Imagine that a vast interstate system of highways has been built with no off ramps into the communities they pass. Congress legislated, billions of dollar were allocated, contracts let, and hundreds of thousands of work days spend by tens of thousands of workers. But there are no off ramps, so the benefits of all this effort bypass local communities.
That’s what school improvement process too often looks like to me. Committees meet, goals are set, plans made, approvals sought. Sometimes new positions are created and job descriptions written. Plans are “rolled out” and training is “scaled up.” A few carrots and sticks are added to ensure compliance.
At this point state education agencies and district offices typically feel like the vast majority of the work has been done.
But because planners almost always significantly underestimate what is required to affect habits of mind and practice and to create school cultures of continuous improvement, this is where things predictably begin to fall apart.
The real work of improvement—building the off ramps from policymakers plans into schools and classrooms—can only be accomplished by principals, teacher leaders, and school leadership teams. It cannot be done by anyone else.
These off ramps are built day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting, conversation-by-conversation. In theses schools leaders promote professional learning that is deeply embedded in teachers’ work and create school cultures of continuous improvement built on high levels of trust, openness to the views of others, experimentation, and risk-taking.
The construction of such off ramps requires that school leaders understand:
1. That the most important work of change occurs in schools and classrooms. State and district meetings and learning events may be necessary, but they are not sufficient to change hearts and minds.
2. The power of a school’s culture to determine whether new ideas and practices flourish or are extinguished.
3. That changing habits of mind and practice requires untold hours of team building, dialogue, data analysis, and focused and sustained professional learning.
If the off ramps are not painstakingly constructed, all the best intentions and plans in the world are for nothing.
Please comment: In your experience, what are the most significant challenges principals and teacher leaders face in building the “off ramp?” How have those challenges been successfully addressed?