Bottom-up Repairs Needed to Fix the System, Not Just the Symptoms

Wellford W. Wilms, a professor in UCLA's departments of education and policy studies, is the author of "Restoring Prosperity: How Managers and Workers Are Forging a New Culture of Cooperation" (Times Books, 1996). E-mail:

Every politician, it seems, has a plan to fix the public schools, yet nothing seems to work. They promise better teacher training, reduced class size, longer school days, longer school years, teaching phonics, pegging administrators’ salaries to test scores, and so on. The results? Few of these reforms will ever penetrate day-to-day practice at the schools or have any impact on what counts most: how teachers teach and students learn.

Ordinarily such high-level political support would be welcome. But more often than not, politically driven reforms are simply symbols of public frustration. They originate as political impulses from outside the schools with little connection to real educational problems. So what can be done to solve public education’s problems?

Celebrated American companies like Hewlett-Packard and others that have reinvented themselves, offer some useful insights. After all, public schools were originally created in the image of American industry, and they were endowed with its dubious inheritance--the system of mass production and its adversarial human relationships.

Ten years of working inside of some of America’s leading companies has convinced me of two lessons that apply to schools as well. First, reforms must be supported at the top but they must also be grown from within if they are to endure. Organizational changes must also profoundly alter the system of production so that it requires a new culture of cooperation between managers and employees.


Consider the case of Douglas Aircraft. The story of this once-proud company that now teeters on the brink of extinction could be the story of American public education. In 1989, McDonnell Douglas executives discovered that the Long Beach subsidiary was losing money on every airplane it sold. They decided to try to save it with a massive infusion of training on Total Quality Management principles that would infuse employees with a new philosophy of cooperation, teamwork, mutual respect and trust. Management and the union would produce a “new culture” where mistrust and conflict no longer ruled.

But, as events would show, the effort to transform Douglas failed because its complex production system was left untouched. Aircraft were designed and built the same way as they had been in 1958. The adversarial relationships between management and labor, and managers’ authoritarianism and complacency that had grown out of Douglas’ mass production system, retained their paralyzing grip on employees because the system of work itself remained unaltered.

But the turnaround of Hewlett-Packard’s venerated Santa Clara instrument division offers a different model, one worthy of closer examination by educators. In 1991, an alarming loss of sales and a massive downsizing nearly doomed this scientific powerhouse. Its rigid organizational structure had created insulated fiefdoms that fought with each other and resisted new ideas. Engineers and managers had become complacent from years of prosperity and had lost touch with their customers.

Instead of launching a top-down change process, HP managers engaged their employees to analyze the core processes of how new products were designed and brought to market. Such analyses quickly revealed where the system was broken and the steps that were required to fix it. By bringing employees into the decision-making, they could truly begin to correct the root causes of the division’s problems.

Some will dismiss these industrial vignettes as irrelevant. I am not suggesting that education copy industry, and I am certainly not suggesting an “industrial model” of education.

But there is little doubt that a similar transformation of the public schools is now required. Ominous as it sounds, such transformations are almost always induced by an external threat. To all appearances, the stage has been set.

According to a recent poll, more than half of all Americans support the concept of choice in the public schools. The advance of vouchers and charter schools may be just what is needed to shake educators out of their complacency. But politicians need to resist temptations to reform by legislation. Instead they need to create the conditions where warring parties can find common ground.

Like efforts by LEARN, Los Angeles’ educational reform, school board leaders, superintendents and union officials need to clear the obstacles--unnecessary bureaucratic requirements and outmoded work rules--to make innovation at the schoolhouse possible. These top-level educational leaders also must make resources available, and help distribute new models throughout the district.


The reform that counts--altering how teachers teach and students learn--can be done only at the schoolhouse by teachers, administrators, parents and students working together.

The first step is mapping the otherwise opaque educational process backward from the desired outcomes, step-by-step, making it visible by detailing each element of the system through which students pass. These detailed analyses reveal the parts of the system that are broken and they lay bare the means by which they can be fixed. Solutions to many disconnects will be found at the school site. But others, like feeding malnourished children, hiring qualified teachers or changing compensation plans, must be solved at higher levels with school board leaders, administrators and union officials.

Redesigning the schools at their core is hard work. It will demand a new social compact that unites us in a common interest--one that says “we are all in this together” rather than “self-interest that divides us.”