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Why good policy is necessary but insufficient to improve schools

Policy turns out to be a pretty lousy tool for improving education because policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well. And, when it comes to improving schools, doing things well is pretty much the whole ball game. —Frederick Hess

Policies that serve an organization’s most important goals are essential sources of institutional resilience.

Having said that, I believe that there are limits to how far good policy can take us in the direction of creating quality teaching for all students in every school.

One of the best things that can be said about good policy, I think, is that it drives out the kind of irresponsible and sometimes mean-spirited policies that harm students, dismay teachers, and destroys public education.

But while good policy can move the education system in the right direction, it cannot ensure the quality of day-to-day improvement efforts in schools.

For that, skillful administrative and teacher leadership is essential.

Frederick Hess writes: “Policy is a blunt tool, one that works best when simply making people do things is enough. In schooling, it’s most likely to work as intended when it comes to straightforward directives—like mandating testing or the length of a school year. Policy tends to stumble when it comes to more complex questions—when how things are done matters more than whether they’re done.”

Hess adds: “Our schools and systems were never designed for what we’re asking them to do today—to rigorously educate every child in a diverse nation. Making that possible will indeed require big changes to policies governing staffing, spending, and much else. That’s why I’m a school reformer. But policy is better at facilitating that kind of rethinking than at forcing it.

“School reform isn’t about having good ideas—it’s about how those ideas actually work for students and educators. This can be hard for those gripped by a burning desire to make the world a better place in a hurry….

“Ultimately, serious and sustainable school reform needs to be profoundly pro-doer. When talkers wax eloquent about students trapped in dysfunctional systems, they often forget that many teachers feel equally stymied.”

For example, policy may mandate:

• Evidence-based forms of professional development for all teachers and administrators (a good idea), but not the quality of professional learning that ensues from it and whether that learning leads to sustained improvements in teaching.

• Mentors or instructional coaches for new teachers (good ideas), but not the quality of the mentoring or coaching experience for all new teachers.

• That instructional teams or professional learning communities exist in schools (good ideas), but not the quality of their deliberations nor the results of that work on teaching and learning.

Ultimately, the effective implementation of such policies requires motivated, skillful leadership by administrators and teacher leaders. Such leadership can be set in motion by good policy, but it can be sustained only by enabling forces within school systems.

At the core of leaders’ work is the creation of school cultures of continuous improvement and teamwork, which, even under the best of circumstances, is a demanding responsibility.

While good policies are necessary, they are insufficient.

Policymakers may legislate, but ultimately it is the skillful, tedious, and often overwhelming day-to-day work of administrators and teachers that will determine the quality of teaching and learning for all students.

What is your experience with the effectiveness of local, state, and federal policies in improving teaching and learning for all students?

5 “truths” about teaching as a career

Resilient teachers understand that:

1.Those who can simultaneously do many complex tasks, teach; those who can’t go elsewhere (or at least we hope that they do). Teaching is intellectually, emotionally, and physically demanding. When done well, is a career-long marathon, not a sprint.

2. It is better to teach as part of a high-functioning team than alone. Having respected and trusted colleagues, preferably as teammates, makes the intellectual, emotional, and physical requirements of teaching  sustainable across decades.

3. Continuously changing circumstances (student characteristics, curriculum, and so on) require new understandings, beliefs, and skills.

4. Therefore, teachers have a professional obligation throughout their careers to improve their knowledge and skills through deliberate practice and feedback from students and colleagues.

5. All of the above require skillful leadership on the part of both teachers and administrators, particularly in creating cultures of continuous improvement.

What have I missed?

Do you believe in epiphanies?

epiphany/[ih-pif-uh-nee] 

noun: a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you

Do you believe in epiphanies?

I do.

I’ve had them while doing things as diverse as walking or driving, reading or staring out the window, having a conversation, or even while listening to keynote speakers at conferences.

Sometimes someone said just the right thing to me at the right time.

But epiphanies are not a change strategy that I would count on for me, for others, or for organizations.

Few epiphanies alter what we think and how we behave on a daily basis.

While guidance and inspiration can be drawn from epiphanies, they are seldom sufficient to produce meaningful and lasting changes in beliefs, understandings, and behavior.

Such changes almost always require sustained learning about complex subjects that includes deep and often courageous conversations within a strong team or other community about the implications of the new ideas and practices and how to solve the inevitable problems that arise in their implementation.

Anything less is simply insufficient.

Nothing I am saying here is new. In fact, it is decades or even centuries old.

But, inexplicably, it is far from common knowledge, yet alone common practice, except, perhaps, by resilient people.

Two questions:

What epiphanies, if any, have made a lasting difference in what you think and do?

In your experience, what structures (like teams or learning communities and dedicated time for them to meet) enable epiphanies to become standard practice?

Happy Holidays and best wishes for a wonderful 2018….

How would you answer these questions?

“Farrington has distilled this voluminous mind-set research into four key beliefs that, when embraced by students, seem to contribute most significantly to their tendency to persevere in the classroom:

1. I belong in this academic community.

2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.

3. I can succeed at this.

4. This work has value for me.”

How Kids Learn Resilience

These four questions, I believe, are equally applicable for teachers and administrators.

In my experience, resilient educators: 

• feel a sense of connection to like-minded colleagues,

• believe that they can improve student learning by continuously improving the quality of their work,

• are optimistic that they can and will make a difference, and

• know that the work they do each day has significance because it is aligned with their most important purposes and values.

How would you answer these questions from the perspective of your professional community?

There is no substitute for resilient leadership

Resilient people are often called upon to be leaders, a responsibility that both draws upon their resilience and cultivates it for future use.

Early in my career I did not understand the importance of leadership. Schools, I thought, would improve if teachers were simply given the tools to do their work and the freedom to use them.

But then I had an opportunity to closely observe a school whose teachers and parents were frustrated and dispirited. Students performed poorly, and everyone felt hopeless about the future.

Eventually a new principal came to the school. Over the next 3 years things got better. Staff and parent morale improved, as did teaching and student learning.

That principal eventually went on to another assignment, and the school’s new principal was more like the first one. Things spiraled downwards into a hopelessness that felt more profound because of the school’s rollercoaster journey.

Later on in my professional development work I spent a great deal of time talking with teachers about teaching and learning.

I enjoyed those conversations immensely except when teachers were angry and cynical.

Without exception, I observed that those teachers were poorly led by principals or system administrators or union leaders. Or all three.

My work came to focus on principals and teacher leaders because without their skillful leadership teacher professional learning and teamwork were unlikely to occur in ways that would benefit all students in all classrooms.

School leaders to a very large degree determine:

What is your experience—is it possible to continuously improve teaching and learning without skillful leadership?

Resilience can be fostered by…

“Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.” —Jane Kenyon

Resilience can be fostered by:

Reflecting on our life experiences, extracting important lessons from those experiences, and acting in ways that are consistent with those lessons

Using our strengths to achieve important goals

• Doing the “difficult thing to maintain momentum in important areas of our lives

Recognizing that courage does not mean the absence of fear but rather acting in the presence of it

Being part of an ongoing community that offers clarity of purpose, interpersonal support, and exemplars of the people we hope to become

Reading biographies and autobiographies to deepen our understanding of how others have been tested and strengthened through adversity

Being a “good steward of your gifts” in the ways Jane Kenyon recommends.

What would you add to my list?

6 Cs of Resilience

I offer the “6 Cs of resilience” to stimulate your thinking and perhaps guide your actions:

Clarity about values, ideas, goals, and strategies to accomplish those goals. Such clarity will come in and out of focus and require fresh thinking when circumstances change within and around us.

Commitment to persist through difficult times. Resilience sometimes requires doing the thing we don’t want to do but that we know is important.

Communication that seeks first to understand and that is both respectful and assertive. Such communication is particularly challenging when people vigorously disagree with us by asserting values and positions that we believe are irrational and even immoral.

Community to gain clarity, support, guidance, inspiration, and the power of collective action when we are addressing powerful social and economic forces. Dialogue created in community can also help us find and maintain clarity.

Courage to do what is uncomfortable and even frightening. Courage is not the absence of fear, but instead acting in its presence. As someone once said, “Feel the fear and do it anyways.”

Care, beginning with self-care. Self-care means making our physical, emotional, and spiritual health a priority, because if we don’t care for ourselves the other Cs will be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Care also includes, of course, respect for others, especially those with whom we most strongly disagree.

No matter our starting place, the “6Cs” enable us to take well-considered stands about things that are significant to us and to join with others to achieve what we cannot accomplish alone.

Which of the Cs is most important for you at this particular moment in time?


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