Impediments to School Improvement

Working Conditions

Time and space are needed to plan, prepare lessons, solve problems, and make decisions. PSJA lacks both. Some teachers must leave their homerooms during their planning periods so that other "floating" teachers may use the rooms for classes. That teachers cannot occupy their rooms during their conference periods is problem enough, but the "floaters" have no homeroom at all. Moreover, no suitable alternatives are available. The teachers' lounge is not an acceptable option because it does not afford privacy and quiet-not to mention access to materials-needed for truly productive use of time.

Good working conditions constitute a form of assistance often overlooked. The school is required to turn off the air conditioning when school is dismissed. The district thus saves on utilities perhaps, but staff are discouraged from working after school because temperatures are unbearably hot for much of the year. This trade-off illustrates that staff need suitable working conditions to make the best use of time.

Policies and Regulations

Resources are frequently encumbered with rules about how they may be used. Some rules restrict how a school may use available resources, while in other cases the school must devote precious time to living within the rules, providing required documentation, or accounting for expenditures. PSJA's principal has emphasized the need for more flexibility in fiscal policies. He cites a lack of human resources in the surrounding community from which to draw and wants financial flexibility to bring in people from other areas who, he believes, can help his school. Rigid fiscal policies, such as fixed rates per hour or day, make it difficult to pay trainers appropriate compensation that takes into account the complex circumstances surrounding their services or their level of expertise. Complexities of this nature call for judgment and flexibility, not rigid adherence to rules.

Delegation and Monitoring

Delegation and monitoring go hand in hand. With monitoring, one can delegate and still ensure that delegated tasks are done. With delegation, one has time to monitor. At PSJA, as at many other schools, monitoring appears to be the weak link in the school improvement process. For example, each department chair sacrificed a planning period normally used for monitoring teachers in order to provide more remedial instruction to students (the planning period was later reinstated so that monitoring of teachers could be resumed). In general, school leaders need to hone their delegation and monitoring skills.

Climate for Change

When staff were asked in May 1993 to describe some new ideas they had tried during the school year, they were not quick to think of "new ideas" and the ideas they mentioned tended to fit the traditional model of direct teaching in the classroom. Evidently the interest in "switching" roles and other innovative ideas that was observed at the May 1993 campus council meeting has not radiated out to the teachers who do not participate in council meetings. The meetings are open to everyone, but many faculty members choose not to stay after school to attend the meetings. Nor is attendance at in-services as high as it could be. While these factors reflect a need for improvement, they also reaffirm the principal's goal of changing the mental frameworks that guide the teachers' actions. More staff development and school-wide projects are needed to cultivate new ideas and a norm of continuous improvement. The changes that are needed to improve student outcomes will take time. According to staff, however, working relationships, communication, and decision-making all improved during the 1992-93 school year. This was quite an accomplishment for such a short time.

Benefits of the Triad Partnership

The Partnership Schools Initiative is a collaboration between selected schools, regional education service centers, and the state education agency. In a three-tiered structure, PSJA works with the PSI coordinator at Region One Education Service Center, who in turn acts as a mentor and go-between, enhancing coordination between PSJA's efforts and the Texas Education Agency. In this triad partnership, the school has the benefit of an external facilitator and other outside resources stemming from its participation in the Partnership Schools Initiative.

The three-tiered structure promotes direct and indirect networking among schools. In each region the PSI coordinator works with the schools selected from the region both individually and as a group. And the PSI coordinators from all the regions meet on occasion with the state education agency. (SEDL contributed additionally by involving PSJA in meetings with other schools and promoting an understanding of the school improvement process.)

The Texas Education Agency has assumed a supportive role in the partnership by providing financial resources, meeting regularly with the PSI coordinators across the state, and granting waivers to certain regulations such as the limit on staff development days. Of course, even the commissioner of education is bound by state and federal laws; thus, he lacks the authority to grant waivers in certain areas, such as competitive bidding or restrictions on extracurricular activities. Advocates for change must understand the forces from many levels that work against change.

The school has begun its journey toward improvement. Like other schools, it faces obstacles that are not easily overcome: its sheer size, severe overcrowding, and history of major transitions. But the staff are now more unified and working better together toward common goals. For some staff, Community Day is proof that change is actually occurring at the school. Despite the obstacles, they are galvanized to work for a picture of the future that is coming into sharper focus. The picture they see on the horizon gives them hope that they will get there in the future. And someday the future will be today.

Next Page: References and Credits

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 3, Number 2, Changing Mental Frameworks: One High School's Success through a Triad Partnership (1994)