Posts Tagged 'school improvement'

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?

Three essentials for creating energy through planning

Dennis Sparks

To a large extent, school leadership is about creating and focusing the energy of the school community on a small number of important priorities.

Carefully-designed and well-executed plans are obviously a key factor in providing that focus and maintaining enthusiasm for the work across many months and perhaps years.

But plans that cannot be altered when alterations are warranted discourage those affected by the plans and dissipate energy.

In my experience there are three essentials for creating energy through planning:

1. Making a plan: The process of planning creates energy. Even simple “back of the envelope” planning can create a sense of direction and motivation.

2. Changing the plan: Almost always the implementation of a plan will produce learning that appropriately leads to adjustments in the plan.

In addition, conditions often change from those that were present when the plan was made, particularly when it is a multi-year plan.

A useful mantra is, “Make plans, but hold those plans loosely.” Persevering with a plan that is clearly not working depletes energy.

But it is also true that frequently and capriciously changing plans depletes energy. Knowing when to stay the course with a plan and when to change it is an essential aspect of the artistry of skillful leadership.

3. Consistently applying “next action thinking: Plans that don’t produce and maintain momentum are bound to fail.

An essential ingredient in the successful implementation of a plan (and for that matter of professional learning) is the ability and discipline to determine the specific next action when a current activity comes to an end. Once momentum is lost, it may never be regained.

What have you learned about successful planning and the implementation of those plans?

Why “It’s better than doing nothing” probably isn’t

Dennis Sparks

“It’s certainly better than doing nothing,” I recently heard someone say about what seemed to me to be a poorly-conceived professional development event.

“Maybe it is, maybe it’s not,” I responded. “Let’s think about it some more.”

Leaders often justify such “better than nothing” activities by claiming that they are the only available options.

In my experience, however, there are almost always better options. I have also observed that there are usually significant unintended consequences when activity is confused with accomplishment.

Here are two of them:

1. Solving complex problems of the kinds associated with the continuous improvement of teaching and learning almost always requires multiple, well-implemented interventions over many months and years. Doing “something” releases leaders from the cognitively-demanding responsibility of determining what those things are and the interpersonally-challenging task of skillfully implementing them.

2. Engaging in activity for activity’s sake can squander teachers’ goodwill because the activity is accurately perceived as a time filler rather than producing a meaningful result.

An all-too-common example: A school or school system spends a large share of its professional development budget to bring a “big name” consultant to the district for a few hours, an event that may well be teachers’ “inservice” for the year. Compare that  approach with the sustained cognitive and interpersonal effort required to create high-functioning professional learning communities that affect teaching and learning in all classrooms.

So, the next time you hear someone say “it’s better than nothing,” ask them to think again.


When school leaders adopt a problem-creation stance

Dennis Sparks

See, I think our whole society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to [participate in] ‘problem creation’ … You know, ask yourself an interesting enough question and your attempt to find a tailor-made solution to that question will push you to a place where, pretty soon, you’ll find yourself all by your lonesome — which I think is a more interesting place to be. – Chuck Close

Because most of the problems associated with the sustained improvement of teaching and learning do not lend themselves to one-right-way, prescriptive solutions, schools benefit when principals and teacher leaders adopt a “problem creation” stance like the one described by artist Chuck Close.

The creativity and energy that are activated by a problem-creation approach sustain the focus and momentum of improvement efforts as schools continuously adapt to changing circumstances.

Sustained improvement resembles the improvisation of jazz

Dennis Sparks

For some reason I associate this time of year with creativity and energy. Perhaps it has to do with the holidays or religious celebrations. Or maybe it’s the fresh start provided by a new year.

That may be why I was drawn to this inspiring story about the human compulsion to create, a drive which seems to have defined the life of the story’s subject, artist and author Betty Abbott Sheinis.

Like Sheinis, children make up stories and games and images of the world that are uniquely their own in the same natural way they learn to walk and talk.

Unfortunately, it’s a desire that diminishes for most children as they grow older—often because their creativity is neglected or even suppressed in schools—so that by the time they are adults their creative impulses may be extinguished and they believe that they no longer have creative abilities.

Likewise, the creative impulses of educators are suppressed as current reform models view improvement as a technical process in which experts tell teachers and principals what to do and policymakers hold them accountable for the results.

Sustained improvement, however, is far more complex and nuanced. At its best it is a creative act in which educators apply available research in continuously evolving ways to invent solutions to the most pressing problems they face and then use various forms of evidence to determine the effectiveness of those solutions.

Seen this way, the continuous improvement of teaching and learning and leadership is more like the improvisation of jazz than adherence to a symphonic score under the direction of a conductor.

And like all creative acts, inventing solutions and determining the effectiveness of those inventions releases an energy in the school community which is essential to maintaining the momentum of improvement across time.


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