Palo Alto, Calif. — He's no stranger to sticky management problems. But after Bill Nilsson had served on a blue-ribbon state commission investigating the teaching conditions in California public schools, his jaw dropped. Teachers didn't have adequate access to supplies. There was little discipline in the classroom; no evaluation process; no time for teachers to reflect on their subject; parental indifference; little collegiality; constant interruptions; minimal coaching; and the average principal was, as in the limerick, ``the man who wasn't there.''
Mr. Nilsson is a manager's manager. He helps head up Hewlett-Packard's prestigious (and fast-lane) Palo Alto corporate training division. Here, among the hierarchy-defying chest-high office partitions made famous in Silicon Valley, Nilsson's boss put the phrase ``managing by wandering around'' on the business management map. The entrepreneurial bible of the 1980s, ``In Search of Excellence,'' lists HP as one of its 10 model ``excellent'' companies.
For private-sector participants like Nilsson, the commission on teaching was an eye-opener. ``I consider myself to be an average Californian,'' says Nilsson, whose brisk, gracious manner and winning smile indicate a man who knows and lives by the quick decision. ``I graduated from public high schools in California. And though I heard there were problems with the schools today, I just couldn't believe what I saw.''
If Nilsson sounds pessimistic, just the opposite is true. He sees the commission, and the detailed reform efforts (which include upgrading teacher recruitment, salaries, and school curriculum) by public school superintendent Bill Honig and his staff, as ``a very hopeful thing'' in the California system, a system that will teach 15 percent of the nation's schoolchildren by 1990.
Part of what Nilsson saw took place at what was described to him as one of the better elementary schools in inner-city San Francisco. Although it wasn't the rule, Nilsson says his experience with this school was not the exception, either.
Nilsson asked the principal, who had been there seven years, if she had received training for her job. She said ``no.'' She had been a teacher. One day, she received a phone call out of the blue telling her she was the new principal.
``I was surprised,'' Nilsson says, ``because obviously I believe in some kind of training -- not that it guarantees anything -- but it's a lot harder when you learn it on your own.''
Nilsson observed a third-grade class from 9:45 in the morning to 2:30 -- 31 children in a typical ratio for San Francisco city schools: 60 percent Asian, a single Caucasian, and the rest black and Hispanic.
Even in Nilsson's somewhat authoritative presence, the class was out of control. ``Maintaining order in the class was everything . . . occasionally the teacher was able to get some meaningful learning in.''
One child in the class erased the blackboard whenever the teacher wasn't looking. When he went back to his desk, the child spent his time poking pencils through a cardboard box. On two occasions, he had to be taken to the principal, once by being carried.
Another child spent his time gleefully hiding from the teacher in the back of the room. ``If that child learned anything, I'd be surprised,'' Nilsson says.
Meanwhile, the learning that was going on took place at every ability level. One child, just arrived from Hong Kong, spoke no English and had to be helped individually. Other kids tried doing math problems written on the blackboard being erased by the troublemaker. ``It was a three-ring circus,'' Nilsson says.
At the end of the session, Nilsson was worn out; his idea of the job teachers face today had gone through an abrupt turnabout.
According to Gary Sykes, research chairman of the commission, the public doesn't have ``a clue, not a clue,'' about the teaching profession today.
``The businessmen on the panel,'' Mr. Sykes says, were ``amazed'' at the conditions teachers had to work in. ``It's so far from what they know to be necessary to get people motivated that they are shocked -- they can't believe it.''
Nilsson states: ``Not that everyone would have the courage, but if every Californian could spend even one day in a public school, they would be in an uproar. They would demand something be done.''
From a business point of view, one of the main critiques Nilsson makes is the ``span of control'' problem. In most schools, the central manager -- the principal -- has over 20 teachers to deal with. ``How do you provide any decent coaching or dialogue with that many people reporting to you?''Nilsson asks.
``I have seven people reporting to me, including a secretary, and I don't find enough time to spend one on one as I would like. To multiply that by three . . . is absurd. My counterparts on the committee from business and industry feel the same way.''
Hugh Friedman, a San Diego lawyer who is vice-chairman of the commission, says the businessmen on the panel helped bring perspective to the problem of attracting new teachers today by pointing out the contrast between ``the aggressive, imaginative recruitment practices in modern business'' and the state school system in which ``new teachers are given the least attractive classroom at the far end of the hallway.''
Nilsson condemns the common ``sink or swim'' practice of putting untried teachers directly into a classroom situation. ``Most education schools don't teach you how to maintain order -- you learn that on the job.'' In industry, by contrast, ``we wouldn't think of throwing a person into a similar role without having a lot of coaching from someone who understands the problems.''
One solution Nilsson offers for present teacher woes is for schools to have, essentially, two principals -- one to focus on teachers and learning, and one to handle the physical plant, community relations, business matters. ``Principals today,'' he says, ``busy themselves in administrative minutiae.'' They are forced to ``worry about heating in the school . . . rather than paying attention to the real role of the school -- which, as [leading educator] Ted Sizer testified to our commission, is to teach kids to use their minds.''
At bottom, Nilsson feels teachers themselves may contribute the most to the improvement of the California school system. He is impressed by the fact that teachers are more concerned about changing their working conditions than their salary (though he concedes salary is very important).
``Actually,'' he says, ``the amazing thing is that, given their situation, so many teachers have remained in the system.''
All the more reason, he says, for principals, school boards, and parents to pay attention to teacher needs: ``Every good manager knows that your real strength is in the people you have working for you. If, as an individual, you want to be successful, you work on those areas in which your people can be more successful.''