Task Groups in Education
Traditionally in education, work was done from the top down, that is, by a directive from supervisors who needed to accomplish a part of their agendas. In the past couple of decades, however, autonomous groups have been formed at specific school sites for the purpose of accomplishing specific tasks. The reasoning for this shift, in general, is that the people at the local school site (teachers, staff and concerned others) know their specific needs better than anyone from a central office, and they have more invested in the outcome.
For example, after the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, all public school were given the authority to decide for themselves how their individual schools would be run, who would do what, and how it would be done, within the guidelines as set forth by the new law. This meant establishing a School-Based Decision-Making Council (SBDM), whose responsibility it was to determine curriculum, the make-up of the staff and faculty, and even the choice of principal once the sitting principal had retired or transferred. As a part of the SBDM’s mandate, task groups would be formed by invitation to deliberate and to act on specific task needs that the SBDM council had identified.
One such task that every school had to complete was a building needs assessment. This included a physical plant needs assessment as well as a curricular one. Groups were formed around the expertise of the members, including parents. These task groups were time-bound (1 year) and were charged with working out all of the particulars that would most effectively complete the task.
Hulse-Killacky, Killacky and Donigian (2000) talk of a three-phase conceptual model for task groups. These three phases are warm-up, action and closure. The authors discuss the balance between process and content, and the importance of maintaining that balance as the task group works through its assigned task. In the needs assessment example, the warm-up would consist of a general discussion of what needs to be done to make the school as efficient and “user-friendly” as possible, while meeting state-mandated objectives for academic progress. The warm-up might also include wish lists—what could we do if money were no object?—and brainstorming. The action portion included interviewing various stakeholders as to their perceptions, and then coming together formally to begin the assessment according to standards laid out by accrediting agencies and state boards of education. This was the longest period, and the most difficult. Often there was the background necessity of pleasing various constituency groups (parents, custodians, etc) while maintaining the integrity of a professional assessment aimed at overall school function. Closure was the final submission of the action plan which resulted from the assessment, signed off on by the same constituency groups who were briefed on the action plan before signature.
Energizing and empowering task group members involves making sure that all members are briefed as to their roles in the process. There is usually a promise that old-school politics will not interfere in the process, and that the administration is just one constituency out of all of them, and thus has only one voice. This assurance is critical to task group functioning—if group members feel like they are wasting their time doing paperwork when the outcome has already been decided, there is no incentive to do the work well, and the process fails. Additionally, group members need to feel that the task is a needed one, and will, when completed, add measurably to the improvement that is promised by the task completion.
Group leaders should be chosen both for their content expertise and also for their ability to lead objectively with the goals in mind. In the needs assessment example, the leader should be aware that there are needs, that the needs identified are the most pressing ones, and that no constituency group has more control or power over the outcome than any other. The ability to respond in this way and to access all of the resources necessary to complete the task are traits any leader should possess.
Task groupings done well are examples of a true democracy at work. All are invited to provide input, and all are assured that the process is an objective one not subject to cronyism or hidden agenda, and all are reasonably certain that the outcome is the best one that could be achieved. There is also an added benefit that morale is kept high, and that all perceive that the work they do is important and contributes to the good of the whole.
Hulse-Killacky, D, Killacky, J., and Donigian, J. Making Task Groups Work in Your World. New York: Prentice Hall.