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Fall 1993

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Fall 93 > Article

Setting Schools Free... To Succeed
by David L. Hart

It seems everyone has a theory on how to improve education in America.

Not everyone, however, gets to take that theory from the drawing board to the classroom -- and see it work.

Education professor Carl Glickman got that chance, and you can measure some of his success by the 20 schools waiting to join the Georgia League of Professional Schools.

"We're already twice the size we thought we were going to be this year," Glickman said of the program he established at the University of Georgia College of Education. "We are never going to be able to keep up with the demand."

Starting in 1983 with a handful of schools, Glickman's Program for School Improvement (PSI) got such high marks that the schools formed a league of their own -- the Georgia League of Professional Schools. The league, created in 1989, removes some of the administrative burden from the PSI staff and allows more schools to participate.

PSI now encompasses 55 schools in the Georgia League of Professional Schools and another 18 schools in former President Jimmy Carter's Atlanta Project, which addresses a wide range of urban concerns, including education.

PSI is based on three core principles:

  • Shared governance, in which teachers take a more active role in school administration;
  • Action research, practical methods for teachers to evaluate the impact of the changes they make;
  • And educational enhancement, which reminds teachers to keep education as their primary focus.

In theory, this may sound like common sense. In practice, though, it amounts to a major shift in thinking about ways to improve schools: Teachers know best.

The average school district or university research program hasn't always seen things this way. The district or the state department of education usually hands down policy from on high, and teachers have no choice but to comply. And in the standard model of education research, university researchers swoop down, collect their data and then take off again to publish their research for other researchers to read.

Instead, PSI puts teachers and principals back into the loop. The first PSI principle, shared governance, gets the school district off teachers' backs by putting responsibility on teachers' shoulders. Teachers and administrators decide democratically how to run their classrooms, identify problems, involve the community and generally get things done that improve teaching and learning.

"Our whole decision-making process is completely different," said Sandy Bouldin, a math teacher at Athens' Clarke Central High School, a league member since 1991. Bouldin chairs the Team for School Improvement, the school's central coordinating committee, which includes two parents and two students as voting members, along with the principal and eight teachers.

The change wasn't easy, and the school had to work out some kinks, Bouldin said, but now morale is high.

"Everyone on our faculty is involved in at least one thing," she said. "We are definitely going to stick with it. We will never go back. It's just working too well."

The second principle, action research, gives teachers the feedback they often don't get from school districts or university researchers.

Teachers use action research to evaluate and monitor changes in instructional programs. For instance, Clarke Central developed a program called "Program Success" to help ninth graders adjust to high school and keep them from dropping out; action research pointed out the need for such a program, Bouldin said.

"You would think this would be a common practice, but it isn't," said Dr. Lewis Allen, PSI's director of national outreach. Allen is the contact person for groups outside of Georgia that want to start similar programs.

Lately, PSI has been placing more emphasis on action research. Many league schools have not actively implemented this principle, in part because teachers have to fit the extra work into their already hectic day.

To overcome this reticence, PSI and the League of Professional Schools created the Action Research Consortium (ARC) in 1992. Funded by a three-year grant from BellSouth Corp., the consortium sends teachers to spread the gospel of action research to other league schools that request help.

"This notion is a light touch," said Dr. Barbara Lunsford, who directs both the UGA Division of Educational Leadership and the Georgia League of Professional Schools. "We don't go in and fix it for them. We are atypical of a lot of initiatives."

Consortium members are not university staff, but instead are teachers and principals who do action research on their own turf. ARC members have practiced what they preach.

By the end of the three-year grant period, ARC plans to have enough members to help any school in Georgia implement action research, Allen said.

PSI's third principle, educational enhancement, is a matter of focus. League schools are expected to channel their energies toward instruction, not bureaucracy. Educational enhancement is the overarching principle that guides their efforts.

Allen said the question PSI schools must now examine is, "What is the best way to teach?" And that's a question with no single right or wrong answer.

With all this emphasis on teacher, principal and student involvement in the school improvement process, you might wonder what role Glickman and the PSI staff perform.

Not a big one, they say. And they want to keep it that way.

PSI isn't meant to be a domineering boss; its leaders see their collective role more as that of an "executive secretary," Allen said. PSI administrators don't pass out report cards or detention slips; instead, they keep schools in touch with each other to share new and successful teaching methods.

"As they learn more, we try to absorb it, synthesize it, write about it and disseminate it back to them," Allen said. "All the research that we do is fed right back to them."

In this role, PSI acts as a model for school districts and state education departments. The program has two long-term goals: to show that schools can democratically make good decisions for themselves and to prove the power of networks -- schools interacting with other schools.

Ideally, PSI would like school districts to get away from unilaterally making and enforcing rules. Instead, district administrators would encourage schools to share ideas and determine for themselves what works and doesn't work. And this means that PSI, the schools, and the school districts have their work cut out for them.

"In a sense, this work is never ending," Allen said. "You continue to revise and revise and revise, and hopefully you get better at what you're doing."

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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