There is no shortage of effort in the United States today to infuse school leadership teams with the knowledge, skills and abilities to create improvements in schools. But one example is the work being taken on in several states to have schools embrace six design principles, known as “critical attributes”, promulgated by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). These principles are offered as points of departure around which schools can have discussions about how best to create “next generation learning environments.”
The six principals are laudable, and on their face there’s little to quibble with. They are:
There’s also no shortage of barriers to making this work. As we have waded through our own attempts to excite, inculcate, and encourage school teams to apply these critical attributes in their own districts (through an academy we hold), my colleagues and I are repeatedly struck by a barrier that invariably rears its ugly head in the teams we train. It’s the proverbial “Yeah, but…”
School districts send their brain trusts, comprised of staff that includes superintendents, principals, and directors of divisions (teams easily worth a half-million dollars in payroll annually), to days of sustained training spanning a school year in which they will ostensibly design a different way of doing business back home. What happens? A few leave with clear maps of student-centered change that embrace one or more of the critical attributes. They create plans that are human centered by involving students, teachers, parents, and the community as co-designers in the effort. They have a known target and they measure for that.
However, most don’t do this. Why? Because the perceived cost of dealing with the black hole of a typical school district bureaucracy is just too much to grapple with. It’s easier to say “Yeah, but [insert the thing that they don’t have the will to change] will keep us from doing that.” They tinker.
So what should we do? How might we create professional development opportunities for districts that impart the seriousness of the need for change to occur as a result of that training?
I’ve talked with personnel from foundations that fund systemic change who suggest that only school districts that already have a sense of urgency should be admitted to professional development academies designed to evoke reforms.
I agree. In principle, districts that have gone through the process of truly understanding the urgent situation they face would probably feel as though they have a more to lose by not changing that those without a developed sense of urgency. The logic is that districts with a developed sense of urgency would take the training seriously and effect change in their own schools as a result of it. But just because a district doesn’t have a sense of urgency doesn’t mean it’s not in need of change. Most districts need to change. How might we ensure performance on the part of any district brain trust that thinks it wants to create “next generation schools” when they enter an academy like ours? Can we build urgency into the training?
Possibly. I say we gamify this thing.
Let’s assume the following setting. A university consortium, nonprofit, or other training entity creates a seven-day program of professional development designed to span several days over an academic year. The curriculum leads school teams through the process of designing substantive change along the lines of one or more of CCSSO’s critical attributes. A condition of entry into the training is that a change must be implemented at the start of the following academic year within each participating school district.
A set of critical implementation milestones that center on the planning and design process would be provided to the district teams upon entry into the program. If any district does not meet the milestone for a given time period, that team is dismissed from the training with no refund of fees. It’s basically like the popular reality game show Survivor. You’d be voted off the island for not taking this seriously. The social embarrassment of squandering precious professional development funds by not meeting expectations could be the thing that’s needed to encourage teams to break the proverbial eggs for that reform omelet.
It might go something like this:
What one ends up with are the district teams that really feel the urgency.
Naturally, this idea needs refinement. For instance, there would need to processes in place that enable district teams in the training to help each other succeed and meet expectations. We don’t want a situation where teams sabotage each other’s efforts. But these things can be worked out.
What else could be done to refine this idea? Bring your thoughts to the comment section.
Image credit: CC Flickr troymckaskle.