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Sustainability is a Matter of Will, Not Chance

Mike Klentschy

Sustainability has been an issue which all systemic reform initiatives have faced since external funding has been available from NSF and other sources to provide a catalyst to school districts to provide teacher enhancement designed to deepen teacher knowledge of content, instructional delivery and understanding of student learning over the last several decades. Mark St. John suggests that there is a missing link in the improvement infrastructure, one of a magnitude that districts must reconsider within their own internal organization and reconceptualize their organization to provide for their own internal improvement infrastructure. While the argument presented by Mark St. John has considerable merit, there are several flaws in his understanding of school districts and how they function.

The first premise that St. John proposes is that districts do not have the capacity to improve themselves. NSF and other funding organizations only provide superficial funding to "get the ball rolling". NSF and other organizations only provide supplementary funding to any systemic reform effort. The investment in material, human and physical resources is considerable in terms of any discretionary funding resources available to most districts in the United States. Most districts have in place a vision for improvement in science and/or mathematics when they "sign on" for any initiative. The question of sustainability becomes a matter of will rather than a matter of chance. Dr. St. John makes a strong point in the fact that many school districts lack the vision and means for self-improvement, but most funded by NSF do not. It may be a case of will to reconceptualize their own infrastructure. Over the last four decades, many districts have established mini empires within their Division of Instruction Ė one for "regular instruction" and one or more for speciallay funded programs. Often these various mini empires do not have congruent vision, mission and purpose. When funding is received from NSF or other external sources, another potential "mini-empire" is established within the school district. One primary issue that must be considered by NSF or any other external funder is to what degree is any district "aligned" within its instructional focus before funding is considered. All districts must have a clear vision of instructional improvement from their core instructional programs and any other compensatory or supplemental sources. In other words, do all programs have the same focus and the same outcomes intended for all students. Alignment is an issue of leadership and will to change and not one of capacity.

Dr. St. John also suggests that many districts lack the ability or capacity to meet the challenge of standards, assessment and accountability. He lists three Cís to support this argument Ė capacity, constraints and confusion. These issues may seem as strong issues to external evaluators, but they lack merit to those who understand how school systems actually function. It has been long believed that most school districts are loosely coupled systems. In that belief there is also an understanding that there is not a singular pathway to success. Each school has unique characteristics when coupled with a common district vision and mission can produce student success even in times of standards, assessment and accountability. It is more a question of district will to align its focus and assets to produce one voice from its division of instruction. In Dr. St. Johnís definition of constraints it is naive to believe that the creation of a new mini-empire of local self improvement will make a difference without the fundamental leadership and will to improve on the part of the district leadership. He is very correct, however, in that California state policy on standards and instructional materials militates against improvement. This mitigation underscores the need to have alignment and strong leadership at the district level to provide a voice for what is appropriate for students regardless of what the state has established as policy.

Dr. St. John uses the age-old analogy of comparing public education to the private sector. This analogy is again flawed by the naÔve belief that schools and districts should be run like private sector businesses. The most glaring weakness in his argument is that the private sector spends a higher percentage of its annual budget on R and D. He fails to recognize that most private sector R and D efforts are passed on to the price paid by the consumer for products. The developer not the consumer establishes the price. In public education, the consumer not the developer establishes the price. If districts align their focus in instructional outcomes, there is an ample revenue stream to establish the local infrastructure Dr. St. John suggests should be established to improve student outcomes. Perhaps, he should focus on the "why" are intermediary organizations considered for funding by NSF and not the insistence of real partnerships for funding to even be considered .A true partnership is needed between the intermediary organization which may have the expertise and the "will" of the district to self improve. The local improvement infrastructure could easily be funded in most districts through the will to realign its instructional focus by establishing a common voice for self-improvement within its Division of Instruction. It is also a naÔve belief that districts can reassign 5% of their budget to focus on local improvement infrastructure. Most urban and rural districts have only 4-7% of their annual budgets as true discretionary. One can speculate as to how 5% of all district funds could be used for local improvement infrastructure. The real issue is leadership both from a superintendentís perspective and one from a school board perspective. We also have to recognize that systemic change may take longer than the tenure of many superintendents. NSF and other external funders must recognize this when resources are allocated to school districts. The true issue here is one of alignment of resources and will to change than capacity. No external intermediary organization has the capacity to focus districts to sustainability unless the fundamental will to change and to sustain that change resides within the district itself from the inception of any initiative.

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