Katherine Boo’s Expectations describes the challenges and successes of Superintendent of Denver Public Schools Michael Bennett’s ambitious education reform plan to in 2006. Bennett’s reform aimed to prepare the majority of the Denver’s public school students for college by establishing the toughest graduation requirements in the state. Bennett’s key component for achieving this goal was to close the worst performing schools and shift their students to better ones.
The initial target of Bennett’s school closure was Manual High School, a century-old high school with some of the city’s highest dropout rates, lowest student test scores, exhausted teachers, and significant gang activity. Bennett would impose his high graduation rate standards on schools in his districts, close underperforming schools moving students to other schools (students would be allowed to choose the school they wanted to move to), and track student success through a computer database to identify those students who needed extra help so no student would slip back towards low performance.
While ultimately successful with his educational reforms, the challenges Bennett encountered may be attributed to his lack of acknowledgment of the surrounding community’s apathy toward the hyper-reform environment previous political leaders and philanthropists had forced upon Manual High School and failure to employ all 8 factors of Sergio Fernandez and Hal G. Rainey defined in Managing Successful Organizational Change in the Public Sector.
According to Paul Light’s The Tides of Reform: Making Government Work, 1945-1995 there are four philosophies to government reform: Scientific Management, War on Waste, Watchful Eye, and Liberation Management. Each philosophy coexists with one another, but one or two of the philosophies may be emphasized depending on the goal of the reform. Light argued the Four Pillars are necessary components of any reform to the United States’ Federal Government.
In fact, Light claims these philosophies are expressed in our U. S. Constitution and legislation in the form of federal statutes. The significance of each reform can depend on the administration, political party in-charge, or even public opinion at the time. Since State and Local governments are reflections of our Federal government these philosophies therefore apply to them as well. Such is the case for the ambitious educational reforms imposed by Bennett in 2005-2006.
Bennett’s reform was based on maximizing school funding by eliminating underperforming schools or “war on waste. Bennett hoped to persuade the communities the closures would lead to a positive affect by allowing students to chose the new school they wanted to attend or “liberation management. ” While Bennett defined his reform policies “war on waste” as eliminating underperforming schools, this is not the universal answer for all school reforms. Had Manual High School student Julissa Torezz been appointed Superintendent it is safe to assume closure of schools would not have been a part of her educational reforms, but her reforms would emphasize at least one of Light’s Four Pillars.
Again, since reforming government at the Federal, State, and Local level requires responding to constituent needs and addressing perceived community inadequacies, Light’s “Four Tides” apply to local level governance as much as they do at the federal level. When Bennett was appointed Superintendent, the Denver Public School children were mainly from low-income households and consisted of an 80 percent minority student body, including a large number of Latino immigrants. In the most underperforming of schools gang involvement was high, student attendance was roughly 50 percent, test scores were low, and teachers were frustrated.
Manual High School was the epitome of these schools. Nine out of 10 Manual students failed the state writing test, ninety-seven of a hundred students failed the state math test, and one in five freshman graduated. One of the biggest challenges Bennett faced with his education reform was Manual’s history as a place of continual reform. Before Bennett was appointed Superintendent Manual High School had already spent the previous decade as the object of several aggressive and thoughtful reforms or what Light refers to as hyper-reforms.
Manual’s most recent was an endowment from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, which turned each of Manual’s three floors into their own mini high school each with their own principal. These constant reforms never allowed for Manual to have a clear vision or mission for their students. The constant change of missions did nothing to instill confidence in the student body. Imagine you’re a student or teacher at Manual and every few years you’re in the spotlight as the school that is underperforming and is not capable of achieving success.
Now imagine everyone else has a solution or fix to “described failures” but never allows you time to absorb the change. Such a hyper-reform environment only fosters uncertainty and encourages doubt, which is exactly what Manual produced. A doubt Bennett’s reforms would discourage by achieving what previous reforms had not by successfully meeting all eight factors and propositions defined by Fernandez and Rainey in Managing Successful Organizational Change in the Public Sector.
In Managing Successful Organizational Change in the Public Sector Fernandez and Rainey argued for a successful organizational change a managerial leader must meet 8 factors: 1. ) Ensure the Need, 2. ) Provide a Plan, 3. ) Build Internal Support for Change and Overcome Resistance, 4. ) Ensure TopManagement Support and Commitment, 5. ) Build External Support, 6. ) Provide Resources, 7. ) Institutionalize Change, and 8. ) Pursue Comprehensive Change. From the beginning Bennett was able to accomplish factors 1, 2, 4, and 7.
Denver’s passage of a $300 million bond to improve schools and the willingness of the local teacher’s union to take risks undertaking change made factor 1 established before Bennett was even appointed Superintendent. By including institutional change within his plan Bennett achieved factors 2 and 7. All this he was able to pursue due to have the support of the Mayor and encouragement of the local school board; factor 4. What Bennett failed to incorporate early on in his reform plan was the remaining factors.
All-be-it his eventual inclusion of these remaining factors allowed his reforms to be successful. No one is debating Bennett’s commitment or concern for his students and their communities, but his failure to include his teachers, students, and their communities in his vision from the beginning is what almost derailed his goal of reform. Bennett maintained the status quo of doubt in his schools and especially Manual high school be not including educators, students, and the community in his reform plan.
Early on “some of Bennett’s forty-four teachers and principals looked askance at his abrupt elevation of standards, cautioning that many students would fall short, and then drop out. ” After visiting Manual high school Bennett’s reform plan was challenged by students when they conducted a school walkout marching to his office, which was eventually joined by city leaders. Both criticizing Bennett and school officials for thinking “they know more about what we need for our children than we do. Luckily Bennett was an introspective man and realized from these protests how he had failed by not including the students, teachers, and community in developing and implementing his educational reforms. Doubt slowly eroded, but not completely, as Bennett accomplished Fernandez and Rainey’s factors 3, 5, 6, and 8. Eventually internal support from teachers and students was received when students began to return to school and attending counseling sessions (Factor 3) before transitioning to their new schools and external support within the community (Factor 5).
Bennett exerted his own resources (Factor 6) by working with staff to “pound on doors and shake chain-link fences” committing to students they would not be left behind with the closure of Manual, assisting with arranging part-time jobs for those who helped support their families, and establishing a band of outreach workers as a support system for encouraging school involvement. Lastly, Bennett was successful by his pursued and achieved comprehensive change in the way he decided to implement his reform.
Eventually Bennett set the standard for commitment and excellence he envisioned for his intended reforms by applying Fernandez and Rainey’s 8 factors to the Light’s Four Pillars. While hard fought, Bennett’s vision of higher success results for Denver’s public school children eventually became a reality. Light’s Four Pillars of reform explain how administrators improve government performance at the federal government level, which can also be applied at the local level as is evident by examining the educational reforms implemented by Superintendent of Denver Public Schools Michael Bennett in the mid 2000s.
Bennett’s challenges to his educational reform also show how an administrator is constrained by the public they serve. In the Denver Public School case the public, school board, and mayor all were supportive of education reforms, but not unchecked. In a representative democracy, when it comes to policy reforms it is not always the elected or appointed official who dictate the results. In some cases it must be done in collaboration with the public.