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Policy, Leadership, and Change
POLICY, LEADERSHIP, CHANGE: A SYNTHESIS PAPER
Policy, Leadership and Change in a Principal's Decision: A Synthesis Paper in Standards for Change Submitted by: Greg Shwaga
On initial exposure to the theory behind leadership, policy, and change, you can sense a fundamental connection. To articulate this connection in a logical, comprehensible manner however, is no simple task. It was Colin Powell who said, "great leaders are almost always great simplifiers." I do not profess to be a great leader; however, as a school principal, I do feel a responsibility to be able to understand and explain leadership, policy and change in ever greater detail. How then, are leadership, policy, and change connected in my role as a school principal? In researching this question, I came across some key lines from Antonio Machado's poem "Wanderer, There is no Way." In the poem, Machado writes, "by walking we make the road, and only by glancing back do we see the path." Unaware of the connection at the time, it is only by "glancing back" on my first year as a principal, that I see how leadership, policy and change converged in basically every major decision I made. The following will use my school's adoption of a two-day cycle as an example to show how policy, leadership, and change intersect in the routine decisions made by a school administrator. Developing an adequate timetable is a never-ending challenge and can become even more complex in a K-12 school with shared gymnasium, computer room, and library facilities for elementary and secondary grades. To add to the complexity, instruction in grades 10-12 in Saskatchewan is based upon 100- hour courses, while in the elementary grades it is based upon minutes per week. To accommodate grades 10-12, my school previously had used a three-day, two-day schedule. In this system, subjects taken on Tuesday and Thursday are alternated with subjects taken on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. To ensure 100 hours of instruction, the days are then swapped in the second semester. There are two severe flaws with this system. The first is that if
elementary grades plan on using any of the shared facilities during a set block, they automatically lose their block with the semester change. The other flaw is that the same subjects are affected repeatedly by holidays and school events taking place on Mondays or Fridays. To address both weaknesses, the obvious solution is a rotating schedule. Of the many varieties of rotating schedules, a two-day rotating schedule, where you continuously alternate a day one with a day two, appeared be the easiest to implement. Looking back now, it is clear that policy, leadership, and change issues were all present in that one decision.
The Two-day Cycle as Policy Pal (2001) defines policy as a "course of action or inaction chosen by public authorities to address a given problem or interrelated set of problems." Similarly, Hope (2002) defines policy as a "politically derived intervention whose purpose is to resolve a perceived societal problem." By moving to a two-day cycle, my school was addressing or attempting to resolve a large spectrum of interrelated problems. First of all, like many rural schools, our enrolment continues to erode. As a result, one full-time teacher was cut from our high school staff. This led to the problem of delivering the same complete high school program with one less teacher. Another problem was the present schedule itself. Subjects on Friday afternoons in particular were continually being missed as a result of holidays, and school functions. Related to the current scheduling problem was the fact that elementary teachers could never schedule blocks of physical education in the afternoon because they would always get bumped out of their block at semester changeover. Instead, elementary teachers always had to schedule physical education in
the morning during what they perceived to be "prime" learning time. Adding to this problem, elementary teachers were still bitter from a four-year-old move that they had to make into the high school when the elementary and high schools were combined. Elementary teachers had always felt that, since their move, elementary school issues were ignored. To add to the complexity, our school had to provide an industrial arts class once per week to the intermediate students of a neighbouring school who had also lost a teacher because of declining enrolment. Clearly, our move to a two-day cycle had a basis in a complex set of problems. Hope (2002) suggests that new policies represent a shifting of priorities. Looking back on our move to a two-day cycle, there is little doubt that, with the new timetable, our school's priorities are different. To summarize, there is greater emphasis on the needs of our elementary grades than there ever has been before. This simply reflects the changing demographics of our school in that our elementary grades now make up threequarters of our school population. The new timetable allows for elementary physical education to be scheduled in the afternoon without interruption. It also allows for the primary grades to have greater and uninterrupted access to the library and computer lab. With greater emphasis being placed on elementary needs, the image of our school will likely transform from being solely a high school to more of a "community school." An added side benefit to this transformation, is that the community school model is what is being advocated by Saskatchewan Learning in their School Plus mandate (Sask Learning, 2001). Therefore the decision to move to a two-day cycle was made in part, because of shifting priorities.
In both Pal (2001) and Hope's (2002) definition of policy, intervention to address the problem is a central component. The intervention in this case was of course developing the timetable itself. It is interesting to note however that this course of action started a chain reaction of interventions, all aimed at addressing the previously stated problems. For example, to make the two-day cycle operable, the English 20 and 30 classes had to be combined as did the Grades seven, eight, and nine physical education classes. In addition, our high school students now must rely in part, on on-line courses to fulfill their objective requirements, and I must now be accredited in English in order to teach the senior English component. From this experience, it easy to see now that a twoday cycle is more than just a timetable, it is in fact, a course of action aimed at resolving a complex set of problems. While policy can be defined by what it does, it can also be defined by what it does not do. For all that our timetable does, it no longer offers Calculus 30 or French 30. It also does not offer high school physical education in the afternoon. Our inaction in these areas again sends the message that our school is shifting its emphasis and allocating more of its resources from the high school to elementary programming. In addition, Information Processing is not being offered as a class with this timetable. Implicit in this unwritten message is that information-processing skills are better embedded within the curriculum than taught as a separate class. Finally, our school division does not allow for teacher preparation time; however, when the school was over-staffed, it was routinely assigned. The new schedule does not include prep time. This represents a re-alignment of school and division policy. Our two-day timetable then, can be understood as much by what it does not do, as by what it does.
Policy can come from different sources. Our two-day cycle timetable is an excellent example of this. For instance, our schedule must be able to deliver the programming that is mandated by Sask Learning. It must also allow our school to educate children and youth while developing the whole child and support the delivery of such services such as health and justice. This is to fulfill the vision of the school as set out in Saskatchewan's School Plus initiative (Sask Learning, 2001). There is also related division policy regarding programming, and my personal beliefs, opinions, and biases. All of these sources come together in our timetable in what could be called an alignment of policy. Therefore, while I didn't think of it as such at the time, looking back I can see that in creating a timetable based on a two-day rotation, I was really creating a policy framework in which I was the policy maker, and the staff and students policy takers (Pal, 2001).
The Two-day Cycle as Leadership In describing principals as leaders, Schiller (2003) notes that there are initiator principals who demonstrate a strongly held vision of where their schools are going and what is best for their students, who have high expectations, and who make expectations clear through many forms of communication. How then, is leadership demonstrated in a routine administrative decision like adopting a new timetable? Again, looking back, there is little doubt that my vision of what education in a rural school should be, permeated my decision to move towards a two-day cycle. Having taught in a First Nation's run school where literacy rates were poor, I witnessed first hand the devastating effects this could have on both the school and community in general. At
its very worst, there is evidence to suggest that an intergenerational progression of dysfunction can occur (Heward, 2003). Therefore, in my vision of education, the primary focus of the elementary grades is to build adequate literacy skills. To add to this, the elementary teachers claimed that they noticed a significant reduction in literacy skills in the years following the move to the high school. While not researched extensively, Canadian Tests of Basic Skills results in recent years seem to validate this claim. All of this had an impact on shaping our new timetable, as there was a definite shift to taking care of elementary needs first. This is exactly opposite of what had been occurring in the years leading up to the two-day cycle. In a similar manner, my vision of rural depopulation helped construct the new timetable. In my view, we will continue to lose students from our high school to the larger, better equipped urban schools so much so that we will unlikely be able to realistically offer a full range of programming locally. We will always have however a core of students for whom travelling long distances to high school is unrealistic. In this situation, I feel on-line courses have immense potential. As a result on-line courses are now scheduled into the new timetable in advance of this arrangement becoming a necessity. By being proactive in this area, I hope to break what Fullan (1998) describes as "context for dependency" where as a school we wait for a "prepackaged" solution to arrive rather taking action ourselves. To summarize, vision, consciously or unconsciously, shapes everyday decisions made by school administrators. In setting expectations for the two-day cycle, Pete Rose, the famous baseball player, comes to mind. As he entered the 1985 season, Rose was 78 hits away from breaking Ty Cobb's all time hits record. When asked by reporters how many at-bats he thought he needed to break the record, Rose responded with an unequivocal "78"
(Spilchuck, 2001). Rose obviously set high standards for himself, which explains, in large part, his success as a baseball player. The same was true in creating our timetable. School timetables simply have to be made to work. Anything less compromises programming and strains the resources of the school. At no point did I entertain the idea that a two-day rotation was unfeasible. I had seen it work in other places, and knew that somehow our timetable needs could fit within it. Had I allowed the idea to enter my mind that the two-day rotation was not going to work, I most certainly would have found ways to make it fail. Instead, I embraced the idea and communicated to staff my belief that a rotating schedule would improve our school. The very fact that I embraced the new timetable added legitimacy to it (Hope, 2002). The fact that staff and students had input into the timetable helped convey my expectations regarding the timetable to them, and also added legitimacy to the process. Fullan (1998) speaks of leaders as being people who fight for lost causes, or people who instill hope. I have already mentioned the perilous situation of many rural high schools including ours. Realistically the trend of rural de-population is not likely to reverse itself and many rural high schools will simply not survive. Is this a lost cause? Probably; however, I have seen many students from rural schools bring with them a sound education, work ethic and moral base that serve them well after graduation. Is this a lost cause worth fighting for? Again, the answer is probably. In a very small way, being proactive with timetable creation, sends a hopeful message that our school can be redefined within the context of a new reality, and that we are indeed connected to a larger purpose (Fullan, 1998). Thus, leadership aspects such vision, expectations,
communication, and hope play a significant role in the daily decisions of a school administrator.
The Two-day Cycle as a Standard for Change Often, introducing an element of change creates resistance and an opportunity in which to understand how to more effectively bring about change. Once in a while, however, an element of change, such as our two-day cycle, is introduced with relative ease. This also becomes an equally valid opportunity to learn about change and formulate some framework for a standard for change. Although as Bolman and Deal (1997) point out individuals will often get blamed when the real issues are systemic, structural factors were in place that favoured the introduction of a new timetable at my school. In this case, the old timetable had serious and visible structural flaws. The old method of scheduling was not fair to the elementary students and several high school subjects. The staff identified these flaws, and was therefore more favourable to changing them. Bolman and Deal (1997) also point out that people do not function well without structure or a clear definition of roles. In the past, teachers had to wait until late August to find out their teaching assignment for the coming year. This time however, as a side benefit to working on a new timetable structure, teachers were able to find out their assignments in early June and thus their roles within the new two-day cycle were clearly defined. With roles clearly defined, resistance to the new structure diminished. In terms of a standard for change, important lessons were learned regarding structure. First of all, it easier to change if there are visible weaknesses in the old structure and consensus about the weaknesses has been reached, and secondly,
it is easier for people to accept change if they know what their roles will be in the new structure. I have found in working with the new timetable, that a "common devil" does pull people together (Bolman & Deal, 1997). In this situation, declining enrolment and outside politics meant that our staff suffered a reduction of one full-time equivalent teacher. Members on staff accepted the economics, and the fact that this personnel move was necessary and therefore rallied to produce an inside solution (new timetable) to an externally created problem (common enemy). As far as this being a standard for change, the lesson to take away is that when implementing change, create an issue around which to rally and then build internal solutions to address the issue. Fortunately, in implementing the new timetable, historical issues were also on my side. Elementary teachers had felt for four years that their issues had been ignored in favour of the high school. Some had even displayed a defeatist and cynical attitude, thinking that their issues and concerns would never be addressed. These same people became strong supporters of the proposed change once they realized that the change would address their historical agenda. A lesson here about implementing change is to periodically review historical issues that have gone unsolved. In many cases unlikely alliances will be built that will support the change process. After witnessing the implementation of new two-day cycle, I believe there are policies, structures and institutions that are more easily changed than others are. Bridges (1991) discusses managing transitions as a key to implementing change, and how transition starts with an ending. In many change initiatives, however, defining or deciding on, the end of the status quo may be difficult to do. I found that with creating a
new timetable, there is a definite end to the old that is quite visible to all. All school years come to a close providing a unique opportunity to start fresh every September. In this case as well, there was the added factor of a critical incident (loss of a teacher) to mark the end of the status quo. After getting people to let go of the old, many change initiatives stall in what Bridges (1991) describes as the neutral zone. In the neutral zone, people can become paralyzed because they have left familiar territory, but have not yet arrived in the new. In implementing a new timetable however, the neutral zone is "neutralized." Teachers left in June following the old timetable and will return in August fully immersed in a two-day cycle. There is not really any time in-between for staff or students to lament the previous year and fear the new. Therefore, to use this experience in implementing a new timetable as a standard for change, it is helpful, as a change agent, to identify structural weaknesses in the status quo and ensure that roles in the new structure are clarified. Strategically, it is beneficial to find a "common enemy" when implementing change, and then work to find an internal solution to the problem. It is also helpful to re-visit historical issues and build alliances with unlikely sources to further your change initiative. Finally, it is helpful to be able to symbolically bring about the end to the status quo and minimize the neutral zone in implementing change. All of these were lessons I learned "accidentally" while implementing a new timetable. Thus, in looking back on the path created, I better understand how policy, leadership, and change are connected within the decisions I make as a school principal. Decisions are policy. Like policy, decisions, such as scheduling sometimes address a complex set of problems, and can represent a shift in priority. Administrative decisions set in motion a course of action, and in so doing also defines a course of inaction. Both
send messages about where the administration stands on certain issues. Also like policy, administrative decisions come from different sources such as provincial and municipal governments. Decisions are also about leadership. They represent vision, they set expectations, and they fight for causes. Finally, decisions are about change and when implemented effectively, become standards for change. Therefore, I knew was going to be a principal, but what I wasn't told is that that term is synonymous with policy maker, instructional leader, and change agent as well.
References Bolman, L. & Deal, T. (1997). Reframing Organizations. 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass pp. 354-376 Bridges, W. (1991). Managing transitions: Making the Most of Change. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. pp. 3-5, 19-22, 34-36 and 50-52. Fullan, M. (1998). Leadership For the 21st Century: Breaking the Bonds of Dependency. Educational Leadership 55, 7. Retrieved July 22, 2003, from,
Heward, L. (2003). Exceptional Children. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Prentice Hall Hope, W.C. (2002). Implementing Educational Policy: Some considerations for Principals. The Clearing House 76, 40(4). Retrieved August 3, 2003, from,
Pal, L. A. (2001). Beyond Policy Analysis: Scarborough, ON: Nelson. Saskatchewan Learning (2001). School Plus A Vision for Children and Youth. Final report to the Minister of Education Government of Saskatchewan. Retrieved August 3, 2003, from http://www.sasked.gov.sk.ca/k/pecs/splus/index.htm Schiller, J. (2003). The Elementary School Principal as a Change Facilitator in ICT Integration. Michigan Virtual University. Retrieved July 29, 2003 from,
Spilchuk, B (2002). Motivational Stories. Retrieved August 7, 2003, from.
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