Manual shows up the bureaucrats

There is lots of demand these days for government to “create” results. But policies pandering to that are misguided. Whether it's jobs, health care, or even successful schools, the idea that people in government, no matter how talented, well-meaning, and well-funded can create sound, sustainable, scalable improvement in the lives of Americans has been proven wrong time and time again. Our government’s attempt to “create” financial security for seniors instead created a Social Security system racing towards bankruptcy. A sustained attempt to “create” widespread homeownership – a bipartisan folly to be sure – instead destroyed the world’s greatest financial institutions. And, public school systems – an attempt to “create” a well-educated public – is a national catastrophe and disgrace, depriving particularly our most disadvantaged children of the opportunities everyone deserves.

That government policies and programs cannot create these things on their own should not be discouraging. Americans can have them, but they must be created through the initiative, motivation, and ingenuity of Americans themselves. What government policy can and should do is remove barriers to success created by government itself – establishing an environment where progress, rather than frustration, is a natural result.

This morning I visited Manual High School in Denver. Manual is an inner-city high school serving a challenged community – more than 80% of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. Nearly the entire student body is composed of minority children. In 2006, the school was closed for chronic failure – only 15% of students were proficient in reading. The school reopened in 2007 under an “autonomy” arrangement that provided new principal Rob Stein with relief from a handful of union and district rules including those regarding school schedules, hiring processes, and teacher compensation. Also, the school board reached an agreement with Stein to permit him to make key budgeting decisions at the school level rather than at the district level.

Stein describes himself as a “culture guy,” and he took advantage of the unusual autonomy to assemble a highly motivated staff and create a school culture of accountability and professionalism. At a twice-weekly school-wide meeting, the school-polo-shirt clad kids hear colleagues who’ve excelled or contributed in the past week receive ”shout-out” recognition (in one case accompanied by a $5 Burger King gift card); and at the same meeting noting that all seventy-one students who had been tardy during the week were required to attend detention that Friday evening. During “advisory,” small group classes meeting three times per week, the students follow a curriculum of social and life skills (e.g., constructive ways to deal with confrontation) – many of which kids from more privileged backgrounds may learn from their parents.

Today, Manual is tied for fourth-best-performing non-charter high school in the Denver Public Schools. It’s easy to imagine a well-intentioned “reformer” drawing the wrong conclusions from the Manual experience. “Let’s require shout-outs and logo polo shirts in all of the schools,” they might say, “and we can improve like Manual.” That would, of course, be missing the point. The terrific progress at Manual was not born of the particular tactics Stein employs, but of the autonomy that has permitted Stein and his dedicated team to implement their own innovative approach to serving the unique needs of children in Manual’s community.

By freeing the Manual team of district and union red tape, the autonomy agreements did not create success – that’s not possible to do from headquarters – but created the circumstances where success could flourish on its own. Freedom to succeed – that’s what American’s need in this challenging time.