Monthly Archives: November 2015

Sharing the Shift-Change in Schools

It is hard to do the right work. There are many moving parts, people, conflicting beliefs and practices. Effective leaders care about addressing all stakeholders’ needs while guiding necessary shifts in how schools serve learners. It is impossible to satisfy everyone while change happens. Each person is affected differently. The leader’s job is to understand what that impact means for groups and individuals. They must support them in moving forward.

Leading change in today’s transformation is key. Culture is an important backdrop. It causes each attempt to make shifts unique to an organization. The leader first must understand the ethos of the stakeholders. Questions such as: How are things done here? With whom or with which groups can the leader share banding people together to best serve our learners? How do we identify and commit to desired changes? How do they affect each group and individual? What kinds of supports are required?

There is a difference between authority and leadership. Greg Satell, (Harvard Business Review 2014), says, “…(you can) lead a passionate group of willing innovators and build a movement or (you can) use one’s authority to demand wholesale change by forcing the unwilling.” Change must be empowered; not managed. ‘Managing’ is not transformative even though it is supportive. Influencing the power of stakeholders to own the change process is needed.

There are many experts on the subject. None has more meaning than having actually ‘lived’ it to understand the complexities of the work. My experience leading schools exemplified what Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy describe: “Change leadership merges top-down, bottom-up and sideways energies to generate change that is faster.” In seven years, we fundamentally changed a traditional high school from bricks and mortar, lockstep time, to a personalized system that served each learner. It was in early 2000 when robust education technologies were not widely available or promoted. We rocked our adult world with a large integration of all kinds of technologies while making school learner-centric. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

We first defined a shared vision. We dreamed and visually represented what this ‘new’ system would do, how it would look and feel. Research and best practices were deeply studied. This helped understand the ‘why’ and ‘what’ for planning and communicating.

Strategies were driven by the vision and were captured by a representative leadership task force. Communications were horizontal, vertical and constant. There was much tribulation and non-stop solution finding, hand holding and wringing. We assessed each action and decision implemented; we monitored and adjusted as needed. It took three iterations, four ‘town hall’ meetings, and 90% commitment from staff to implement an embedded professional learning approach that would allow us to learn and grow. A similar process produced an intensified block schedule that accommodated each learner with a personalized coaching model.

The most important outcome achieved was the creation of a culture where each learner was valued, respected and cared about regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. Ultimately, students led this cause. They demanded that peers stop using slang or words that could be hurtful even if that was an unintended consequence. LBGT students came forward and asked for voice and respect which was honored and inculcated.

Even while on a positive trajectory, the fact is that change changes too. Just when we believed smooth sailing was ahead there was a reality jolt that caused us to pause, regroup and adjust the path. In those times even the most staunch leaders and supporters wanted to jump ship. We had created schools within a school to better serve different learning styles. Implementation (use of time/space/interdisciplinary curriculum) caused discomfort and uprising for some. We had to be nimble and live with ambiguity until we properly addressed concerns to move forward.

I wish I knew then what I know now. Our practice, research and expertise today provides a rich set of resources and professional network. To say the least, changing schools is daunting, and, to some, impossible to do. I believe that an initial small ripple has great potential under the right distributive leadership. That and passion and will.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

Old, New, Fail, Succeed: Better Together

The future is ‘now’ when discussing education technology.  Stick around, in a few minutes a new app emerges, a new device is on the market, access expands, the new last mile is identified and students have new ways of collaborating and creating in cyber space. Right now, there is a research, design and development team creating a solution for some challenge. There is nothing linear about here and now.

Linear-everything was my lot in K-12 and higher education.  Lock step; by the book; many books; test anxiety; creativity became a distant memory after kindergarten. So it was. All of us were in the same boat.  A lot in the ecosystem has changed – or moved around a bit.  A lot has stayed the same in spite.

Five years ago, President Obama gave his approval to grant many US schools waivers for having not achieved adequate yearly progress.  If he hadn’t, according to Arne Duncan, 82% of US schools would be ‘failing’ under No Child Left Behind.  Duncan opposes (now and then) the ‘teach to the test’ mentality that No Child Left Behind has defacto imposed because of its reliance on students’ standardized test performance to assess schools’ status.   The Obama administration’s mandate is and was ‘school reform now’.  Such as the education mandate has been for as long as we can all recall.

Today, states are still realigning policies, organizations, and teams as a result of the reforms, shift in reforms, Race to the Top, and revamping of No Child Left Behind’s waiver process.  High quality teachers is even a more visible cornerstone in Obama’s agenda than years before. It is tied to present day reform movements.  The teacher evaluation system, many are works in progress, is an example of how states are shoring up roles, responsibilities and data to tend to the bottom line of ensuring all learners are achieving at their highest rates. Many of these have doubled-down on student testing results as measures of teachers’ expertise.  More enlightened systems grapple with teacher evaluation systems side by side with educators, examining the many points of learners’ demonstration of mastery, understanding and competence.  In the latter environments, more school staff are connected to overarching school goals – those with a focus on the learner.

Much of education reform and policy has been tied up in the government grid-lock that plagues our nation. What really matters is learners, personalized systems, global citizenry and an ecosystem aimed at ensuring a solid democracy.  If we let go of linear thinking and partisan politics we can find solutions, invite creativity, discovery and the arts of invention and reinvention.  Somewhere within those non-confines lies a host of possibilities for schools. It is happening one classroom, one school, one district, one state at a time.  We’ve tried for over 50 years to make sweeping reforms. Some have called on research; ‘action’ research; really good hunches, classic disruptions, variations on disruptions…etc., etc.  None has taken hold to really affect the overall landscape of how we do schools. Maybe if we consider all these attempts, find patterns, what works and why, what doesn’t and why, we can continue to move toward .a multitude of possibilities.  It will be more than one answer. There are many organizations in this country doing the right work, caring and working toward the right mission.  But we haven’t all successfully banded together to get the job done.  All of us, united together or standing alone, will also rely on risk, mistakes, and failures to see through to plausible transformations that make the most sense. What if we worked together?

A continuous cycle of improvement is a means by which many organizations consistently assess, research, monitor and adjust key systems based on desired outcomes. The framework has proven an expeditious means of not only tending to the important pieces within a system, but communicating about progress, deliberating adjustments aimed at better goal achievements engaging all stakeholders. AdVancEd, ( an accreditation system, has this cycle at its core.  For 31 years in numerous public education roles, I utilized this system. I believe there have been 4 or 5 major iterations since the early 70s in how ‘they do business’.  In Michigan, unlike some other state agencies, they have welcomed public, private and charter schools into their program.  It is a nurturing, guided system that counts as important all parts of the school system, how they work together toward learners’ goals. They also promote a network of professionals to explore and reflect upon practice and possibilities.

Some entrepreneurs and inventors (i.e. Howard Schultz, Peter Sims) found that the art of beginning with imperfect and incomplete plans and ideas led to experimentation, discovery and new mind-sets.  Failure/mistakes were considered ‘learning’ strategies and outcomes not career breakers.  In the linear, silo, partisan education space today it’s not the norm to be wrong before you’re ‘right’.  But if we are really helping students learn to effectively research – how can there be one ‘right’ answer or ‘go to’ resource for testing hypotheses?   We are as much in a place and time of unlearning how we’ve done schools as we are in how to re-imagine them.

Inventing, creating and disrupting are messy.  So are robust edtech classrooms where today’s youth are allowed to discuss, debate, produce, explore, fail and find multiple ways to solve single linear problems. There is much about which we can all agree and take action.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute