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In the Tangled Jungle of School Reform

Find a “Classroom” Teaching DIFFERENT Lessons

Several months ago I was asked by AASA’s journal The School Administrator to review a new Harvard Business School publication — “Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Public Schools” by Stacey Childress, Denis Doyle, and David Thomas. This presented an interesting challenge because AASA wanted a short, and an objective review.

As readers of this site know, the book is about the same school system that serves as the reality check for the way-of-thinking this site attempts to capture. For the past 10 years I’ve been an embedded learner in, and thinking partner with, that district. Some initial learnings were offered in a 2003 School Administrator article – Systemic Learning & Acting: A close-up observer finds a school district behaving as if it were a system.”

While this relationship might seem to make an objective review difficult, I found it offered a dimension of understanding enabling me to better gauge the relevance of both the book’s content… and the context from which it emerged.

• Why, for example, was this a product of Harvard’s school of business, not education?
• And how does this large complex school district’s experience relate to President Obama’s, Bill Gates’ and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s ”race-to-the-top”?

AASA’s format also required a short review, not a long article. But if I took seriously their boilerplate instructions to reviewers…

“Consider the review of the book to be a consumer service. Provide an honest critique which means if the book in your view would fail to meet the needs or interests of the typical superintendent, you ought to say so and explain why…..Critical or balanced reviews are actually more valuable than raves given the limitations of time for book reading among most superintendents.”

…I wasn’t sure that within the 350-word limit I could meet their underlying requirements for “an honest critique” that would “meet the needs or interests of the typical superintendent. …who has “limitations of time for book reading.”

In this case, I believed “honesty” required saying why I thought it does address “needs and interests” of all Superintendents who are in the “business” of schooling to make a difference for all the kids and teachers in their districts. And whose difference-making, like other CEO’s, requires continually juggling all of the system’s parts and processes, even while losing hope that it’s possible to have the time and support to do it.

But the space limits were a reality and my challenge was to work within them to act on my belief that this book differed from the many excellent publications today dealing with knowledge superintendents should, and someday must, know. But which many times don’t seem to touch a superintendent’s core concern of “what can I do on Monday” with this knowledge that will influence what happens to children today in my district?

So in the soon-to-be-published review, below, I chose to use the allotted space to raise questions more than preview the answers they’ll find. My intention: to engage the reader’ interest enough to want to find out more. And then to use this website to begin to tell the rest of the story, and its important implications for the critical agendas of those trying to effectively use their resources to facilitate a national race-to-the-top.

For those interested in that “rest of story” and its implications for their own leadership and for current national reform, you also will  find the longer review I would have liked to have published, followed by mini-reviews of two articles by same authors published since the book came out —

• An Education Week Commentary, “Moving Beyond the Conventional Wisdom of Whole District Reform,
• A November ‘09 KAPPAN article, “Six Lessons for Pursuing Excellence and Equity at Scale: Efforts in Montgomery County, Maryland, to ‘raise the bar and close the gap’ depended on deep changes.”

These homed in on the their concluding “Six Lessons” which they had seen as a “Call to Action” for the rest of the country’s urban schools.

In future Sabusense postings I’ll begin to explore both the content and context of the MCPS story — The Lesson of the Lessons… and its Deeper Implications for current national reform efforts… and possibly for the Harvard School of Business itself.


(To be published in the February 2010 issue of The School Administrator)



The Rest of The Story…

(What I would have liked to have published…)

“By Jove…they got it… they really got it!” While reading this book I kept hearing that refrain from My Fair Lady. But when finished I had a different realization: “Why…. How could that be?”

• How could the Washington Post in a front page article claim that
‘Leading for Equity,’ … presents … Montgomery as a model for other school districts to follow,”

…and David Gergen, in the book’s introduction say that the
“authors … Call to Action … is grounded in their research in Montgomery County but is aimed at the larger national conversation about transforming public education…”

• …while the Post’s own longtime and respected education reporter criticized it and its Harvard Business School authors, (“6 Lessons From Montgomery County Public Schools That Mostly Missed the Point”) for looking
at Montgomery’s remarkable success in raising student achievement as if they were analyzing Wal-Mart’s marketing triumphs. It is all about process. People who deal with this sort of stuff in their own jobs will be intrigued. ……I, however, write about teachers, and I am not quite as thrilled with the book as the folks hanging around the business school’s soda machine might be.”

• And how could Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believe that “Montgomery County is “one of the examples of whole district transformation that shows us the way,” while several major reform and research organizations studied the same school district and left with few learnings they felt applicable to the immediate and long-range concerns of America’s most needy students in its most needy schools?

For me, I found the answers in the concept that “while content may be king, context is the kingdom.” This book’s content is important, but the context (or way-of-thinking) from which it emerged is what gives it unique meaning and significance for the entangled problems of leadership that characterize today’s schooling and the failed attempts to improve it.
In particular, what can this bigger picture tell us about why these “non-educator” researchers “got” what their “educator” peers seemingly did not?  And what are its implications for systemic reform?

Benchmarking a way-of-thinking

Initial responses to this book make it clear that this school district’s behavior doesn’t fit the “theories” of what school systems are “supposed” to do. That’s why it helps that this book’s authors’ have a “different” way of understanding and thinking about schools as organizations.

While other observers had focused on, and tried to benchmark MCPS’ What’s and How’s, the Harvard Business School authors concentrated on the Why – a deeper level of organizational understanding that is important because it is common to all work settings in both education and business. From this perspective they’ve attempted to benchmark the MCPS way-of-thinking, and the roles a superintendent plays as a shaper of other’s thinking. Or as the MCPS superintendent calls it – as a Teacher-on-Special-Assignment.

This has been the authors’ lens. And to the extent that your experience leads you to share their beliefs, you’ll find much of value. But, ironically, it may contribute most to those who don’t believe effective improvement of a large, complex school system is possible.

Why? Because a Possibility Paradox stands in the way of scaling up and sustaining “what works” possibilities. When time and resources are in short supply, it is what we don’t believe possible to do “today” that has the power to trump the “someday” hopes of the soundest teaching and learning theories and practices.

As a consequence, culture-creating “impossibility beliefs” frame the “box” that we’re supposed to “think outside of.” Yet the scale and nature of this district’s work over 10 years was changing that box for those working inside it. Through epiphany-generating work experiences that proved that the impossible was possible, it was influencing the beliefs and thinking that underlie “culture.” For example,

1. While we believe in the “possibility” that every child can learn, we often don’t accept at the same level of assurance that all children already are learning; every child comes pre-wired to learn. That is until, as in this district, we see support for that belief demonstrated in ways that can be sustained for every child, not just some.

2. We believe that “teaching” is the interaction of a single teacher with a student. We don’t accept at the same level of assurance that teaching actually is a collaborative process whose success requires the active involvement of more than one person … until we can see what happens when the “dots” outside the classroom in the building and district connect to support each teacher’s vital interactions with each child.

But then…
3. We don’t yet believe in the possibility that the school district already is a system in which effective teaching and learning can happen in each of its classrooms, in every one of its school buildings everyday.

And we won’t …until we have a way to see and experience a district creating and sustaining the interconnecting processes that enable that to happen regardless of changes in personnel, community politics and resources. Understanding the what’s and how’s of that systemic experience is what makes the MCPS story significant.

Whether or not this district’s story can provide “a model for other school districts to follow,” or influence “the larger national conversation about transforming public education” or even fulfill Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s belief that “Montgomery County is “one of the examples of whole district transformation that shows us the way” will depend upon overriding the underlying power of that deeper third “impossibility belief.”

Unfortunately, there have been few epiphany-producing experiences (in education) to counter that 3rd disbelief and demonstrate why this understanding provides the only sustainable context for the possibilities that are created by the first two beliefs. For decades epiphanies similar to the first two have driven reformer’s and practitioners support of many classroom and building improvements. But in the end, those improvements faded away with the departure of the teachers and principals who held the beliefs.

And, over time, this seeming inability for effective practices to remain rooted, scale up and spread to others has, in itself, produced the most powerful and limiting impossibility belief — public schools are systemically unchangeable as presently structured.

Without ways to experience how that 3rd belief about the district-as-a-system plays out in practice, policymakers will continue to seek non-systemic alternatives. Their options: break the system into separate and supposedly more manageable pieces, outsource many of its functions, or get rid of it completely.

In this small book the Harvard authors haven’t been able to tell the full story and they struggle with how to connect leadership to learning without making it seem to be (as they put it) the story of the exploits of a “super” superintendent. They defaulted to the phrase “Weast and his team” which, while accurate, doesn’t really get to the critical story of the development of that team, the scope and nature of its “teamness” and the developing understanding of the processes of systemic governance and systemic management that sustain it.

It attempts, more successfully, to present the story of a district that has been closing the gap between methods and mindset that is a daunting barrier to systemic improvements in the core work of schools and classrooms.  The authors’ conclusion is that it’s about a different “mindset” – a way-of-thinking that can give practical meaning to the “methods.”

It’s a mindset critically needed by national leaders “racing to the top” without an adequate road map of the mountain they must navigate.  And without methods that can  work systemically…now.


Continuing the Story…

Published or not, the telling of the MCPS story hasn’t ended. It seems clear to the Harvard authors (as it is to me) that the lessons that already can be drawn from this continuing experience are directly applicable to the problems of today’s urban schools. But it apparently isn’t to others who have the potential to act comprehensively on it.

This creates a new problem — those of us who have been “learners’ must now be “teachers.” This can be a ”teachable moment,” but it may be missed if it can’t connect to ”learnable moments” for those currently seeking to make more immediate large-scale differences.

• Where might be there be learners whose readiness-to-learn is backed up by a realistic sense of urgency and who already have the knowledge and resources to act meaningfully on it?    (In subsequent postings we will address three that come to mind who seek short-term systematic tactics that fit with their long-term systemic strategies: the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation and the Harvard Business School itself.)

• How can knowledge based on what has been learned from MCPS’ lessons be applied in ways that enable it to show up in sustainable school district “performance” – the only criterion that suggests its been learned?

Recognizing these needs, after the book’s publication the Harvard Business School authors extended their thoughts with two articles that homed in on their concluding “Six Lessons” which they saw as a “Call to Action” for the rest of the country’s urban schools.

1. In an Education Week Commentary, “Moving Beyond the Conventional Wisdom of Whole District Reform,” Stacey Childress accurately described the nature and scope of the problem of whole district reform, and the problem’s source — the seldom-challenged conventional wisdom.

The nature: “school districts must take on two difficult tasks at once: raising the outcomes of top performing students while at the same time accelerating the learning of students who are behind.”

And the scope: “And they must find ways to do this in every school, not just a few exemplars.”

The seldom-challenged conventional advice: “Hire great principals and teachers, make data-driven decisions, hold everyone accountable, build a strong culture, and engage stakeholders”

…all seemingly-sensible strategies which strangely had not yet responded to the scope, nature and time demands of the problem — “few were delivering excellence and equity for all of their students.”

In MCPS, on the other hand, they had found a school system functioning at a “deeper level than conventional advice” and offered “six lessons” from their story to help make sense of it.

2. The Harvard authors then turned to what could be learned from MCPS’ attacking the problem of scale and inclusiveness at this deeper level. In a November ‘09 KAPPAN article, Six Lessons for Pursuing Excellence and Equity at Scale: Efforts in Montgomery County, Maryland to “raise the bar and close the gap,” they attempted to connect what they had seen to these deep changes.

Again noting that the unquestioned common advice from academics, consultants, and foundations (hire great principals and teachers, make data-driven decisions, hold everyone accountable, build a strong culture, and engage stakeholders) did not deliver their promised systemic results for all students today, they looked at the unique progress MCPS had already been making as a system, and what they had learned about how they did it.

What was distinctive, they asked, about MCPS’ focus on the same few core ideas? Digging deeper beneath what the district did, they looked across their implementation to better understand how they did it and why it was working.

Here they captured stories that supported the learnings from each of the lessons. But in the end, they acknowledged their problem in “capturing the complexity of the work in Montgomery County.”

Yes, Montgomery County made data-driven decisions, engaged stakeholders, and hired great people in its efforts to provide excellence and equity for all of its students. But such pithy phrases as “hire great people” fail to capture the complexity of the work in Montgomery County. Like many districts, MCPS had plenty of great people back when there were 35-point achievement gaps.
Great people thrive in healthy organizations that enlist them in the pursuit of ambitious, meaningful goals and provide them with the powerful strategies and support systems necessary to reach those goals.”

Their “six lessons” capture some of how the leadership team in Montgomery County has been developing a “healthy” organization connected by “powerful” strategic support systems that engage their staff in fulfilling simultaneously their own and the system’s goals.

3. But as every good teacher knows, even with the best of lessons, learning isn’t guaranteed.

Therefore, since this site’s dual intentions are to influence:

how we think about schools… by offering a different lens through which to view what we see people doing every day in schools , and

what we think about those actions… by focusing that lens on a coherent, ten-year body of systemic wisdom (knowledge woven on the loom of experience)

…we’ll be using this site’s perspective and content to more deeply explore this unique resource that external research by itself cannot usually access (and which usually falls through the cracks as it’s carriers move on).  And then to suggest the relevance of both the content and context of the MCPS story for addressing urban education’s present conditions.

Therefore, in the next posting — The Lesson of the Lessons… and its Deeper Implications — we’ll focus on that lesson’s prerequisite ”learning” for those committed to sustained systemic change  — that while Content is king… Context is the kingdom.

We’ll outline a case for why and how what’s been learned from this district’s experiences can offer a unique opportunity to advance two major systemic reform initiatives, the current national reform efforts of the Obama Administration and the Gates Foundation and will suggest two potential strategies to do it.

A Teaching for America strategy to understand why systemic school system transformation must be done, and

• A Rosetta Stone strategy to understand how it can be done.

Then, as it is now, the site will be open for discussion by those who want to join in this way of thinking about what can be done today.

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