How to Change 5,000 Schools

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?

  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


3 thoughts on “How to Change 5,000 Schools

  1. 1. Focus on a few key student outcomes that matter most and are most understandable for the public and for educators.
    “If everything is important, then nothing is.” ― Patrick Lencioni
    A mistake that schools and school districts makes is trying to do to much. When you try to do everything, you end up good at nothing. Defining key student outcomes that matter most — that are clear, connected, coherent, & focused on maximizing outcomes from all learners is the way to go. It’s better to have a narrow focus on the things that matter most and go deep than to be five miles wide and an inch deep and not improve outcomes.

    2. Put effort into building capacity for improvement (skill). 
    To really grow your capacity, you must be AWARE, DEVELOP ABILITIES, and make right CHOICES. Simply put: AWARENESS + ABILITY + CHOICES = CAPACITY

    We often treat the word capacity as if it were a natural law of limitation. Unfortunately, most of us are much more comfortable defining what we perceive as off limits rather than what’s really possible. Could it be that many of us have failed to expand our potential because we have allowed what we perceive as capacity to define us? We often are our own shackles in Education. What if our limits are not really our limits?

    Energy, creativity, leadership are things many possess. Our choices, like our attitude, character, and intentionality are controlled by our choices. We, individually, need to have the awareness, ability and make the choices to grow our capacity for improvement (skills). As a district, Jeffco needs clear, coherent, and connected systems to support improving capacity. This goes beyond clock hours of Professional Development, beyond opting in or out of Coaching Cycles and to the policy, system, and leadership to assure we as a system and learning and growing together.

    Personally, I feel there is a need for systems thinking to what building capacity for improvement looks like in Jeffco. How might you build continuity from a district level vision and action plan and thread that through Ed Center Departments to Articulation Areas and into schools?

    3. Build motivation (will) by taking a positive approach
    Fullen, in “The Principal” writes of Right vs. Wrong Drivers for improvement. Fullen identifies the right drivers as:
     Capacity building
     Collaborative work
     Systemness

    Ken Leithwood at the University of Toronto, Karen Seashore Louis at Minnesota, and their colleagues have become masters of the principalship over the last four decades. In their book Linking Leadership to Student Learning, Leithwood and Seashore Louis (2012) conclude that principals who had the greatest impact on student learning in the school focused on instruction—including teacher knowledge, skills, motivation—and on ensuring supportive working conditions (such as time for collaboration). Putting it in a nutshell, they say that “leadership affects student learning when it is targeted at working relationships, improving instruction and, indirectly, student achievement”.

    Here is what I know to be true. Culture will eat data for breakfast everyday and twice on Sunday’s. A positive approach starts that ensuring that our school site and district cultures are one of true collaboration, that puts the needs of all of our students first. Supportive working conditions and adding value (not just monetary which we know is a need in Jeffco, but also value in capacity building) to others is one way for us to build trust, mutual respect, and shared responsibility for the success of all learners.

    4. Work to increase public and political support for an effective, thoughtful, and sustained program of improvement
    We need you, we need all of you to support all of our students in Jeffco. This is a team effort. I’m all for constructive criticism. I welcome it and it’s vital to help us improve individually and collectively. However, I’ve noticed in Jeffco that we have people who lob shot after shot after shot at the district and offer nothing in the terms of solutions to improve outcomes. This is counterproductive and truly offers nothing to the necessary conversation and collaboration to make Jeffco the best place to go to school and raise a family in America. I’ve been here now as a Jeffco resident entering my 6th year and the political side picking still remains. Enough is enough and it’s time for change. We need to come together for our students. Education is the one thing that should be bipartisan. The commonality we all have is the love of our kids and the desire to see them prepared for their future.

    I commend Dr. Glass for listening to all people, regardless of what side of the political aisle they are on. He’s trying to build a bridge to all people. Hopefully more people will walk across that bridge and join him and each other in supporting the work of the school district and most importantly all students within the district.

    To quote the Rage Against The Machine——
    “It Has To Start Someplace, It Has To Start Sometime”
    “What Better Place Than Here, What Better Time Than Now”…….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the positive tone of this work. We should always be looking to improve how we interact with and help students learn. Teachers recognize that there are deficiencies in our school systems and most of the community only want what is best for our children. Working together on the most important goals is sound and doable.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s