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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 8

Special Topic / Supervising Schooling, Not Teachers

Teachers are knowledge workers. A term first coined by Peter Drucker, knowledge work is white collar work with knowledge as the foundation of job performance. Although teachers use computers, follow predesigned curriculums, and use intricately designed lesson plans, their primary tool is the knowledge inside their heads.
Arian Ward (1994), a leader in business engineering, asserts that knowledge takes two forms: rules-based and context-based knowledge. Rules-based knowledge follows procedures that yield one correct answer to a specific problem. Context-based knowledge takes the form of wisdom, experience, and stories—not rules—and it varies with the context of the problem being addressed. Most knowledge, according to Ward, is context-based. Because effective teaching varies with the context of a particular classroom, teachers are knowledge workers using context-based knowledge. These simple facts are often overlooked in the best efforts of administrators to transform their school districts into high-performing learning organizations.
When educators talk about school improvement, they often propose solutions like outcomes-based education, extended school years or school days, 90-minute block periods, school-based management, charter schools, and democratic learning communities. These one-pill-cures-all prescriptions tell us why schools need improving, but rarely tell us how to actually improve them.
One reason that administrators fail to successfully improve schooling is their adherence to an individual approach to supervision. The current supervisory paradigms involve working with individual teachers to bring about improvement in the school or school district. I maintain a paradigm shift is required. Supervisors must take a systemic approach to school improvement, keeping in mind the teachers' roles as knowledge workers. I call this new paradigm Knowledge Work Supervision. Figure 1 [figure currently unavailable] describes the proposed paradigm shift.

Teachers as Knowledge Workers

My own experience as a high school teacher illustrates the complexities of being a knowledge worker. I would enter the classroom with learning objectives in mind and a lesson plan in hand. But once I started the class, my mind would race, and new examples of the points I was trying to make would pop into my head. Students would ask questions that would repeatedly take me off course. Looking at the clock, I'd realize class was almost over. Before closing I would make one last point triggered by a student's question during the first minute of class—a full 44 minutes earlier.
Kind of nonlinear, isn't it? There's no research evidence suggesting this kind of knowledge work can be improved using traditional supervisory methods.
In a school district, the linear work process that the teacher works within is the instructional program, kindergarten through 12th grade. You improve your instructional program by examining it, grade by grade, to identify where mistakes are made or where the potential for mistakes exists. Then you take actions to correct the mistakes or eliminate the possibility of making them. Improving nonlinear knowledge work, on the other hand, requires different actions. Remember that knowledge work occurs primarily inside the heads of teachers and is manifested as classroom teaching behavior. In regard to improving knowledge work, Drucker (1991) says: In knowledge and service work, however, the first questions in increasing productivity—working smarter—have to be "What is the task? What are we trying to accomplish? Why do it at all?" The easiest, but perhaps also the greatest, productivity gains in such work will come from defining the task and especially from eliminating what does not need to be done (p.72).
  • Improve the quality and timeliness of key information teachers need to teach effectively;
  • Assure that teachers interact with key people with whom they should be exchanging critical information;
  • Provide teachers and key people with a variety of structured, semistructured, and informal forums for exchanging information (for example, structured workshops, brown bag lunches, or national conferences);
  • Examine and improve any devices (for example, computers), work procedures (lesson planning), and organizational functions (for example, administration and supervision) that support teaching (adapted from Pava 1983).
Although Knowledge Work Supervision focuses on improving the entire school system, the model does have methods for supervising and appraising the performance of individual teachers. These are listed in Figure 1 under "Ways of Improving Individual Performance Levels" [figure currently unavailable]. Six methods are recommended. Remember, however, that with Knowledge Work Supervision, appraising individual performance is not the path to school improvement. Knowledge work, because it occurs inside a professional's head, cannot be supervised directly. This stands in direct contrast to current supervisory methods in schools.

Traditional Supervision Cannot Improve Schooling

There are two leading models of school supervision. One, which dominates the literature and is seen occasionally in practice, is clinical supervision (Cogan 1973, Goldhammer 1969). Clinical supervision, as originally conceived, is a five-phase process: pre-observation conference, observation, analysis and strategy, postobservation conference, and postconference analysis. Supervisors observe classroom teaching, make notes following prescribed methods, analyze the observation notes, and share the results of the observation with the teacher, assuming that the feedback will help the teacher improve his or her performance.
The other model, found overwhelmingly in practice and disdained in the supervision literature, is performance evaluation. As frequently experienced by teachers, performance evaluation is a twice-a-year surprise observation of classroom teaching. Supervisors use evaluation forms containing several categories of behavior that are assumed to represent effective teaching. Supervisors often fill out the forms during the observation. The results are used for personnel actions (for example, to grant tenure or for merit pay).
Although these approaches differ, they have one striking similarity: they both examine the behavior of individual teachers. The underlying, unstated assumption of both approaches is that if only enough teachers improve their teaching, then the overall performance level of the school district will also improve. Even though we understand that school districts function essentially as systems, we persist in trying to improve schools one teacher at a time.
I propose linking school improvement to instructional supervision. School improvement can become a permanent, ongoing organizational function by replacing traditional instructional supervision with a supervision-for-school-improvement function. The focus of supervision then shifts from scrutinizing the behavior of individual teachers to examining and simultaneously improving a district's (1) work processes, (2) social architecture, and (3) relationship with its broader environment. This combined function, which I call Knowledge Work Supervision, will transform school districts into high-performing learning organizations.

What It All Means

Three key groups of players power Knowledge Work Supervision: a districtwide Steering Committee, Redesign Management Teams, and a Knowledge Work Supervisor. The Steering Committee provides strategic leadership for organizational learning. Members include a senior administrator and a building principal and a teacher from each level of schooling (elementary, middle, and secondary). The Steering Committee aligns school improvement actions with the district's overall mission and vision.
Redesign Management Teams (currently existing in many schools as school improvement teams) provide tactical leadership. These teachers and administrators from each level of schooling develop specific proposals for redesigning their schools and send them to the Steering Committee for review and approval.
A Knowledge Work Supervisor is an administrator, supervisor, or teacher trained to serve in this new role and provides daily coordination of activities. Some school districts may choose to establish and train a cadre of Knowledge Work Supervisors. In addition to coordinating the entire improvement process, the Knowledge Work Supervisor manages the invisible but real boundaries between various parts of the organization—that is, the boundaries between grade levels, levels of schooling, clusters of schools and the larger district, and between the school district and the community. It is in these boundaries that information is lost or distorted, children fall through the cracks, program goals mutate, necessary connections between grade levels disconnect, and good intentions fall short. The Knowledge Work Supervisor manages these boundaries by developing high-powered communication strategies that promote organizational learning.
In some organizations, boundary management is accomplished by creating liaison roles. Mohrman, Cohen, and Mohrman (1995) describe several liaison roles commonly found in organizations. Adapted for school districts, these roles are liaisons between school buildings; with professionals within a school building; with students, parents, and community groups; with upper management; and with professional organizations (p.163).
The Knowledge Work Supervision model capitalizes on a school district's collective knowledge to provide educational services of value to all students and parents. This approach has four phases.
In Phase 1, Preparing, the Steering Committee sets the stage for redesigning the school district.
In Phase 2, Redesign for High Performance, a Redesign Management Team and a Knowledge Work Supervisor assess the work processes and social architecture of the district and develop specific redesign proposals.
In Phase 3, Permanence and Diffusion, the Redesign Management Team and Knowledge Work Supervisor work to make improvements permanent within the schools that started the process and, later, to spread those improvements throughout the district.
In Phase 4, Continuous Improvement of Schooling, the supervisor, team, and committee continue to improve schooling after the entire district is transformed, with the goal of making incremental improvements by applying principles of quality management.
After a predetermined period, Phase 4 ends and the process returns to Phase 1. Thus, organizational learning and renewal through Knowledge Work Supervision continues for the life of the school district.

Supporting Theories on Organizational Improvement

Whenever I share this approach, at least one person asks, "Who's using this?" I imagine Cogan, Anderson, and Goldhammer faced this question when they first proposed clinical supervision. The answer is "No one, yet!" The model is mired in a quandary: because it's new, no one is using it, and because no one is using it, no one wants to try it.
To help people get over its "newness," I explain that although the model itself is new, its components are not, and many are currently being used in schools. For example, Joyce and colleagues (1983) describe a long-term school improvement process with (1) refinement, (2) renovation, and (3) redesign, and they refer to school improvement teams, found today in many school districts. School districts also regularly assess their communities' expectations and apply principles of continuous improvement (Joyce 1980).
To design Knowledge Work Supervision, I bundled tested organizational improvement methods (taken from socio-technical systems design, quality improvement, reengineering, and organization development) with innovative ideas for improving knowledge work in school districts. A summary of these ideas follows.
Socio-Technical systems. Socio-technical systems (STS) design theory suggests that organizations are complex systems with components that interact with one another (Emery 1959; Trist 1965; Pasmore 1988). The system functions by converting inputs into outputs. Inputs are human, financial, and technological resources that result in products or services (outputs) being delivered to a customer. The attitudes, knowledge, and skills of people (the social system) affect the work they do. To improve, managers and employees require feedback (that is, an evaluation of the quality and timeliness of a product or service).
According to STS design practice, the way to improve a system is to examine and improve three sets of organizational variables that affect the quality and timeliness of the final product or service: an organization's work processes, its social architecture, and its environmental relations. Further, improvements in these areas must be made simultaneously—an STS design principle called joint optimization.
A school district can apply the principle of joint optimization by using Knowledge Work Supervision. In using this supervision-as-school-improvement model, practitioners assess the instructional program and teachers' access to high-quality knowledge (the work process); the job skills teachers need, their job satisfaction, and their motivation (that is, the social architecture); and the district's relationship with its broader environment (environmental relations). The assessments result in specific proposals to redesign these three areas simultaneously (following a carefully planned schedule).
TQM. Total Quality Management is another theory guiding Knowledge Work Supervision. This philosophy leads us to rethink how organizations operate. Its core beliefs are that quality is the goal of effective organizations and that customers judge quality.
W. Edwards Deming, the father of TQM, believed quality shortcomings rest with management and management systems (1982). The reason managers do not use TQM principles effectively is that they lack an understanding of how to change traditional, bureaucratic organizations. According to Sherwood and Hoylman (1992), fundamental and enduring improvements in quality come only with fundamental changes in the way an organization is designed, with changes in the way people are viewed and managed, and thus with changes in the way work is thought of and performed.
Reengineering. Developed by Michael Hammer and James Champy (1993), reengineering is a popular improvement process in the business world. A key principle is the clean slate approach to redesigning work processes. This principle says that when it comes to organizational redesign, nothing is sacred—everything is subject to reengineering.
Reengineering examines only the work processes of an organization. It does not try to "reengineer" the social architecture. Because of this, I regard this model as flawed because I believe the work processes and the social system must be redesigned and improved simultaneously. Nevertheless, I extracted and modified the clean slate principle from business process reengineering as follows: If a process or a component of a school district is working well (as documented with evaluation data), then do not redesign it. However, examine and improve everything else—including the way the district's administrative structure supports classroom teaching (the core work process of all school districts). In some cases, the only way to improve a process will be to wipe the slate clean and start all over again.
Organization Development. One significant concept from organization development incorporated in the model's design is the idea of the "learning organization." Chris Argyris and Donald Schon (1978) wrote much about this concept. Peter Senge (1990a) called learning organizations places where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspirations are set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together (p. 1).
David Garvin (1993) describes a learning organization as "an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights." The hallmarks of a learning organization, according to Senge (1990b), are (1) systematic problem solving, (2) experimenting with new approaches, (3) learning from experience, (4) learning from the experiences of others, and (5) transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization.
A school district can create the above characteristics of a learning organization by using Knowledge Work Supervision. During Phase 3 of the process, the Redesign Management Team and the Knowledge Work Supervisor develop specific redesign proposals to build in systematic problem solving, freedom to experiment, opportunities for teachers and administrators to exchange information, and methods for transferring knowledge throughout the school district. Specific designs to achieve these characteristics of a learning organization are tailored to fit the unique requirements of each school district. There is no prescribed design.
Knowledge Work Supervision can transform your school district into a high-performing learning organization, whereas traditional supervision cannot transform entire school districts into high-performing learning organizations no matter which method you use. Knowledge Work Supervision takes time, however, because it is to be used continuously for the life of your district. As the organizational improvement literature points out, some of the most important improvements in organizations don't happen until several years into their transformation (Kotter 1995). Yet some school administrators expect quick change carried out as a singular event. Worse, schools often launch improvement initiatives, only to scrap them because of the vagaries of transient top administrators seeking to put their mark on each district they enter.
If applied consistently and with patience, Knowledge Work Supervision will move your entire school district toward higher levels of performance. Of course, even if you adopt this approach, your district will never perfectly achieve its vision of excellence. Yet because you repeat this cycle for the life of your organization, your district will move continuously toward its vision. It is your school district's lifelong journey of organizational learning and renewal that will improve its organizational performance. Nothing less will do it.

Argyris, C., & D. Schon. (1978). Organizational Learning. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Cogan, M. L. (1973). Clinical Supervision. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Deming, W. E. (1982). Out of Crisis. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Drucker, P. F. (1991). "The New Productivity Challenge." Harvard Business Review 69, 6: 69-79.

Emery, F. E. (1959). Characteristics of Socio-Technical Systems. London: Tavistock Documents #527.

Garvin, D. A. (July/August 1993). "Building a Learning Organization." Harvard Business Review, 71, 4: 78-91.

Goldhammer, R. (1969) Clinical Supervision: Special Methods for the Supervising of Procedures. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Hammer, M., and J. Champy. (1993). Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publisher.

Joyce, B. R. (1980). "The Continuous Process of School Improvement: Lessons Learned from the Past." (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED243879).

Joyce, B. R., R. H. Hersh, and M. McKibbin. (1983). The Structure of School Improvement. New York: Longman.

Kotter, J. P. (March/April 1995). "Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail." Harvard Business Review 73, 2: 59-67.

Mohrman, S. A., S. G. Cohen, A. M. Mohrman, Jr. (1995). Designing Team-Based Organizations: New Forms for Knowledge Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pasmore, W. A. (1988). Designing Effective Organizations: The Socio-Technical Systems Perspective. New York: Wiley & Sims.

Pava, C. H. R. (1983). Managing New Office Technology: An Organizational Strategy. New York: The New Press.

Senge, P. (1990a). The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday.

Senge, P. (1990b). "The Leader's New Work: Building Learning Organizations." Sloan Management Review 32, 1: 7-23.

Sherwood, J. J., and F. M. Hoylman. (March 1993) "The Total Quality Paradox." Journal for Quality Participation 16, 2: 98-105.

Trist, E. L., G.W. Higgin, H. Murray, and A. B. Pollack. (1965). Organizational Choice. London: Travistock Publications.

Ward, A., in T. A. Stewart. (October 3, 1994). "Your Company's Most Valuable Asset: Intellectual Capital." Fortune 30, 7: 68-74.

Francis M. Duffy has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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