Empowerment Is Still Key
Just as flour strengthens the base of pastries and breads, empowerment lays a solid foundation for building strong buy-in, which promotes continuous improvement.
Empowerment was a prominent business management strategy during the 1980s and 1990s. It involves the transfer of decision making authority and responsibility from management to employees (Waterman, 1987). The premise is that when employees are given a meaningful voice in workplace decisions and given interesting work, motivation and productivity increases (McGregor, 1990). Additionally, it is argued that worker’s proximity to their work make them better able to effect work improvements than managers who are not directly involved in workers’ tasks (Bass & Shackleton,1979).
School reform measures have included empowerment in the form of School Based Management/School Empowerment, which gives educators at the school level greater decision making in exchange for greater accountability. A recent example that denotes this exchange is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers states have received allowing them to decide how to meet required standards. However, calls “to let teachers teach,” such as those voiced by Mike Feinberg and the top down high-stakes testing requirements that schools are asked to adhere to, suggest that there is a need to move beyond having “empowerment initiatives” to implementing initiatives that truly empower (Wilkerson, 1998). The increased focus on accountability provides a good opportunity to do this.
Though there is no consensus on the effectiveness of high-stakes standardized testing to promote student learning, it is widely held that emphasis on these tests results in cheating, admission restriction of low-performing students, the lowing of the passing grade, a narrowing of content covered which prevents the acquisition and continued development of skills such as problem solving and critical thinking (Falk 1996; McNail 2000; Lashway 2001, Ravitch 2010). These occurrences point to the need for another course of action: the development of an assessment cache that constitutes a balance mix of standardized tests and teacher assessments (Volante and Jaafar, 2010).
The Learning-Focused Accountability (LFA) approach, recommended by Volante and Jaafar is worth exploring. With this approach, teachers’ ability to effectively promote transfer of learning and show student demonstration of authentic learning are emphasized. An integral aspect of this strategy is the recognition that teachers are unlikely to truly embrace the use of assessment results when they are not involved in the development and interpretation of same. This corresponds with Waterman’s view that “the person doing the job knows far better than anyone else the best way of doing that job and therefore is the one person best fitted to improve it” (74).
A balance mix of standardized tests and teacher assessment necessitates the need for teacher training in assessment literacy so that teachers can develop appropriate assessments. Here too, empowerment is essential. Assessment literacy training must be based on informed needs via participative decision making, which Ford (1995) states enables workers to make and execute decisions about both work tasks and organizational planning. Hence, principals need to have conversations with teachers to (a) find out what they already know, (b) find out what they need to know and (c) find out how they think they can go about attaining what they need to know. Professional development is then tailored to meet these needs. And, outcomes of what teachers know, learned and how they used the learning acquired to improve student performance can be employed to hold them accountable.
Failure to consult teachers about their training needs is one of the major reasons why schools’ professional development offerings remain a hodgepodge affair. When teachers are not consulted about what they already know, schools miss the opportunity to tap into their craft-knowledge which is a valid source of knowledge-based practices (Burney, 2004) to build teacher capacity and to help sustain school improvement efforts (Dufour, 2004).
Taping into and building human capacity has always been and continues to be the most essential ingredient for organizational success. Empowerment is key to unlocking and sustaining this success.
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