Education seems to be the worst about trying to 'fix' the system with the latest program or the next big thing. Ask just about any teacher who has been in the profession a few years and they will trace how this program came and then faded and then the next thing came along, and it seems like a never ending cycle. I've heard this same narrative for the 20 years I've been an educator, both as a teacher and as an administrator. And, it's frustrating.
We keep trying to improve by implementing a new thing, a new policy, a new set of standards, when these strategies are not ultimately the most important thing to improve. Todd Whitaker has been quoted widely, proclaiming "it's not about programs, it's about people." And we know, almost intuitively, instinctively, that this is true. But the programs and 'accountability plans' keep coming. And the very thing that is intended to improve education is killing creativity and hindering innovation.
But don't we need new ideas in education? Aren't our schools in need of a major update to meet the challenges of today? Absolutely! But the answers to the questions we face aren't found in external mandates. We need to unleash the problem-solving power of the people who have their boots on the ground, the educators working every day in schools. What we need is to find ways to empower teaching and build even stronger commitment among educators.
Building commitment will always be better than gaining compliance, and here's why. Commitment results in buy-in, belief, investment, ownership, and extra effort. Compliance, on the other hand, is little more than checking a box or filling out a form. It may result in some change in behavior, but it may only get the appearance of a change in behavior. As soon as the new thing isn't monitored closely, old ways return. There isn't any lasting change.
So how do we get more commitment? We remove the barriers to true collaboration and communication in schools. We ask teachers their opinions. We value their ideas. We get everyone at the table. We set goals, but we get the goal-setting as close to the action as possible. The graphic below suggests that classroom level goals have far more impact than district or school goals. So why do we continue to write comprehensive school improvement plans that are longer than Gone With the Wind?
I believe the greatest thing we can do to improve our schools is invest in people and their ideas--cultivate innovation and risk-taking within schools. When we have compliance-driven cultures, teachers are often afraid to try something new. What if it doesn't work? What if my test scores are lower? What if my principal doesn't like it? This type of thinking sucks the passion out of being an educator. Educators are thinkers and problem-solvers and need the opportunity to explore whatever ideas they believe have the potential to improve learning.
When rich conversations are happening in schools, it becomes the source of amazing synergy. This idea was magnified in my thinking by the book Crucial Conversations (2012). It details how we need to have more authentic, completely honest conversations in organizations, and even in families and other relationships, where we share ideas openly and confront problems constructively. The authors shared how synergy develops:
"As everyone on the team began to explain his or her opinion, people formed a clearer and more complete picture of the circumstances. As they began to understand the whys and wherefores of different proposals, they built off one another. Eventually, as one idea led to the next, and then to the next, they came up with an alternative no one had originally thought of and that all wholeheartedly supported. As a result of the free flow of meaning, the whole (final choice) was truly greater than the sum of the original parts." (p. 25)And so we need to get more input from teachers, and even students and parents, as we seek solutions that are unique to our individual schools. And here is the best part. This is really important. As people develop a shared meaning and have a voice in the solutions they develop, they willingly act on whatever decisions they make. They get behind the decision and put the full measure of their conviction behind it.