Demand Student Centered Decisions

Decisions: Adult or Student-centered? by Dr. John Benham, Music Advocate
Why do I include this as an issue of music advocacy? Because, it is my observation that the lack of a student-centered decision-making process is the number one issue in education!

As stated in a previous entry, whenever any decision is made the question must be asked:
“What will the short and long term effects of this decision be on the students in the district?”
Federal mandates, the demand for increasing test scores, the shortage of funding for public education, and a variety of other issues often convey an environment of negativism toward public education and in particular the public school educator. Even in states or districts that have demonstrated standards of excellence in student achievement there is often the presence of a public attitude that assumes “since there are problems in education somewhere they must be just as bad in our district, too!”
This crisis of negativism places the educator in the position of constantly defending their roles as administrators or teachers. The need to demonstrate administrative leadership or skills as a teacher can drive the decision-maker to operate out of personal need. The need for self-preservation politicizes the decision-making process and can lead to conflict (power struggles) between administrators, school board, and teachers. Student learning can become a secondary issue.
While public education exists for learning, the decision-makers in any school district are adults. Adults tend to make decisions based upon the perspective their position gives them on any issue. Administrators solve problems from an administrative perspective: Budgets, staffing, public relations, keeping teachers happy. Teachers solve problems from a teaching perspective: class size, student loads, salaries & benefits, keeping parents happy.
When the mission of education is perceived as teaching or educating children (See Decision-Makers: Who’s Really Calling the Shots?) and not learning, the forces underlying the decision-making process may be driven by adult-centered issues. The influence of adult-centered issues in the decision-making process is often subtle. At other times they are blatantly obvious. Somehow educators seem to have adopted the concept that if we solve the issues that surface related to our job conditions, we have improved the learning of our students. Consequently decisions tend to be made that resolve adult needs, but do not necessarily improve learning.
Some examples from actual school districts may serve to illustrate the problem.
Example #1: The school district is in a financial crisis. The administrators decide that all students shall be required to schedule a one-period as part of their six-period day. This would facilitate the elimination of a significant number of teachers, and place 250 students per hour in one large room with a single supervisor.
While the district was in a financial crisis, further research into the situation revealed that there was a music teacher the administration had wanted to fire for several years. The financial crisis provided the perfect opportunity. The district mandated the elimination of 50% of the entire music teaching staff in order to go deep enough into the seniority tract to eliminate that teacher. The decision to require each student to schedule one study period per day was primarily to facilitate those students who would no longer be able to take music.
The Result: Upon revealing these facts to the parents, the administration rescinded their recommendation and reinstated the music program.
Example #2: Elementary schools in the district are overcrowded, but building a new school is not an option. Changing attendance boundaries or areas would solve the problem, but is an extremely volatile issue. The district decides to approach the problem with “educational reform.” They will adopt a middle school philosophy of education.
The Result: The six graders are moved into the old “junior high” facilities. The names are changed, but little else. They may add an exploratory wheel in which student take a greater variety of subjects or activities, or even make a few other changes. General music is reduced from a full year to a six week exploratory. Band, choir and orchestra are reduced from daily instruction to every other day to facilitate more exploratory classes; and music teachers are replaced with exploratory teachers. Lessons and elementary (grade five) beginning instruction are eliminated. Elementary classroom teachers are happier because the “pull-out” lessons are gone.
Example #3: The district has hired a new administrator(s) who has decided to investigate various alternatives of educational reform. They decide to adopt block scheduling.
The Result: Students lose eight weeks of instructional time per course. The new administrator demonstrates leadership skill as an “agent of change.” [Note:In every district that has consulted me about block schedule as educational reform, there has been a new administrator leading the change.]
Example #4: In a small district, the administration and guidance counselors are working out the class schedule for the coming year. One major issue seems to be in the way of completing the process. All the coaches (including the high school principal) participate in an amateur basketball league. Their schedules have all been arranged so that they have the last hour of the day available to practice in the gym. The problem: There are no other teachers available to supervise study hall during the last period.
The Result: Although the band director is voluntarily teaching band lessons during his “prep” hour, it is decided that the only logical action is to eliminate lessons and assign study hall supervision to the band director.
John Benham, Ph.D.
March 23, 2005