An open letter to the school board

Published 12:36 pm Saturday, May 23, 2009

Editor’s note: Following is a letter given to members of the Franklin School Board at Thursday night’s meeting. Soucek also passed out inscribed copies of his book, “Notes on Education.”

What I have written about in my book “Notes on Education” addresses problems that face schools all across the United States, so it is not aimed at Franklin City Public Schools per se. But as elsewhere, we in Franklin no longer have time for defensiveness nor for denial, and I entreat this board, working in concert with Dr. Michelle Belle and her team and drawing upon all available resources, to begin a process of reformation in our school system. Yes, reformation is the apt term, in my view.

Appropriately, when it comes to public education, everyone’s key interest should remain with the academic achievement and life-preparedness of our children. My suggestions below focus on four factors that in my view have a significant impact on those ends. I know you all agree that a process of continuous improvement is something any organization should strive for.

In my view, the following are among the most pressing and foundational factors that most school systems, including ours, should place in high priority for action to be taken:

1. Institute a participative management style that places meaningful value on the ideas, concerns and questions of classroom teachers, for it is they who are the professionals in the front lines of education. Improve open, two-way communications both horizontally but especially vertically within the organization. Such communications make a keystone contribution to the level of professionalism across the organization.

2. Address the need for effective student discipline across the system, to include respect for self and others and the adherence to established classroom and school rules. This need exists throughout the system and is pronounced; it is all about expectations and standards relative to self-discipline and character development; it is about the link between discipline and academic performance; and by extension, it is about our children’s future success and well-being.

3. Institute a performance management system for all teachers and administrators that includes 3600 feedback, an emphasis on career development, a link to compensation, the updating and use of accurate position descriptions (to include accountability for performance of the essential job functions and specific objectives), and informal, daily, two-way communications with supervision.

4. Better utilize the wealth of resources that are available outside of but especially within our own community. This is more necessary in our time than ever before. By example, cost-effective opportunities for training and consultation in the areas of performance management, interviewing and organizational style exist at Workforce Development and numerous HR sources within the community, some of which might be free of charge. In my experience, the most successful organizations are those that seek out developmental opportunities to improve themselves organizationally. This is a best-practice issue.

There are many who believe that substantive changes are unrealistic, but we have a history replete with examples of people, regardless of station, rising up to successfully meet extraordinary challenges not only at the national level but also at the micro level, such as within a single school.

At the national level, we have only to consider the sweeping, successful reforms made to public education under President Dwight D. Eisenhower after Russia’s Sputnik orbited our Earth. At the micro level, I ask that you consider what was accomplished by the staff at a small middle school in rural, economically deprived Middlesex County in the early 1970s and soon after integration.

There are many who can attest to dramatic improvements at this middle school in areas similar to those numbered above, without spending much money. A complete overhaul of the middle school program and of the organizational style of its staff was successfully made. The benefits of these reforms for the children and the staff continued for years and may have remnants in place to this day — or preferably, have been further improved upon.

In every case, such challenging, supposedly “unrealistic” actions begin under the influence of extraordinary leadership, and I have faith that this board and Dr. Belle and her team will exercise such leadership. Then there will be a significant onus upon the rest of the community to do its part in contributing further to meaningful progress.

It has been said that if we in Franklin, given our resources, can’t bring about needed developments to improve our community, it cannot be done elsewhere. It is not a matter of “can” — it is a matter of “will.” We are blessed with a unique opportunity to do the right thing. And the primary component of that blessing is the outstanding people we have in our schools and all across our community. We must not waste this opportunity. We must choose the difficult path, for our children’s sake.