A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools
Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools, co-authored by Robert Kegan and colleagues at the Change Leadership Group, was published by JosseyBass last year. The result of five years of work with school districts around the country, Change Leadership is a powerful learning and diagnostic tool for teams from schools and districts. Here is an excerpt from the foreword, written by Tom Vander Ark, Executive Director of the Education Programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
After spending a long weekend attempting to summarize what I thought we had learned about leading high performing districts, I read this book and drew three conclusions. First, this work is hard—it’s complicated, technical, personal and political. Second, with so few people studying what may be the most important domestic issue of our time, we’re all fortunate that the Change Leadership Group spent the last five years working on educational success at scale and the leadership necessary to create it. And third, it wasn’t the architectural blueprint I expected five years ago, but probably better and more appropriate to the challenge.
School districts are a complicated American anachronism. Despite the recent aggregation of control to the state and federal level, we rely more heavily on local educational authorities than any other developed country. While many state constitutions acknowledge public education as the paramount duty of the state, we rest the responsibility for policy, service delivery, employment, and real estate development with local districts. Our history of local control has proven to be a blessing and a curse—a building block of democracy and a stumbling block (at least in some cases) to creating a system of public education of consistently high quality. Today, many principals are subjected to six accountability systems: local, state, and federal compliance regulations, and local, state, and federal outcome requirements. The potential of new data systems, the challenges of school choice, and budget problems add to the confusion. The difficult process of aligning and streamlining these policies and systems will (or should) occupy the second half of this decade. This policy debate could easily take place without improving teaching.
That’s where this book comes in handy. It’s only about instructional leadership. It doesn’t debate policy, doesn’t contemplate the role or architecture of districts, and it doesn’t tell you how to make AYP (but you will if you do what it says). It tells you how to improve the quality of instruction by becoming an effective instructional leader.
I wish it were simple, but it’s not. When I made this grant five years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect (I’ve since hired a bunch of people that ask far more specific questions than I did). I thought it would result in a training program for people trying to help improve schools and assumed there would be a methodology behind it—a ‘how-to’ guide. To some extent CLG has done both, but this isn’t a school improvement cookbook. It’s a framework full of pointed questions that thoughtful groups of teacher leaders should ask themselves about their work.
This book does suggest that there is a necessary progression to the work of system improvement: 1) preparing for change by answering the ‘why change?’ question, 2) including others and building the systems capacity for improvement, and 3) improving instruction. It points out the danger of jumping to doing without preparing. This point is important enough that it warrants a short story.
As Dick Elmore frequently does, this book points to the important work that Tony Alvarado did in District 2 in New York. It’s one of the best examples of instructional leadership in the country. Tony promoted adult learning about instruction, which resulted in powerful agreements, which led to the development of strong instructional practices. When Alan Bersin lured Tony to San Diego, he imported a decade of learning about instructional leadership and encapsulated it in a Blueprint. They “jolted” the system by jumping right into phase three, implementation, while quickly building capacity to improve instructional leadership (phase two). The ‘bet’ was that early results would build support for the radical surgery being done on the system. A regime of what has come to be called “managed instruction” was implemented with major budget realignments (which means hundreds of people lost their jobs) and a new set of priorities. Five foundations invested over $50 million in the most elegant instructional improvement plan ever devised. Several years later they were both out of work and the board was dismantling the plan. In between, teachers and some parents complained bitterly about the top-down reforms and results failed to gain the expected level of community support.
What can we learn from this case? First, best practices don’t travel well. At least not without a culture of engaged adult learners and the commitments that they are able to make. Second, change won’t happen unless you help the community answer the question, “why change?” Third, context matters—a lot.
There may be a fourth lesson. Being President of the United States may be the only job that’s tougher than being a school superintendent. Roy Romer will tell you that it’s harder than being governor. John Stanford said it’s harder than being a general. I know it’s harder than running a big corporation.
More than a money problem or a people problem, I think we have a design problem. As the CLG team points out, superintendents have to run the system we have while leading the creation of the system we need. We group kids by age and march them through the same experiences through sixth grade assuming most will get what they need, then we increasingly allow them to assemble courses of optional degrees of difficulty taught by people that hardly know each other much less the 150 kids they see every day. And we wonder why all kids aren’t reaching high standards? This appears to me to be primarily an architecture problem. With many of our early grants, I encouraged people to fix the architecture. Several years later many of those folks are stuck in architectural arguments and never got to the heart of the issue—teaching for learning. If, as this book suggests, you take the time to prepare and include, and then focus on improving instruction, you’ll tackle the architecture as needed and do it with a sense of purpose. You’ll have the momentum of engagement and improvement behind you when you get there.
—excerpt from Tom Vander Ark’s foreword to Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools
ISBN13: 9780787977559 / ISBN10: 0787977551 / 304 pg. / 2005 / Jossey-Bass