Author of “Working on the Work” explains how the work of teaching has to change

Phil Schlechty

Phil Schlechty

In Atlanta, noted reformer Phil Schlechty, author of “Working on the Work” and “Shaking up the Schoolhouse,” said there are two current paths being touted for fixing schools by political leaders — bureaucratic centralization or fragmentation/privatization.

“I say a pox on both their houses,” he told the Professional Association of Georgia Educators Foundation at an all-day conference Monday.

Neither path, said Schlechty, recognizes the changing and critical role of teachers in a world where information is now easily obtained by an 8-year-old with a laptop.

“We don’t really understand that the primary role of the teacher has been absorbed,” Schlechty said. “Most of us still see teachers as instructors because we see ourselves in the knowledge distribution business. Today, kids can go out and get the knowledge. What we have to become are knowledge work systems to help kids work on and with that knowledge.”

Teachers today must become designers of work for students and leaders/guides to instruction as opposed to the instructor, he said. As leaders, teachers help students find their passions and their voices and inspire them to great work.

There are folks who complain that teachers, including those in Chicago, have no right to complain about worsening work conditions and escalating responsibilities, that everyone is being asked to do more with less. But Schlechty noted that teachers have been charged with a task never before asked of American educators at a point in time when resources and funding are evaporating: Keep students in school and educate them to higher and higher standards.

“Schools were designed to send 10 percent of students to college,” he said. “In 1960, half the kids didn’t drop out of high school — because they didn’t come to school. They got through eighth grade and left. Schools are much better than they used to be at what they used to do — but we don’t want them to do that anymore.”

Teachers maintain that reform efforts impose the chief responsibility  to transform education on them without giving them autonomy. In fact, one of the victories in the new contract in Chicago— which is still being finalized — is that teachers, rather than principals, get to write their own lesson plans.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had wanted tests to make up 40 percent of the criteria; the agreement brings it down to 30 percent. But teachers had other concerns, too, that will not be reflected in the contract, including honoring class size caps and maintaining recess art, music and foreign language instruction.

“The issues raised by Chicago’s educators and parents resonate across this nation because they are being felt by teachers, students and parents everywhere,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “These issues include endless budget cuts that have eliminated art, music, gym and other critical subjects from our public schools; a growing obsession with high-stakes testing, denying kids the rich learning experiences they need; closing down rather than fixing neighborhood schools, which destabilizes neighborhoods; and concentrated poverty that forces schools to take on more in the face of dwindling resources.

“With all of this, teachers continue to be denied the tools and conditions they need to do their jobs,” said  Weingarten, “and then are blamed for every problem facing our schools.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

26 comments Add your comment


September 21st, 2012
5:21 am

He makes some valid points. However,it is not the “work of teachers” that has to change. It is the perception that this article presents that has to change. Again, teachers are the problem. Until the working conditioins aof teachers,the discipline issues that go unresolved, and the perception thatteachers are the problem for all of eductions’s ills chaNges, NOTHING WILL CHANGE IN EDUCATION.


September 21st, 2012
5:57 am

My school system hired one of this gentleman’s followers as superintendent. She almost destroyed the system and became the most hated person this county has ever known. Her insane demands (some illegal) and treatment of the staff created the most demoralizing situation possible. After her followers (board members) lost elections, she left in disgrace in the middle of the night. The next day, the entire county was celebrating with “high fives” on the street and car horns being blown all over the county. This man’s philosophy is not a philosophy you want to follow.

white rabbit

September 21st, 2012
6:11 am

This kind of thinking is part of the problem: “Today, kids can go out and get the knowledge. What we have to become are knowledge work systems to help kids work on and with that knowledge.” “Knowledge” is here simultaneously positioned as an abstraction and a simple commodity one can “go out and get,” like breakfast cereal or news–of course this is wholly inaccurate. I think the key concept that’s missing in this formula is learning, and it seems to me that what teachers ought to be designing is curricula, not “work.” Of course the point the gentleman makes with respect to teachers being forced out of the business of designing meaningful curricula is sadly true, but it’s cynical to throw up hands and say “oh, then, we’ll just be ‘working on the work’,” a passive aggressive admission of defeat and a surrender to intellectual death in addition to a being a ‘philosophy’ that entails giving up on the kids, the profession, and the whole idea and process of learning. If that’s where we are, then teaching is dead and it’s time to hang up the Shakespeare start selling cars because it’s all the same and an eight-year old with a laptop knows more than Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela combined. A pox on the false choice presented here.

South Georgia Retired Educator

September 21st, 2012
7:13 am

In today’s public school environment in Georgia, teachers are just trying to hold on and do the best they can with larger classes and the meager resources they are given. They are worn down by increasing demands and are accepting less pay because they have no choice. They’re without political support from those who are in power—in fact, most political leaders are harsh critics of public education and are determined to destroy what’s left. How can any kind of positive change happen under the present circumstances? I see it firsthand and know this is true.

Becky Sayler

September 21st, 2012
7:26 am

Even if students have access to information, I don’t think that means they can be counted on to “go out and get that knowledge” as Phil Schlechty says. It’s also assuming a lot to say that all students have access to information – not every student has an internet connection at home or the ability to get to a library. And can we really count on those that do have internet access using it to build their knowledge base on world history and geometry proofs rather than watching silly videos of cats?

Teachers don’t pour knowledge into students’ heads. We introduce material, but also help them interact with it in order to understand it. If what Schlechty is saying is true, we could already have been replaced by textbooks.

I absolutely agree that teachers have less and less autonomy but more and more accountability. It’s a pretty demoralizing situation.


September 21st, 2012
7:35 am

People, who are not in the classroom, really have no idea what is occurring with the confines of schools and classrooms today. The absurd requirements placed on teachers as well as the overwhelming obstacles placed in their way, by administrators and policy makers, is stifling. However, the other day, as I was enjoying a lively conversation with my students, I had an epiphany. I love teaching – teaching and instructing. And, I am very good at it. I will no longer be bogged down by these ridiculous mandates, and I will no longer compromise on my non-negotiables. I will educate the students the way they need to be educated in order to learn and become thinkers. I will use resources that I know work. I will continue to do everything in the best interest of my students. I am not compromising any more.

John Konop

September 21st, 2012
7:41 am

From 1960 we have more than tripled the amount of kids on a percentage interning college about 33 percent. If you look at a bell curve based on aptitude of Americans on a macro this is actually a very high number. The reality is we have put teachers in a no win situation on a macro, when we killed vocational based education, and went to formula that all students must go to a 4 year college.

Irronically we have about 4 million vocational job openings…… The solution is obvious, but everyone needs to do a reality check.

Mortimer Collins

September 21st, 2012
7:41 am

Yet another blundering bubble-head, blustering and burping out the latest “call to arms” for “the children”.

Talk, talk talk.

John Konop

September 21st, 2012
7:43 am

Sorry about typos entering not interning


September 21st, 2012
8:39 am

Oh noes, it can’t be the teachers that have to “change” right? I though I was told it is ALL THE PARENT’S FAULT!

oh….and administrators of course. Can’t forget to hate on them too.

sam lee

September 21st, 2012
9:21 am

Yay! Teacher. I am also a teacher. And I have recently come to the conclusion that I like teaching and I am good at what I do. I do not need “Working on the Work” (yes, I have had that training) or any other magic bullet to “improve” education. Society is not improving and the students they send to school are broken and hurting. I will love them, encourage them and teach them to the best of my ability and pox on all the formulas that make a few wealthy.


September 21st, 2012
9:22 am

Exceptional vision. This article is spot on. The teacher, today, is not just a teacher, but also a facilitator of students. The internet and computer have provided new tools for learning that could not have been imagined in my days in school fifty years ago. Having served as a teacher for 20 years prior to my retirement, I saw the changes over time. What has happened now is that we have legislators and leaders who truly do not know what they are talking about when it comes to education. In Georgia, education, especially public education, has become the fall guy for all the economic woes of the state. Class sizes are now 25 to 50 percent higher than they were ten years ago. Those who put education into such a bind must take another look at what they are causing in the schools. Faced with teacher shortages, school districts are taking the route of making larger class sizes to to allow the schools to place students of all capabilities into what is called an “inclusion” class. Yes, this saves teacher points. Yes, this destroys the ability of the teacher to focus on one level of education. It is not possible to maintain the level of education necessary to push a gifted student forward when he is in a class containing special ed students. I will argue this point until the day I die. Those who tout this foolishness know that they are just dealing with numbers, not capabilities of students. You can take a gifted class of students to the computer lab, give them a general requirement that will stretch their abilities to research and find solutions to even the most demanding topics. The more they are pushed, the farther they go. You CANNOT do that with every other student in the school. When you combine the levels of abilities into one class, you dumb down the entire class and frustrate the teacher.

Until teachers are treated like valuable participants in the education of students, Georgia will stay at the bottom of the list of best performing educational systems. The problem we have in schools is not teachers. The problem is administrators who are loyally following the lead of their district offices, who have been placed in a situation does not fund what is required to make Georgia a state that is proud of its standing in education. Today, all of Georgia should be ashamed of how poorly we are treating our students.

Cookie-cutter education, or one-size-fits-all teaching is ruining our educational system. We waste our time when we believe that you can put all levels of students together and have success. It will never happen. The major problem this causes is that support and funding for gifted education is going away. Principals are brainwashed into believing that the program is no longer necessary. I taught gifted students for 7 years, and I was amazed to see just how far you can push a gifted class. Regular ed students are unquestionably not up to the task to be able to keep up with the truly gifted students. Additionally, when you take away the gifted program, you are denying the best and brightest students the opportunity to excel. I watched students in my classes grow on a daily basis and reach levels of accomplishment I would never have believed possible. It took constant effort to keep ahead of them to keep them stretching their capabilities. Many of them are now in Harvard, Yale, and other respected houses of learning. If Georgia keeps going in its effort to dumb down education, you will see parents moving to states that afford the level of education necessary to get their students to the top schools. Georgia and many other states are following their legislators down the path towards failure for our best and brightest.

Right now, I see no hope for Georgia in education.

WOW Hater

September 21st, 2012
9:51 am

Working on the Work by Phillip C. Schlechty is a 120 page book about NOTHING! My school system bought into his program several years ago, and his horribly written book was mandatory reading for all of the staff. We met one entire 90 minute planning period, once a week for 6 months! You do the math and time spent analyzing a 120 page book. Our system spent thousands of dollars for the books, and sent administrators and and a few teachers to meetings all over the country for training with Mr. Schlechty. Several years later, WOW is another program that has “gone with the wind.”

Chapter Two describes the WOW school. For example, “In a WOW school, nearly all classes are highly engaged, and when they are not, teachers make every possible effort to redesign the pattern of activity in the classroom so that more students are authentically engaged” (Schlechty 17). How in the world would a school create this framework? The answer is a simple 5 bullet list titled “From Vision to Reality.” 1. Beliefs serve as the basis for visions. 2. Visions shape missions and strategic goals. 3. Missions set strategic goals. 4. Strategic goals indicate needs actions. 5. Action goals define tasks and specify activity.

This list is pontificated on for 20 more pages….Please tell me why we needed Mr. Schlechty’s book to teach a school system the basics of educational structure? This is just one of many examples of terrible programs that our schools buy into to “fix” the teachers.

Truth in Moderation

September 21st, 2012
10:05 am

Back in the day when teachers got a little respect….
Spelling homework:

Retiring soon

September 21st, 2012
10:27 am

It’s the same ole dog and pony show…so many initiatives are thrust down academic teachers’ throats that we can not become proficient at one before the next one comes out 4-6 months later…which bangwagon will be next? Please visit your child’s school and just watch what we do for a living. I love the teaching and the students, but worn out from the extra “bandwagon, pony shows, and initiatives” we have to execute….it’s riduculous and wastes valuable time for us to create those WOW lessons. My system hopped on that one also and now you hear nothing…..

Renee Lord

September 21st, 2012
10:31 am

Expecting the uneducated (8 year old children) to be responsible to “go out and get the knowledge” is preposterous. Independent learning is a reasonable goal for high school students, but certainly not younger students. The problem with education is that younger students are not being taught the grammar of subjects such as math, language, and science.

Teachers may be more valuable than we realize...

September 21st, 2012
10:45 am

Rabbit: “This kind of thinking is part of the problem: “Today, kids can go out and get the knowledge. What we have to become are knowledge work systems to help kids work on and with that knowledge.” “Knowledge” is here simultaneously positioned as an abstraction and a simple commodity one can “go out and get,” like breakfast cereal or news–of course this is wholly inaccurate.”

Oh really? Kids today can go out and ‘get the knowledge’ because they can just look it up on the internet? Let’s see how that works out in real life:

Here is an example of what can happen when you believe everything you find on the internet…

“BBC mistake computer game logo for United Nations Security Council symbol

The BBC mistakenly aired the logo from a computer game rather than the United Nations in what seems to be an example of when a Google search goes wrong. In a News at One bulletin about the United Nations Security Council, the channel accidentally used the logo of the fictitious United Nations Space Command from Microsoft’s Halo.

The presenter Sophie Raworth was talking about Amnesty International’s criticism of the UN involvement in the ongoing conflict in Syria.”

Truth in Moderation

September 21st, 2012
1:05 pm

You Tube education……
While Phil Schlechty is “Working on the Work”, The Spinners show us how it’s done:

Beverly Fraud

September 21st, 2012
1:08 pm

Want to expose these people for who they are? Show your @ss during one of their “professional developments” Act like one of your worst students. Watch what happens or more to the point what doesn’t happen. They don’t follow their OWN ADVICE. Watch how quickly they will abandon their own advice and instead berate you in ways they would say you should NEVER do as an instructor. Watch how quickly they call for the administrator to intervene LOL

Simply tell them the work wasn’t “engaging” enough, wasn’t “authentic” enough and didn’t address your learning style…and watch them squirm as they have ZERO answer for you when you hold them to their OWN standards of “classroom management”

Beverly Fraud

September 21st, 2012
1:10 pm

Gee how on Earth did Socrates and Jesus ever impart any knowledge without these “experts” to guide them?

Retiring soon

September 21st, 2012
1:53 pm

LOL Beverly Fraud……… :)


September 21st, 2012
2:42 pm

WOW rates right down there with LFS. Our new principal was a driven disciple of both and we(teachers and students) suffered for years because of it. “Shaking Up the Schoolhouse” was published and everyone got added stress by having all of their classrooms moved for the sake of getting us out if our “comfort zones”. Then the system spent thousands of dollars for a 3 hour speech on why zeros are evil. To this day I can’t think of one positive outcome from any of it.

Pride and Joy

September 21st, 2012
5:57 pm

Does this dinosaur even have a point? He mentions the 1960s when only 10 percent of kids were expected to go to college — bbut — there were good paying factory jobs awaiting them — those have gone to slave wages in china making shoddy products and we’ve brought illegal immigrants in to do real union work like construction. This “writer’s” bones and thoughts belong in an antiquity museum.

[...] In Atlanta, noted reformer Phil Schlechty, author of “Working on the Work” and “Shaking up the Schoolhouse,” said there are two current paths being…  [...]


September 22nd, 2012
11:48 am

Come to Whitfield County to find the BOE raising taxes 4 mills (on top of a new E-Splost) while continuing to pour millions into WOW and yet another Reading Program! Leaders/BOE do not listen to the teachers but place burden on taxpayers while foolishly wasting funds on programs like these. Schlechty makes millions on blather while students do not have texbooks and teachers receive furloughs. Go figure!

Dr. Monica Henson

September 23rd, 2012
10:32 pm

“[T]eachers continue to be denied the tools and conditions they need to do their jobs,” said Weingarten.

Bad conditions in Chicago Public Schools? Really? Where the average teacher salary is $76,000. Where the workday is less than 6 hours. Where the contracted work year is 173 days. Sounds like a torture chamber.