During a conversation with an influential member of our community and personal friend this week, I shared in passing my long-held theory that all schools must have a single focus if they are to achieve and sustain excellence. We spoke about the tendency of many organizations to continually seek new ways to improve (good) by adopting more and more programs (okay) that are never clearly connected to each other (counter-productive).
The problem is not that we are tackling too many of the problems we face nor that we are using multiple strategies to pursue growth. It is that our efforts are far too often disjointed. My friend summed up our conversation and our concern in one short phrase: “We are pushing too many buggies”. Each time we think of something else important we add a protocol or a policy or a weekly task to our existing list. When as schools do we have conversations designed to ensure that everything we do is aligned to our overarching purpose? When do we announce that we will be discontinuing Initiative X because it has served its purpose or is redundant of Project Y? If schools must do so many different things in order to serve students well (and there is no question that we must), would we not better position ourselves to be successful if we built a conceptual framework to understand how everything we do fits together to support our mission?
I propose that in order to become great, schools need to choose a single focus. One something that defines who they are. An identity on which to hang everything that is part of being a school. I believe that having such a focus is more important that what that focus is. In other words, while there are plenty of things too narrow to support an entire school culture (like “Clean Bathrooms. Every Stall, Every Day”) there is not only one “right” focus for schools. For example, the middle school where I work has chosen a deep and practical understanding of assessment and grading as the focus of our shared learning. We have chosen to make that area of expertise “the thing” for us. Because classroom assessment is such a fundamental issue, our learning in this area is impacting every other part of the school culture – it is changing our school. Although we have chosen this course, I continue to be convinced that we could just as easily have chosen a different path. Last summer I had the privilege of visiting Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina as a member of a team from our school system for the purpose of learning more about their 1 to 1 technology initiative. Among the many things I learned those few days was the fact that when their school system set out to put technology in the hands of each child, what happened in the process was a radical change to the way they approached teaching and learning. Collaboration changed. Approaches to grading and assessment changed. Lesson planning and communication strategies and student voice and scores of other details about the schools changed as a result of an unwavering commitment to achieving their goal. In fact, by focusing on one thing, they were able to grow in many different areas because their work was aligned to one purpose.
The truth is everything we do in school is interconnected. If our planning and our work fails to consider the interconnectedness of each part of what we do, that work will inevitably become a jumble of disjointed pieces – confusing and overwhelming at best; working at cross purposes and self-defeating at worst. I do not make this proposal lightly. To successfully adopt such a singular focus in a school requires effective leadership, a strong culture, shared decision-making, and a willingness to be highly reflective and honest about the way things are as a faculty … among other factors. On the other hand introducing an unending parade of programs, protocols and policies is much more easy – and probably expected. But doing so can not result in a sustainable culture of excellence.
I am practitioner, not an expert in organizational leadership. Having said that, this approach is working for our school. We articulated and agreed on a vision of where we were going from the beginning. None of us anticipated the path we have taken, though. We are even now discussing what our next steps will be. We maintain our focus and see the goal, but there is no magical formula to follow. Here though are some of the (non-magical, non-formulaic, not guaranteed) steps we took as a school to make the implementation of this philosophy work for us over the last several years.
1. Laying the Foundation. During my first year as principal we engaged in countless formal and informal discussions about ourselves. We talked about what kind of school we want to be and how exactly we might get there. As part of that discussion I proposed studying grading and assessment together. No program. No mandate. No timeline. Just a challenge.
2. Teacher Leadership and Buy-In. During the summer after my first year, we held a retreat for all the faculty leaders. We studied several resources on the topic of grading and assessment. At the end of the retreat I asked the team to decide whether to propose grading and assessment to the faculty as our long-term focus or not. When they decided to do so, we all immediately became co-planners in the process. The teacher leaders presented the majority of the proposal to the rest of the faculty.
3. Digging into the Idea. That summer the faculty agreed to participate in book studies to begin learning about this topic together. Again, there was a specific item on the agenda of that faculty meeting to choose between “Yes, Let’s Move Forward” or “No, Let’s Hold Off on this Decision”. We had a back-up plan in case the faculty decided to wait. The fact that each teacher chose to join the process made the learning that occurred that year much more meaningful.
4. Articulate Your Position. By the end of that school year, the faculty had proposed, drafted, discussed, modified and “ratified” a position statement on our shared learning. We wrote a Grading Manifesto. In the context of this process, it was a formal declaration of our focus as a school. We chose to make this the central focus of our learning. Every certified employee’s Professional Learning Plan (teacher and administrator alike) includes the actions and activities he/she has chosen to continue learning about assessment. A copy of the manifesto (signed by everyone) hangs in the front office.
5. Long-term Commitment to Learning. As I hinted at earlier, we are not following a script. We are taking each next step based on an evaluation of where we are, where we are going and our determination of the best possible way to get there, based on what we know right now. For example, every teacher is part of a formal Professional Learning Group this year. By the end of the year, every teacher will have spent at least five pull-out days learning with grade level and department groups. We are planning an in-house workshop/EdCamp/mini-conference for this summer. We are discussing what the step will be after that. It will depend of what we know and what we need to learn next. What we are firmly committed to is maintaining the same focus we have had.
Our story is not over yet. I have lived enough of it, however, to be fully convinced that we would be a much different school if we did not have one idea that we consider central to who we are. I have heard and been part of enough other stories to believe that we are not unique.
Meaningful change and growth take time. When radical change happens rapidly, it is either superficial or damaging. Be patient. Choose a focus. Make a commitment. Become experts. Schools that have a strong central identity will determine how all the minutia connected to education fits together – and in so doing will be much more successful at the entire process than those operating from program to program.
*For my Yankee friends, buggies are what we use to collect groceries here in the South.