly 600 schools. The councils were structured so that 6-7 parents, a community representative, two teachers and a principal had the responsibility of hiring and firing principals, setting curriculum and making decisions about Title I federal funds—approximately 25 percent of the school budget. This rather massive and sweeping reform act seemed to be just what the troubled schools needed. But few realized how difficult it would be for these councils to operate effectively and help institute effective reforms.

The First Day of School is Never Easy
With help from the Joyce Foundation, Simmons set out to systemically apply the ideas of high-performance management systems, TQM, teamwork and more to develop a whole school model for a continuous improvement model. And it was not easy.

  Change is hard in the corporate world, but for educators change can be more frightening than the first day of teaching. Educational institutions, much like military ones, are based on hierarchy, control and power with a pervasive atmosphere of evaluation. No one likes to be graded and evaluated, why should teachers or principals like it any more?

  “An example is having teachers look at the quality of student work as a team,” says Simmons. “In the past these conversations would break down, teachers would feel like they were being criticized by other teachers and some would leave the room in tears. So teachers avoided talking with each other about the quality of their students’ work.”

  In the new system, teachers gather in groups of three or four. A teacher will share examples of students work and explain what they were trying to achieve and how they assessed it. Then, the three or four peers discuss among themselves what they heard. “And the key here,” according to Simmons, “is that the presenting teacher may not interrupt. In the past this is where conversations would break down and defensive behavior would occur. But in a simple 45-minute demonstration of this technique, teachers are amazed at what they learn about their students’ work and their own work.”

  These conversations between teachers are symbolic in many ways. Teamwork, groups of individuals coming together to discuss the work and processes, is old hat to most corporations. But in public education the concept is revolutionary. Gone are the days, at least in Chicago, of a teacher being isolated in a classroom, doing his or her best to educate and train future citizens. And while most school systems offer some type of incentive for future development whether it be higher pay for advanced degrees or school training, few emphasize the importance of communication and connection between colleagues on the actual work.

Change in Any System Begins at the Top
While teachers are certainly the core members of the educational system, in terms of leading change, the principals take on a central status. “Principals have had very little leadership training,” sighs Simmons. “Most principals have had some administrative training but colleges do not teach how to be an instructional leader or how to bring groups of people together to solve problems and create vision.” Simmons encouraged the schools to assemble leadership teams. These teams of teachers were selected by their peers at each grade level. The team would then meet 45 minutes each week before school and discuss a range of issues with the principal. But unlike a traditional department head meeting, these meetings utilized the best practices of problem-solving teams including facilitators, timekeepers, recorders and problem-solving tools.

  Bringing teachers and principals together in new settings to discuss and improve the work of Chicago schools was not going to be enough. What about the parents? As early as 1966 with a landmark study by James Coleman, educators knew that parental engagement was the single most powerful determinant in increasing academic success. While 90-95 percent of parents would come to the Chicago schools to pick up their child’s report card, the vast majority were uninvolved in their schools and their student’s progress. Parental lack of involvement was previously handled in some systemic ways in many school systems nationwide. For example, students not having a good breakfast before school has long been handled by providing breakfast for those who could not afford it. After school programs began to meet the needs of latch key children or those with special learning needs. National and state programs certainly have not ignored the needs of our schools. They promote active involvement by parents who are communicating to each other and the schools about specific, oftentimes localized, issues.

  Simmons met the challenge by designing a program to foster greater parental involvement and to open lines of communication between the home and the school. He recruited parents to come to a two-hour workshop based on an assessment of their needs. Recruiting parents was not easy. “Many minorities are intimidated by school meetings. Many have not had a great deal of education and see teachers as threatening or middle class,” says Simmons. “Add to that the problem of illegal immigrants who are afraid of being identified and you have many potential ways that communication is shutdown.”

  From those initial workshops, parents volunteered for additional sessions including Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families.” The sessions helped build trust between parents and between parents and the school. “The biggest ‘Oh wow’ among parents,” recalls Simmons, “was that they all shared common problems. These sessions, carried out over a period of time, also allowed parents to discover common solutions. They were able to develop ongoing relationships as they never had before.” These programs, coupled with other ongoing training and assessment programs greatly aided the ultimate success of the school reform program.

Today’s Lesson Plan: Train the Teacher
The other real challenge for Simmons was centered on the view of training in schools. The corporate world has always understood the need for training in particular with the increased emphasis on TQM concepts. And while in economic downturns training of people may be one of the first items cut by zealous managers, it is also one of the first items brought back. In fact, corporations over the past few years have doubled and even tripled the amount of training days. But in school systems, the majority view is that staff development is either unnecessary or a luxury. After all, teachers should have learned everything they need to know in college. Training, when it is done, is usually of a poor quality and not delivered very effectively. Many times it amounts to a half day or a full day of seminars once or twice a year.

  Simmons was able to develop continuous or multi-session training with both parents and teachers in the Chicago schools. One of the highest compliments Simmons received was from a principal he had worked with for four years. The principal had already turned her school around when the work began, but she recognized the need for continuous improvement.

  “She came up to me one afternoon,” says Simmons, “and said, ‘I always knew a one-shot workshop for training parents was not effective. Until we began to work with you and had a team working with us three full days throughout the school year plus the coaching between workshops and teachers as peer coaches, I never understood how effective staff development could really be. I had a teacher in this school who I have worked with for over 15 years who I did not think could improve but after a year in this program, signs of improvement are there.’ Needless to say, I was very pleased.”

  Now a decade later, John Simmons knows the answer to “What if?” The answer lies within the results many have seen in the Chicago Public Schools. The results, many of which stem from applying the corporate world’s concept of continuous improvement, TQM and participation to an educational system, are certainly welcome news to the customers of Chicago public schools.


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