It was an unusual request.
Members of the Board of Education were asked to rise from their seats and grab opposite ends of a heavy string for a game of tug of war.
As they divided into two teams and took hold of the heavy string, Cathy Battaglia commanded them not to pull, but to bring the string together as quickly as they could.
There was a hesitation. Then they came together with the string and ended up joining hands.
Back in their seats, the board members were asked what they learned from this new game of tug of war.
"I took a leap of faith," one board member said.
Leap of faith. That's an important expression these days in the Niagara Falls public schools.
School Superintendent Carmen A. Granto has asked the Board of Education and the district staff to trust his instincts in revamping the entire management system. The goal is to replace traditional "boss-management" with leadership that reaches to the grass roots of every school.
And the intended payoff is to increase accountability so that no student ever again gets lost in the cracks.
This is really all about the children, Granto told the board a few weeks ago when introducing his new management initiative. Now that the new high school building is almost up -- and the High School Quality Council's ideas have been approved -- it's time to change how the district is managed, he said.
Spurred by the state Board of Regents, Granto said, the school district must challenge itself to shift its mission "from compulsory attendance with optional learning, to compulsory attendance and compulsory learning -- for all students."
"We all thought we knew the rules," a board member said of the tug of war and the new approach.
"There are winners and losers in the old game," said another. "In the new game, no one loses."
To change the very culture of management from the ground up, Battaglia, who holds a doctorate in Social Foundations from the University at Buffalo, is heading the new Performance Improvement Team.
Made up mostly of teachers like herself on special assignment, the team was created to serve the various "quality councils" that have been taking over the Niagara Falls School District under Granto's leadership.
To understand why a School Board would subject itself to a game of tug of war -- and later to watching an episode of "I Love Lucy" -- one must know something about the "quality management" movement that is sweeping American education.
As one board member put it, "We can't ask our staff to do what we wouldn't do ourselves."
Quality councils seek to put into action the "choice theory," formerly known as "control theory," which seeks to replace bosses with "real leaders" -- leaders who know how to reach a consensus among the masses.
As Granto recently told the School Board and his top managers, "It's the strength of your ideas, not your position, that makes you powerful in the district."
In other words, principals will no longer issue orders but will work through their school's quality council, where they have just one vote and must use their power of persuasion to influence decisions.
Another example is the shape of the table at board meetings. Granto's three top administrators no longer sit near him but have a table of their own, symbolizing that the central office no longer rules through a traditional cadre of associate superintendents.
Educating all the children
And so the board recently held its first monthly training session with the improvement team.
From now on, Granto said, "We're going to educate all the children, not just the ones that want to be, (or) that have parents that care about them and push them. No, all the children: Those that have special education needs, from them to our brightest -- all have the same challenges and goals now."
The link that Granto saw between revamping the management and reaching every student wasn't immediately clear to board members. Having shown remarkable resilience in keeping up with Granto's energetic vision of a $73 million super high school -- and new high school programs that will eventually find their way into all the other schools -- board members suddenly found themselves facing a new challenge that had crept up on them.
Some of them were asking themselves if maybe Granto's reach was beginning to exceed his grasp.
"This is the first we're hearing about this," said board member Don J. King. "We've been building a new high school. We've been tackling benchmarking. Now this. Does this dilute all the other things?"
"No," Granto replied, "but it will take organizational stamina to keep to the course. It will make us more flexible in the long run."
Granto then introduced Battaglia and her Performance Improvement Team, which will assist the various quality councils in restructuring the district's bureaucracy to create accountability for student learning.
The School Board listened to the team's presentation of how it is already working with the district staff. Then the board set a special training session for its own members.
"(The team) will help the School Board to understand this new order of things," Battaglia promised.
'Lucy' episode revealing
And so it was that on a recent evening behind the darkened windows of the Administrative Annex, the lights were dimmed and members of the board were shown a rerun of one of the most enduring episodes of "I Love Lucy." It's the one in which pieces of candy come marching down the conveyor belt, as Lucy and Ethel try to beat the factory "speed-up" by stuffing their mouths, their blouses and their hats with the candies they can't wrap fast enough.
When the video was over, board members were asked how that episode could be applied to education.
Well, they said, the pieces of candy are students. Lucy and Ethel are teachers. Their screaming forewoman is the stereotypical boss-manager who rules by coercion and threat of punishment. And Lucy's hat represents the places where teachers and administrators stick students who they can't "wrap up" by graduation day: special education classes and gifted and talented programs.
Battaglia asked what should be done with the conveyor belt.
"Scrap it," someone said.
But how are all these candies going to be wrapped in time?
"By creating different conveyor belts for each student," was one response. "By creating an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) for each kid. Then there won't be any need for special education. Or for the honors program."
At this, a board member audibly choked but quickly recovered herself. That's how startling the idea was. Special ed and gifted programs are the sacred cows of American education. Nobody scraps them.
"Each student and his or her mentor will control the speed of that particular conveyor belt," suggested John Bellonte of the performance improvement team.
Granto picked up on the thought.
"Each student 'wraps' itself and takes on its own responsibility for making the grade," he said.
Edward Barauskas of the board remarked that the University of Rochester has mentors who help students design their own program for earning their own one-of-a-kind degree.
"Take this Lucy model home with you and think about it," Battaglia told the board.
"I won't sleep tonight," replied School Board President Joseph Giarrizzo.
Total Quality Management
Educators are learning from the business world how to run schools by so-called Total Quality Management. The movement began with an American named W. Edwards Deming, who taught postwar Japan how to manage workers so they'd do quality work at a competitive cost. One of Deming's modern-day followers, a California physician named William Glasser, has further developed the idea in such books as "The Control Theory Manager" and "The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion."
Everybody on the improvement team has read Glasser's books, and he has visited the district as a consultant.
"Led by Deming," Glasser writes, "the Japanese have broken with common sense to embrace a management system, lead management, that consistently produces quality. Americans continue to use boss-management."
Glasser calls on American educators to stop bossing and start leading.
"Boss-managers act as if the people they manage can somehow suspend their needs or subordinate them to the needs of the boss when they are at work," he writes. "Lead managers are never punitive (and) try to set up a no-fault, no-criticism policy. Get workers involved in helping each other solve small problems before they get too large."
The quality councils at every level in the Niagara Falls School District strive for consensus. They don't approve programs by majority vote, because this usually leaves a minority faction that lost the vote and hasn't really bought into the idea.
The first big test of the quality council approach came recently when educators were unable to reach a consensus on what to do about the "Top Ten" issue. A subcommittee researched what other high schools do about the problem of competition, focusing on schools that have abolished the honor roll of Top Ten graduates and even the valedictorian.
After more than six months, the subcommittee reported that it was deadlocked. The issue is back in the lap of the High School Quality Council.
"If you and I were competing for valedictorian," Battaglia argues, "would I help you learn?"
Student has a new challenge
Under the new tug of war rules, the conflict is not among students; the conflict is the challenge each student faces in his own academic life, moving at his own pace.
Now, theoretically, every student can be an honor student by reaching his or her potential.
Now, too, every student can help a classmate to learn.
If this were to happen, it was only fair that members of the School Board be shown how to learn together. And the first step was to establish the climate for learning together -- by playing a new tug of war; by watching "Lucy."
"I love the idea of learning in the company of colleagues," Battaglia told the board that night.
Jeanette Stypa was the board member who said, "We can't ask our staff to do what we wouldn't do ourselves." Today she adds: "I hope (the team) comes in and updates us on all the quality councils for training, and gets us back in focus. Guiding us. Teaching us."
Board member Russell Murgia has his doubts.
"I actually sometimes feel that 'quality' is a recipe for anarchy," he says. "I prefer the boss-management; I think people need good direction. Quality is nothing more than common sense, getting along with people."
But Giarrizzo, the board president, defends the movement.
"Some people have been around a long time and they say, 'Oh, here we go again, another fad,' " he says. "We're on the teeter-totter as a district, and do we go up or do we go down? This process will help us make that decision."
Citing the advent of charter schools and private school vouchers, Granto warns: "Unless we adapt and change, public education as we know it will cease to exist, and it should -- if we can't meet the needs of our students."
Before the board members went home from their first training session, Battaglia asked them a final question:
"What are you leaving with here tonight?"
Barauskas spoke up: "I feel like the district is in a valley, and I want to see the light soon."
"Those valleys have been there before," performance improvement team member Bellonte said, reminding him that continuous improvement isn't shaped like a rising line on a graph but like a line worming up and down as it discovers its way.
King offered this: "When you own your own business and don't work for someone else, then you know what it means to own the problem. Our students are going to have to learn how to take ownership of their educational future."
Then came Battaglia's turn.
"My dream," she said, "is that the day will come when business will start looking at education for how to do things."
Instead of vice versa.