Inventing Better Schools:  An Action Plan for Educational Reform  

by Phillip C. Schlechty (1997)

All books about education have to address the question of why what we have right now isn't good enough.  Schlechty's answer:   "In a society where the ability to work with information and knowledge is the key to employability in well-paying jobs and essential to effective citizenship, it is no longer enough to have a relative few who are well educated.  Today, most must be well educated." (p.12)

He goes on to write: "The aim of schooling is an educated citizenry, but the core business of schooling is engaging students in work that results in their learning what they need to learn to be viewed as well educated in American society." (p.31)

Schlechty suggests that our schools currently function primarily to select and sort students on the basis of their willingness and ability to do particular forms of schoolwork.  He suggests that we should view the business of schools as "designing activities (knowledge work) that students find engaging and from which they learn things that are of social and cultural value." 

In this view, the "products" of schools are the tasks that are presented to students as worthy of their best efforts.  Schools are responsible not for producing student learning -- that goal requires community support, parental involvement, and student effort.  It is tremendously affected by the pre-school and extra-school nurture and care provided to children by their parents and society.   Schools do not control these things and are not responsible for them.  But, schools do control and are responsible for the quality of the work assigned, offered, or suggested to students.

So, how do we create a system of education where significantly more teachers, in significantly more schools, spend a greater proportion of the time and resources at their disposal in presenting to students engaging work that causes students to master important skills and knowledge?  Vouchers and charter schools are two popular proposals today.  Schlechty argues that, although in the short term, either of these approaches might seem to be working, in the long term they would not cause significant improvement.  Either of these approaches isolates individual schools.   While such isolated schools may be able to tailor themselves to gain the approval and support of a certain set of parents, they are unlikely to be any more successful than we are today at meeting the larger demands of the community.  And, they will be far too small, isolated, and disconnected from one another to effectively battle for the autonomy and resources that schools and teachers need to succeed.

Schlechty believes that school and community leaders, if willing to acknowledge the importance of the work assigned to children and the necessity of involvement in the invention and implementation of that work, can create rules, regulations, policies, union contracts, and changes in state, federal and local laws, that will encourage, protect, sustain, and nurture continuous effort by teachers and principals to improve the quality of the work offered to students.  Further, such leaders can create a system where teachers and principals will be able to acknowledge when their efforts have not created the quality of work desired, and go back to the drawing board without having to defend their efforts by denying any shortcomings. 

For more on Phillip Schlechty and his ideas, visit the Center for Leadership in School Reform


Copyright 1998, 199, 2000, 2001  by David N. Shearon