At the recent Board retreat, I asked the Board to review an excerpt from Ben Levin’s excellent work, How to Change 5,000 Schools (2008). The lessons in it are profound, at least for me. Posted below is the excerpt from the book with some key points. In Jeffco, we don’t have to change 5,000 schools – but we do need to make a great deal of progress with a large and diverse district. I wonder what your reactions are to Levin’s main points?
- Focus on a few key student outcomes that matter most and are most understandable for the public and for educators. A repeated theme in this book has been the importance of focusing on a small number of goals that are easy to understand, have broad acceptance, and can be used as the center of an improvement strategy. These goals should be important and ambitious. They should stretch people to do things they value—to have their reach exceed their grasp—because that is what produces top performance. At the same time, people must believe that the goals are meaningful and potentially achievable; setting impossible goals produces weaker, not stronger, performance. Focusing on a few goals does not, however, mean adopting a narrow view of schooling. For one thing, progress in literacy or numeracy can be aided and supported by a rich and varied curriculum, both because other subjects can reinforce key skills and because students are more motivated when their overall experience at schools is varied. Spending more and more hours on literacy at the expense of everything else is actually counterproductive to getting good outcomes in many ways. Having a few priorities can and should be balanced against the necessity of a broad approach to what schools do.
- Put effort into building capacity for improvement (skill). Most of the time, where performance is weak, so is people’s knowledge or skill as to how to do better. Improving system performance requires a large and sustained effort to improve skills. Teaching being a complex activity, improvement is also complex. Better teaching requires stronger content knowledge, stronger pedagogical knowledge, better ability to motivate and engage students, skills in working closely with colleagues, capacity to work effectively with parents, and so on. Not every individual will need to develop all these, but all will need to be made stronger across the system. The center of any improvement undertaking should, then, be this sustained effort to strengthen skills. Improving capacity requires sustained effort—not just professional development days but various forms of coaching and mentoring, effective use of staff meetings and other in-school time, and support through related practices such as supervision and evaluation. This means that there are policy, leadership, and system-procedure implications to capacity-building.
- Build motivation (will) by taking a positive approach. One of the fundamental lessons of research on human motivation is that people will do more of what they think they are good at or can become good at. Improvement in education requires a strongly supportive message for students, parents, and educators. To repeat, you cannot threaten or shame or punish people into top performance. Educators are largely motivated—as are most people—by accomplishment, and for most educators accomplishment means the success of learners. So systems need to talk often about how important student achievement is, how important educators are to that success, and about the steps being taken to support greater success. Being positive does not mean approving everything the system currently does or avoiding any criticism. Educators can accept a position which says that current outcomes for students need to be improved, provided that the overall approach is not about blame and recognizes past efforts and successes.
- Work to increase public and political support for an effective, thoughtful, and sustained program of improvement. Schools need support as well as pressure. Endless public criticism of schools is both unfair and counterproductive. It ignores the real limits on what schools can do; more importantly, it erodes public confidence and support, leading to a downward spiral of declining resources, effort, and results. Schools and school systems need the support of their public as well as the expectation that more can and should be possible. System leaders need to combine these messages in their public communications, stressing both the many accomplishments and the need for continued improvement.It’s also important for school systems to speak up about the importance of the broader public policy environment. Without in any way reducing their own commitment to students, schools can also be advocates for decent jobs with decent wages, adequate social supports, reasonable housing, good child care, and appropriate recreation programs, all of which can help support student success. This kind of program of communication requires deliberation and effort. System leaders, both elected and appointed, are critical to building this kind of public dialogue and understanding. It should be a fundamental part of the work of any person in a leadership role.