Mar 27

Design for the Best Outcome

Years ago, when I was a teacher in New York City, there was a memo that came from Central Office that stated a new policy that made it against policy for teachers and administrators to hug students. I remember my boss’ reaction to it – no one was going to stop her from hugging her students. But you can imagine what happened to create that memo. There was probably a spate of incidents involving teachers being grossly inappropriate with students, and as such, the Central Office sought to solve that problem with a policy that drew a harsh, bright line. The problem is that the policy also outlawed a behavior that thousands of caring educators engaged in every day that made the work of schools a more human and humane and caring endeavor.

 

This kind of policy move is hardly unique to New York City. It exists in schools and districts all over the country. It is at the root of textbook companies who market products to schools that require almost no imagination or thought on the part of teachers. It is at the root of the filtering software and technology policies in many districts that ensure that the internet that kids experience in school has little to no relevance to the way people interact with technology out of school. And it is generally responsible for restrictive cultures in schools where a bland and uncaring education rules the day over any notion of innovative or passionate learning might take place.

And as an administrator, I can speak to the seductiveness of such thinking. It’s easy to think that with the right policy… the right rule… we can keep our schools safe and productive and neat. But that’s not what learning needs to be. When I was in graduate school, studying for my principal certification, I was lucky enough to study under Tom Sobol who – more succinctly than I am doing now – explained the problem with this line of thinking perfectly:

You can regulate the worst abuses out of a system, but you can never regulate goodness or excellence, because goodness and excellence lie within the hearts and minds of the people within the system.

And that’s it. That idea should be at the heart of our design principles when we think about schools and their systems.

This is at the heart of the idea of designing human systems. There’s no question that we need systems and structures in schools, but we need systems and structures that are aspirational, dynamic and deeply, deeply human. A well-structured human system is one that enables good people of honest intent to learn how to do great work with students more quickly, more powerfully than if the system did not exist.

This doesn’t negate that there are regulations that govern our behavior in schools. Those do exist for a reason – to, as Prof. Sobol said – to prevent the worst abuses. That is why union contracts mandate how many minutes teachers can teach in a row, and that’s why the procurement manuals of most districts are thicker than many textbooks. We have to keep people -kids and adults – safe, and we have to make sure that schools do not have financial abuse. Those are real and serious things.

But we need the other kinds of systems as well – the ones that help us be better together. And it’s something school administrators should think about every time they sit down with leadership teams to create policy:

“Am I doing this because I’m afraid of the worst thing, or am I doing this because I want to make it more possible to create amazing things?”

And we should look to be aspirational in our policies, procedures and systems as often as we can — after all, when the systems and structures that we create are aspirational, then our classrooms and the messages we send to the children inside of them will be aspirational as well.

Aug 09

Maybe We Could Just Get Better

With the start of the new school, educators around the country – especially those in schools and districts that have been labeled as failing – are learning about the new initiatives that their schools will be undertaking this school year. Many of these initiatives will be mandated – top-down – from an administrator at the school, district or state level. And many of these initiatives will be a sharp turn away from the practices of the past year.

And these new initiatives will be enacted in the name of closing the achievement gap, addressing some data-driven problem that has been identified, or somehow finding some magic bullet to raise test scores.

And many teachers go through this process year after year after year.

And it makes me ask a simple question – what if some of the problems of our school is that we never let people get good at any one thing?

This is not to say that schools should look at challenges and problems they face and address them.

This is not to say that educators should not strive to learn new ideas and new practices.

But when do we let teachers get good at stuff too?

Schools need to grow along healthy pathways. So do the teachers and students than inhabit them. When we commit to a pedagogical plan or a new structure or system, and we say, “Barring epic failure, we’re going to work on this strategy for a few years,” we honor the fact that people can learn and get better at their craft.

There are many pedagogical approaches to education. I have a favorite that I am passionate about – inquiry-based education. I have been lucky enough to work with a group of teachers and students who have dedicated themselves to getting better at that craft. And as a community, we very much have gotten better. I am also lucky enough to have been afforded the space and time to get better. I remember the first year SLA took the PSSAs and our math scores were lower than we expected them to be. I was terrified that my regional superintendent, Marilyn Perez, was going to tell me that we had to abandon our inquiry-driven math plan. I called her with the scores – we had done the calculations by hand from state score sheets, so we had the data before the district had calculated the school-wide results – and she said to me, “Now you have your baseline, and knowing SLA, you and your teachers are already thinking about how to get better at what you do.”

She held us accountable for our performance and listened to our plan on how we were going to get better at what we did… not change pedagogy or approach, but evolve and get better. To this day, if Marilyn were to call and say, “I need a favor…” the answer would be unequivocally yes, because she was willing to work with SLA to give us time to grow along a healthy path that allowed us to evolve, rather than shift gears.

We need to create more spaces for schools to define school-wide structural and pedagogical approaches to education, and then we need to give schools time and space to grow and get better at their craft as a community. In too many schools and districts, September represents a time where teachers and students have to throw out last year’s “Best Practice” in favor of the latest and greatest idea to come out of a policy office somewhere.

Perhaps we are a time where we can admit that our best practices are the ones that we actually get the time to practice.

Dec 10

NY Times Room for Debate: Federal Standards and Federal Funding

The New York Times Room For Debate asked me if I would weigh in on the following question:

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by 48 states and supported by the Obama administration, have worried liberals who question their quality and conservatives who fear they erode states’ traditional responsibility for education. At the same time, the budget pressure of the impending “fiscal cliff” could reduce federal support for education, which would add to the state and local responsibility.

As these trends collide, Americans can take a step back and ask: Should education standards and funding vary by state?

This gave me the opportunity to talk about an issue that too often goes un-talked about in the current education debate – inequitable education funding. Little did I know I would be debating the question online with folks like Pedro Noguero, Jeb Bush and Rick Hess. Here was the start of my response:

The Common Core standards are the latest federal educational initiative, making the argument that creating national standards will somehow raise achievement nationwide while ignoring what is a far more important state-to-state and district-to-district variability: funding.

Disparate funding levels in the United States are the single most anti-democratic policy in our society. Where children live should not have bearing on how much money is spent on their education. And the variability in funding levels is deep and profound.

The rest is over at The New York Times, please go give it a read. (And wow… the New York Times. I’m kind of really excited. Really, really excited.)