By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Mathews: Working on the Work
Placeholder Image

While immersed in the 40-year-old school desegregation case as Superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System in Louisiana (1995-2001), I encountered well-known school reformer Phil Schlechty. He was to advise school officials and community on matters of educational importance.

I learned that something was different about this man; something that made him a cut above the typical consultant in such matters of race, numbers and edicts. As Superintendent in suburban-Dallas, I asked him to assist me once again, but this time in Texas' top-performing school system, one of affluence and excellence in academics and athletics.

None of this history is particularly relevant to NCSS, but the ideas and the power of ideas that this school reformer presents are relevant. Schlechty points out that public school educators are under enormous pressure to improve student performance. Just ask teachers or principals or me. We want our students to show improvement; the public expects it; we often work day and night to make it happen.

According to Schlechty, there are at least three ways to respond to this pressure:

1. Work on the students.
2. Work on the teachers.
3. Work on the work.

As for working on the students, he shared with me that cajoling or even threatening them sometimes produces compliance, but it does not produce the commitment needed to perform at high levels. Bribing students and pandering to their whims, he says, sometimes generates temporary enthusiasm, but it is hard to sustain based on frivolous work sheets. In the long run, he argued, working on the students just does not work.

As for working on the teachers, he argues that some administrators have tried this with no more success than those teachers who have tried working on the students. Merit pay, he says, hasn't worked as administrators discover that "teachers are already doing all they know how to do."

(That's why I am a staunch advocate of ongoing professional development to "add" to a teacher's knowledge and skills, if not have teachers refine what they already know and do.)

Some administrators have tried observation schemes that rival the best time and motion studies in factory settings, only to find that teaching cannot be rationalized in this manner. Like Schlechty, I believe teaching is both an art and science. At its best, it is not exclusively one or the other.

While in Baton Rouge, little did I know that a few years later my "new friend" would write perhaps his most notable work that would influence countless others to this day. His book, "Working on the Work," was published by Jossey-Bass in 2002. In this book, as he shared with me years before, he was "neither about working on the students nor working on the teachers." Instead, he argued, it was important for principals and superintendents to work with teachers to improve the quality of the work teachers provide to students.

Indeed, not only is "Working on the Work" for those principals and superintendents prepared to give up on "working on teachers," but it is also for those teachers who are prepared to give up on "working on students." A focus on "Working on the Work" educators provide for students is imperative! Said Schlechty, "The key to school success is to be found in identifying or creating engaging schoolwork for students."

Too often have I noticed classrooms where the teacher "was hard at work" while students were deliberately deciding to be content with observing such effort. Yuck! Yuck! What we must do, contrary to the way many of us were taught, is turn students into workers. It's a new "paradigm" when it comes to much conventional wisdom. But, my friend is on to something.

The assumptions that support "W.O.W." are as follows:
• One of the primary tasks of teachers is to provide work for students; work that students engage in and from which students master standards.
• A second task of teachers is to lead students to do well and successfully complete the work they undertake. Therefore, teachers are "leaders" and "inventors" and students are "volunteers."
• What students have to volunteer is their attention and commitment.
• Differences in commitment and attention produce differences in student engagement.
• Differences in the level and type of engagement affect directly the effort that students expend on school-related tasks.
• Effort affects learning outcomes at least as much as does intellectual ability.
• The level and type of engagement will vary depending on the qualities teachers build into the work they provide students.
• Teachers can directly affect student learning through the invention of work that has those qualities that are most engaging to students.

Writes Schlechty in "Working on the Work," "If these assumptions are firmly embraced and acted on, I am persuaded that there would be a dramatic increase in the effectiveness of our schools."

So am I.