Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Change at Independent Schools

This is a "reblog". I originally shared it with The Association of Deleware Valley Independent Schools, Powerful Learning Project Cohort in March 2010.

This past winter I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and I recently finished Dan and Chip Heath's Switch. Both books have provided me with a lot to think about in terms of how change happens. From Gladwell, I take heart in how connected we all are and how much of what we do and succeed at comes from taking a close look at who we are and the assets (or encumbrances) we carry with us each and every day. We may not all have access to super computers at an early age as did Bill Gates, but we are surrounded by people and opportunities who provide us with the tools we need in exchange for our hard work and personal investment. (10,000 hours is now my aspiring rock star daughter's mantra. According to Gladwell this is what separates the amazing athletes, writers, and musicians from the ordinary).

And now I have a caveat. One of the complaints I hear at my school (and I can only assume at other schools) is that groups are charged with tasks, they do a lot of research, engage others in conversation, debate possible outcomes and then generate recommendations which get passed onto administrators who are always busy. Sometimes one or two of the recommendations are implemented while the rest of the report gathers dust. Over time, faculty become jaded and wonder what all the effort is for. I recently had an administrator tell me that the reason most recommendations don't get implemented is that they are bad. But that is short sighted, bad or good, the correct response to the hard work a group of people was asked to take on is a response—a complete consideration of the entirety of their report. That doesn’t mean all or perhaps any of the recommendations are implemented. It seems so simple; people want their work (and time) acknowledged. This is where this caveat connects with personal investment! Change happens when a faculty is empowered to work on a challenge or idea, work through the possible answers and solutions and then tasked with implementing their ideas within the fiscal constraints that exist.

Heath and Heath make change seem possible, even at 200 year old schools steeped in tradition. One of the most interesting pieces of their book is the way that many of their examples of transformation begin with an initial solution that is small (all out of proportion) in comparison to the problem, but the solution is easily articulated and implemented, it involves changes in behavior (rather than attitude), it quickly builds energy and community, and shows results. Heath and Heath call some of this creating a path and I think that this is where independent schools most fall down. Many Heads of School start the year with a short list of projects for themselves and for the staff. Divisional heads have their own divisional goals and faculty are asked to write individual goals. All laudable in themselves but in the aggregate they end up being diffuse and perhaps overwhelming. And how are we to measure success? Retention? Yield on applicants, college admission results? The increase in the annual fund? The decrease in annual expenditures? What are our metrics?

Thinking about 21st century education or education in the 21st century can feel so overwhelming, so many programs, so many shifts, so many tools and cool lesson plans, so much to change in our current schedules, texts, assessments, that paralysis or TTWADI or entropy win out. The antidote seems to be a clear, specific path that focuses on shifting a very few behaviors. Each school will have its own particular path and I could imagine that each could easily choose to change very idiosyncratic things. Our Middle School has been involved in a multi-year re-envisioning process. Two years ago they implemented one change, one of the very few that was possible at the time--they created grade level teams and these teams started meeting weekly. These meetings have had tangible results in both jump starting program review, increasing collaboration and better attention to individual student strengths and challenges.

Now what small shift would it take to rethink our school year. . . . . ?

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