DECENTRALIZED DECISIONS: Learning to Abandon What Doesn’t Work

by Gary S. Mathews

When I assumed the leadership of the 21,600-student Rockwood School District in suburban St. Louis, I asked some key stakeholders to help with my transition into the district.

Though Rockwood was a district that the state “accredited with distinction” based on student performance on the Missouri Assessment Program, the president of the Rockwood chapter of the National Education Association, Cathy Westbury, pleaded with me that we needed “to do less in order to do more.”

Cathy suggested I address the issue of teacher workload. Teachers, she said, would need to be asked to do less if student achievement was to remain high in Rockwood. What was this all about, I wondered.

Teacher Load
Reviewing self-assessment surveys completed by staff in previous years, I learned that Rockwood teachers were intent on teaching the children to high levels, but they also expressed discontent with those things that “got in the way” of them doing their jobs well.

I found one teacher’s remarks summed up what many others expressed: “When I was in the business world, we sat down at least once or twice per year and went through our procedures with everyone. The whole idea was to eliminate anything that seemingly had taken on a life of its own and may have become obsolete, if not downright counterproductive. My attitude, and I’ll bet it is shared by about everyone, is that very few things should take up the time of a classroom teacher except lesson plans, grading and generally getting ready to teach!”

Out of the mouth of one of our finest! This teacher, with her broad work experience, apparently had been listening to one of our renowned consultants on differentiating instruction who declared that teachers should do few things except lesson plans, grading and generally getting ready to teach.

What were we to do?

Lessening the Problem
I recalled a concept I had heard years earlier when I was fellow of the National Center for Effective Schools. “Organized abandonment,” declared Larry Lezotte, the center’s leader, was something we in education needed to practice, yet few of us were willing or able to do.

My own experience suggests that educators are much better at piling things higher and deeper (especially on teachers) and not particularly good at learning to get rid of what doesn’t work, what isn’t needed or what gets in the way of our main work—teaching students. Put another way, as the old spiritual exclaims, “Everybody talk’n ‘bout heav’n, but ain’t nobody go’n!”

So we established in Rockwood our own homegrown “protocol” (which Webster’s defines as “a preliminary memorandum of diplomatic negotiation”) for reducing the load on our teachers. Several dozen teachers recommended by the union leadership and others suggested by their principals were given release time to attend an all-day work session with me on organized abandonment—a systematic look at what we in the school district should stop doing, start doing and/or amend doing to appropriately lessen the workload, leading to improved teacher morale and greater productivity toward student learning.

The ground rules for the work session, sent in advance to all participants, included these two: “If you think it, say it, especially if you really believe it!” and “We can’t rely on ‘positional’ power in this session.”

We asked everyone to think in advance about these questions: What are we required to do? What should we do in addition to what we are required to do? What do we choose to do in addition to what we are required to do and should do?

Consensus and Storytelling
As a part of our three one-day work sessions, one each for elementary, middle and high school teachers and administrators, we were bound by an agreement I reached with the teacher association head to follow a process of “sufficient consensus” to stop/start/amend doing something in the district that teachers believed got in the way of their work.

This notion of consensus was defined as 75 percent of group participants agreeing to change a districtwide or a schoolwide practice. Thus what the district or a school was asking of teachers was put to collective professional scrutiny. Three-quarters of the participants could and did alter what we were doing in the name of organized abandonment.

With surveys and anecdotal evidence in hand, any work session participant was able to present a case for stopping, starting or modifying a particular practice or requirement. We encouraged everyone to use data and research in stating their cases. Then, we invited “counterstories” from others to bring balance to the discussion.

At the end of the day, using a sufficient consensus standard, the ground rules we established and local, state and federal parameters, we produced a matrix of what the district and/or the schools would modify in some way. These proposed changes were preliminary, subject to board review and action.

Board Action
With unanimous board approval, we abandoned such things as hand-collection of data for school improvement plans, excessive school newsletters requiring inordinate teacher time, a five-year curriculum review cycle that had elementary teachers learning and implementing new curriculum every year, an outdated districtwide writing assessment that yielded a snapshot rather than a moving picture, an “all-at-once” new teacher training program that expected mastery of key topics in just a year in favor of a new 3-year developmental effort and inordinate amounts of paper flow to all personnel in favor of more targeted communication via e-mail.

In addition to our three-column (stop/start/amend doing) matrices of organized abandonment, the district’s new memorandum of understanding just negotiated with the teachers’ union has a clause that commits the district to monitor teacher workload issues annually. In other words, we’ll do as many good businesses do: Sit down together at least once or twice a year to eliminate anything that seemingly has taken on a life of its own and may have become obsolete, if not counterproductive.

Gary Mathews is superintendent in the Carroll Independent School District, 1201 N. Carroll Ave., Southlake, Texas 76092. E-mail: He served as superintendent of the Rockwood Public Schools through mid-October.