How to Change 5000 Schools: a practical and Positive Approach for Leading Change at Every Level

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How to Change 5000 Schools: A Practical and Positive Approach for Leading Change at Every Level

By Ben Levin

Book notes Compiled by Jane L. Sigford
Chapter One: A Personal Odyssey
In chapter one Ben Levin describes his professional journey. He got interested in reform as a high school student and college student. He even tried to organize a citywide high school students’ union in his hometown in Winnipeg.

That wasn’t successful. He eventually became chief research officer in a large Ontario district. He had many professional opportunities to be involved in leadership and change initiatives. He taught at University of Manitoba and then at University of Toronto. He is a peer and colleague of Michael Fullan. He became deputy minister of education in Ontario, Canada’s largest province, and the province with the most students –2 million with over 5000 schools, hence the title.

Chapter 2: The Ontario Education Strategy
In the 2nd chapter Levin describes the Ontario education structure and the evolution of the journey they have been on to improve public education. The journey went from a place of top-down mandates and disgruntled teachers and communities to a place now where student performance is better than it’s ever been, teachers are more satisfied with their profession, and communities are more positive toward public education.

The strategy is that the province focused on key goals:

  • Improve a broad range of student outcomes

  • Reduce the gaps in achievement

  • Increase public confidence in public education

There were strategies under those goals and there were other strategies that were corollary.

But the important message is that 1) student learning was the focus, 2) goals were few and concentrated, 3) everyone knew the goals and 4) structures were put in place to provide support in resources, professional development, staffing.

And those issues that were not related to these goals, were seen as distracters, and dealt with accordingly. [underlining mine] Leaders were to be leaders about learning not managers.

The message was meant to be respectful, based on partnership, coherent, and aligned, as elements that would make the changes significant, broadly acceptable, and sustainable. P. 40

  1. Respect for staff and professional knowledge—Government began with belief that staffs in our schools are committed professionals who have enormous skill and knowledge to contribute to school improvement. P. 40 How did they do this?

  • Public statements of gov’t are constantly supportive of public education and work of educators

  • Gov’t abolished some policies, such as paper-pencil tests of new teachers and compulsory professional development requirements that were perceived as meaningless and punitive. They were replaced with policies such as induction program for all new teachers and a simpler system of teacher performance appraisal that is supportive of professionalism

  • Staffing increased and teacher workload reduced; prep time increased

  • Schools were seen as allies and partners in change, not obstacles to it

  • Focus on capacity-building and many opportunities for teacher learning at all levels

  1. Coherence and alignment through partnership

Partnerships were put in place that were meaningful and contributory. Principals seen as key players (they were also taken out of the teachers’ union) Professional dev. for principals was expanded

  1. Capacity in districts and the ministry
  • More support for education and administrative leadership and operations in boards, including the use of consultants to help boards improve administrative operations, and leadership networks to help chief superintendents to provide better leadership around pedagogical issues. P. 43

  • Before most ministries were concerned with issuing policies, distributing money, enforcing rules etc. Now they are trained and expected to be leaders about instruction p. 43

Impacts of the strategy

  • They are seeing real skill improvements for students, not just increases in test results. Avoided a focus on test pre and drill

  • Main outcomes:

    • # of very low-performing schools dropped by 75%

    • HS graduation rate has risen by 7% over four years

    • Attrition among young teachers dropped by half

    • Early retirement among teachers declined sharply

    • Public confidence increased notably.

  • In fall of 2007 a group of US chief school officers spent a day to see what was happening. [Was this CCSSO? Have we heard about this? Note mine?]

Adjustment over time: Phases

  • What they realized is that to be successful, an initiative is started, but it changes over time. That doesn’t mean failure; it means that things change and if one doesn’t evolve, the initiative will die and not make meaningful change.

  • Some good practices also become embedded and become SOP, such as guided reading, shared reading, use of leveled books, shared writing, data walls to track progress. When things become embedded, that is a healthy sign of positive change. P. 47

  • There are fewer new initiatives and more focus on deeper implementation of those already underway. Ongoing capacity-building and support reduce the stress of the new. Nonetheless, at all levels of the system, the need for more alignment and coherence remains and will remain an important consideration. P. 48

  • Changes in approach are not an indication of weakness or failure; they are an indication of learning. p, 48 [underlining mine]

  • Most importantly the willingness to adjust the strategy, even in the face of political criticism for doing so, builds trust with the education sector since it shows the govt’s genuine desire to work in partnership and to learn from each other.

  • With the Ontario strategy outlined, the next chapter talks about the reasons large-scale, sustained change is so important yet so difficult to do.

Chapter 3: How Much can we Expect from Public Education

Do we Expect Too much from Schools?

  • When UNICEF (2002) rated well-being of children in 20 rich countries using data on 6 different outcome areas, the US and UK were at the bottom of the list. Many other countries with less overall wealth are able to have both higher and less unequal outcomes for children at all ages. P. 50

  • It is unfair to hold schools and educators responsible for social ills such as discrimination or crime, just as it is unfair to expect every individual student to rise above his or her circumstances just by dint of effort. P. 51

  • A reality of politics and public attitudes is that it’s often easier to try to address social problems through schools than it is to deal with the real underlying factors. Adults appear to be unwilling to adopt good eating habits, so we’ll make kids in schools eat better by banning junk food or eliminating pop from vending machines.
  • There is nothing wrong with any of this education initiative except the feeling of hypocrisy that we are imposing on young people things that we, as adults, are not prepared or able to do ourselves, such as not eating fast foods ourselves. P. 51

  • Intractable social problems can create pessimism about schooling.

  • Limits of school impact are real and have to be acknowledged. Educators should be active in lobbying for improved public policy in areas such as employment, housing, and social benefits. Educators cannot simply say “it’s not our job” or “you are asking too much of us.” To say that we cannot do everything does not absolve us from doing as much as we can. P. 51

  • First, improving student outcomes is the very purpose of the education system. If schools are unable to alter the life chances of the students who come to them, why invest in public education at all? No matter what background people come from, more education and higher levels of literacy are associated with better outcomes. P. 51-2 [underlining mine]

Research that supports that education makes a difference:

  • Education and earnings—a year of schooling equivalent to increase in income of nearly $1700 a year in health effect. An additional year of school shows that annual earnings increase by about 10-14% p. 52

  • Education and civic engagement—Education has causal relationship to multiple forms of engagement including voter turnout, group memberships, tolerance, and acquisition of political knowledge. P. 52

  • Education and health—strongly linked to determinants of health such as health behaviors, risky contexts and preventative service use. Child mortality decreases, smoking decreases
  • Education and positive behavior—Importance of good education underestimated. During past decade in most western countries, public expenditures on health care and law enforcement have increased more than public expenditures on education. Western countries try to remedy the negative effects and social costs of a relatively low educated population by providing unemployment benefits, law enforcement through policing and higher sentencing, and by increasing health care budgets to counter the detrimental effects of unhealthy behavior. P. 53

  • Cost benefits of education—Addition tax revenues and reductions in cost of public health and crime amounts to almost $256,000 per new high school graduate among black males, yielding two to four dollars in public benefits for every dollar spent. P. 54

  • Schools can make a significant different. In fact, they make the biggest difference for those with the greatest needs; in other words, schools may have an important role to play in reducing social inequities. P. 54

Aiming Higher for Students

  • We need to be careful in interpreting data and using it to forecast performance. In the aggregate, previous performance does predict later performance, but predictions that are accurate for populations are not accurate for individuals. P. 55-6 Munro (2004) shows how even predictive instruments with high reliability can still produce surprisingly large numbers of false predictions for individuals. P. 56

  • Within-group variance is (difference among schools with similar poverty levels) is larger than the between-group variance (the average difference between schools with lower or higher poverty levels. Even with similar demographics, some schools and districts consistently generate much better outcomes. P. 58

  • Studies of individual schools that have excelled are important because they can show us potential avenues for improvement, but it is a fallacy to assume that what can be done in one school can necessarily be done in all. Stronger evidence about possible improvement comes from large scale evidence more than from studies of individual schools.
  • Reality is that in learning we do not know what the boundaries of human capability are. What we do know is that barriers that seem impossible are, eventually, broken, and performance gets better. We do know that many people can achieve far more than was anticipated if they have the right opportunities and supports. P. 59 [underlining mine]

What counts as success?

  • We have multiple goals for kids in school—literacy, working together, knowledge in a wide variety of areas, etc. etc but people do not want to have to choose among their goals. We want them, all, and we want them for all children. To put it bluntly, we want schools to make every child perfect!! P. 60

  • High levels of achievement across a number of domains are a vital purpose of schools, but the distribution of those skills is also important. Young people who do not get a good education will have much more difficulty both participating in and contributing to our societies which results in higher intergenerational costs.p. 61

  • For almost all of human history, education has been an activity for elites.

  • Education is an activity as well where it is not only the goal that matters, but how that goal is achieved. P. 61 We want an education to be something that takes work, that is earned and deserved. The enterprise of schooling itself has to be conducted in ways that fit our ethical sensibilities and standards. P. 61

  • Fear does not produce superior performance, either for students or for educators and an institution based on fear will not be sustainable. P. 62

Chapter 4 Why Improving Schools is so hard to do

One of biggest challenges in leading school improvement involves realistically assessing the likely barriers and constraints. Reformers tend to be optimists and visionaries who are not hardheaded enough at the outset about all the things than can go wrong or get in the way of their plans. P. 63

  • It may seem excessively negative to have a whole chapter on problems but the balance between vision, optimism, and realism advocated at the end of the intro. Makes it vital to be sober-minded about what is required for real and lasting improvement. This chapter is about obstacles and how to address them. P 63

  • Schools are often described as being resistant to change. Looking at the historical record, that seems like a wrong description. In reality, there can be few institutions that have been subject of more change initiatives over time than public schools in many parts of the world. P. 63

  • Reality is that most schools have been inundated with change. P. 64

  • Problem is that many of changes have not brought the desired positive effects or have not been sustained. Most of basic features of schooling remain largely unaltered even over a century. P. 64

  • Joseph Murphy [in Levin] says there are two routes to school reform—prayer and magic. P. 65

  • Milbrey Mclaughlin [in Levin] says, “Policy cannot mandate what matters.” P. 65

  • Either changes were never really brought into effect, or they did not last long enough to show results, or they did not bring about the intended improvements for students, p. 65

Why has so much change yielded so little improvement?

Goal of public schools should be real and meaningful learning, across a wide range of desirable student outcomes, with greater equity in those outcomes, in a way that builds and supports positive morale among all those involved in schools and also supports high levels of public confidence in public education [underlining mine]

  • When put this way, it’s apparent why it is so difficult to achieve.
  • Problem is to make right changes in right ways. Making real gains across a range of outcomes means that daily teaching and learning practices have to change across many, if not most, classrooms and schools. Greater equity in outcomes suggests changes in programs and resource allocation. Positive morale means that people need real involvement in the changes rather than being on the receiving end of orders they don’t agree with or don’t know how to carry out.

Changing institutions hard for many reasons. Here are some of the main ones:

  • They have ingrained patterns of belief and behavior that are widely accepted as normal or natural no matter how poorly they work

  • They may be embedded in intricate systems of laws and regulations as well as competing values that make change difficult. Collaboration across institutions turns out to be inconsistent with privacy laws. P. 66

  • Inst. have established interest groups and powerful individuals who seek to preserve their own situations and benefits even when doing so does not serve the inst’s goals.

  • Parents and students may be particularly reluctant to change some long-standing features even when these features do not benefit them

  • People may not know how to do the new things that are asked of them. People prefer to look competent at doing the wrong thing rather than look incompetent at doing the right thing. [underlining mine]

  • Institutional longevity or popularity may not be necessarily related to good outcomes for students. If a school or district has capable students, it may add little value but still be seen as quite successful. P. 67

Most educational changes fail for one or more of 3 main reasons:

  1. They are the wrong changes

  2. They do not give adequate attention to political dynamics

  3. They are not implemented effectively. P. 67

Wrong Changes:

Changes should be chosen on 2 criteria:

  1. potential impact—how much difference a given change is likely to make for student outcomes
  2. feasibility—how likely is it that a school or district can implement and sustain this change given the current context

Schools and system should consider both criteria equally. We should aim to choose those changes that have the most potential to make the biggest difference for the most students with the least effort.

  • Governance changes do not themselves bring about improvements in teaching and learning or in student outcomes. They may be part of a comprehensive strategy but cannot themselves generate much improvement. School choice and charter schools have generated a huge amount of attention but their impact, especially in relation to time and energy invested, has been modest at best. P. 69

  • Testing and accountability—misguided to think that more assessment or more punishment for poor results will lead to better outcomes, either for students or for students. [Pay for value added for teachers and administrators going the wrong direction—note mine] Negative incentives are less effective than positive incentives and most incentives in accountability system are negative. P. 69

  • Donald Campbell in Levin “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. P. 70

  • Most of the top mgmt theorists (Deming or Drucker) take the view that system improvement requires system efforts and changes, not just pressure or incentives for individuals to improve. P. 70
  • Changes focused on structures are not going to produce the desired results. Even changes focused on teaching and learning practices may not be the right ones if they do not meet the two criteria discussed earlier. Relatively few innovations have convincing evidence of positive impact on student outcomes, especially where one seeks evidence from multiple locations produced by independent 3rd party parties rather than promoters of the program in question. P. 70-1

  • Instructional innovations that do not have solid empirical support should be tested or piloted rather than imposed on an entire system. This is both ethical and efficacious.

  • Venture capitalists expect 90% of their investments to fail otherwise they are not taking enough risks. Failure is part of the price of learning; we have to try lots of things to learn what works. P. 71-2 [It’s hard for us to “fail” in education because we are dealing with people’s children. Note mine.]

  • Innovations should be evaluated so we can steadily improve our knowledge about effective policies and practices.

  • We have to consider feasibility too. Changes that assume that large numbers of people will quickly alter their behavior in fundamental ways are unlikely to be workable. Decisions need to consider best way to use scarce time, energy, and other resources. P 72

  • Need to assess if any given change proposal has power to produce lasting results given resources and effort required.

  • Additional problem—education systems are highly prone to stand-alone projects. Innovation is called a success but is never implemented widely across entire system.

  • Whole school change, comprehensive school reforms, have also run into serious problem. If model is only adopted superficially it does not produce desired results. P. 73

Political dynamics

  • Sustainability of change in schools really rests as much on political dynamics as on improved teaching and learning, leadership or any capacity building just discussed.
  • Elected politicians have primary responsibility for shaping large-scale reforms. They are not intended to please educators but to appeal to general public whose knowledge of and ideas about education are inevitably limited. P. 74.

  • Nothing is more destructive of morale in any system than frequent, sudden reversals of strategy or policy, especially when people have worked hard to make previous policy successful. P., 75

  • Policies matter at school board level. Who gets elected makes big difference particularly because school board elections usually draw small #s of voters so people can get elected with few votes and can have a powerful impact.

  • 2nd political problem—decentralization of authority to schools and clusters of schools. They were often unprepared to deal with the issues, such as budgeting, and personnel issues.

  • Progress is not a matter of one person turning things around, but getting an entire system pointed in same direction with all parts working together reasonably smoothly.

  • Politics matter at micro politics level too—People compete for status or position while student priorities are ignored. Program choices may be made to boost someone’s career rather than because of careful though about students’ needs. P. 77

What can we educators do?

  • Communicate with internal and external communities, frequently, openly, honestly, and focused on our priorities

  • Treat all stakeholders very day as though they matter and can contribute

  • Use evidence to make decisions

  • Give the best advice possible to senior staff and elected officials

  • Commit to system as a whole, not just my small part of it.

Poor implementation

  • Having right innovations not enough. Even the best ideas can, and do, fail if badly implemented. P. 79
  • Changing what people do in their daily work clearly involves much more than being told to do something different or being given a demonstration of a new procedure. P. 80

  • Change is harder in social situation. Any important skill takes lots of practice to learn, and without support people are likely to revert to what they know, even if it does not work as well.

  • Also, there is pressure for others to remain the same. Students can also be resistant to new ideas.

  • Implementation wrong word—effective change comes from thoughtful application not blind obedience to central plan. P. 81

  • Both teaching and learning require positive energy, and that energy is unleashed when people believe in and care about what they are doing. Gradually and painfully we have come to learn that real change in schools requires will and skill, capacity and understanding and commitment, and that developing these requires considerable and carefully designed effort. P. 81

  • To build lasting change we must engage in capacity-building [underlining mine]

  • Capacity building requires a thoughtful, sustained approach that will create and support the changes in behavior or practice that we want to see. P. 83

Chapter 5: An Agenda for Improving Teaching and Learning

There are 2 sets of factors that require attention:

  1. strengthening teaching and learning practices and adult-student relationships across all classrooms and teachers in a school or a system

  2. Changing instructional and related practices, however, will only take place in the right school and system context

9 essential practices for improved outcomes: Following is a synthesis of the research about what makes a difference:

  1. High expectations for all students
  2. Strong personal connections between students and adults

  3. Greater student engagement and motivation

  4. A rich and engaging formal and informal curriculum

  5. Effective teaching practices in all classrooms on a daily basis

  6. Effective use of data and feedback by students and staff to improve learning

  7. Early support with minimum disruption for students in need

  8. Strong positive relationships with parents

  9. Effective engagement of the broader community p. 92

  1. Higher expectations

If we don’t believe students can achieve, then they are highly unlikely to do so. It’s really as simple as that. The challenge is to move from “high expectations for all as a slogan to where it is grounded in daily practice in schools. P. 94

  1. Strong personal connections

Strongest single factor in students’ leaving or staying is their feeling that someone in the school knows who they are and truly cares about their future. P. 956f

  • Personal relationships cannot be built by changing structures; they require—well, personal relationships. They are much more a matter of culture than structure, as evaluations of the small schools initiatives have found.

  • This must be part of the overall culture of the organization. P. 97

  1. Greater student engagement and motivation.

  • Motivation research present but not really applied to schools. We know that the following matter:

    • Tasks that are meaningful

    • Autonomy in how we do the work

    • Supportive feedback that helps us improve

    • Good peers to work with whom we respect and who respect us
    • The work is of genuine consequence to someone p. 98

  • Too often we teachers define motivated students as those who do what we want obediently and without complaint. But that is not how adults would think about motivation and engagement in our own lives. P. 99

  1. A rich and engaging curriculum

  • Curriculum is often described as a central element for school improvement. Levin’s perspective is different==teaching and learning practices are far ahead of curriculum as a means of improving student outcomes. And the emphasis on curriculum has not been the best priority for limited time, energy, and resources. P. 100 [There is no “magic bullet” curriculum. Note mine.]

  • Curriculum documents almost inevitably end up with too much to cover and are beneficial only for those involved in the process. Writing performance objectives is not a good way to use teachers’ time in comparison with improving daily student assessment practices or learning new pedagogical practices.

  • The preference for college prep curriculum at the secondary level has led to less interesting instruction, less student engagement and poorer outcomes. P. 101

  • The solution to this problem is complicated. We need more, not fewer, options for our diverse learners. We need more avenues to get higher ed—post-secondary options, tech college, etc. It should not be one track to get there.

  • It’s a tough balancing act that depends on the right combination of course choices and pedagogical practices. P. 103

  1. Effective teaching practices in all classrooms on a daily basis
  • Improving daily instruction is the elephant in the room of school improvement. Imposed instructional practices are almost certain to fall short of expectations if not to fail outright. P. 103

  • Teaching has very few similar standard practices when it comes to actual instruction. When teachers work together to share practices, including with expert coaches—because we do not want the sharing of ineffective practices—and with support from administrators and supervisors to learn to use them, it is possible to see quite remarkable changes in instruction over relatively short periods of time. Moreover, when done well these changes get firmly embedded in teachers’ work such that they will persist even if the supports and pressures are reduced. P. 104

  • Good teaching is the best strategy to improve student behavior

  • External support from a literacy coach and skilled diagnostician as well as the development of a strong internal community among them are critical factors. P. 105

  1. Effective use of data and feedback by students and staff to improve learning

  • Key elements of effective assessment practice in classrooms are

    • clear standards for good work through vehicles such as rubrics or exemplars;

    • opportunity to revise and improve one’s work

    • grades based on final level of performance rather than averaging across the term or year

    • separation of grading of academic work from judgments about motivation or behavior.

  • Teachers tend to be acutely aware of the performance of each individual in their class but much less aware of patterns of achievement over time, such as whether students tend to struggle more with expository vs. fictional writing or with fractions in comparison to decimals. P. 06

  • Having data is not the same as knowing how to interpret or use the data.
  • Data analysis not just a technical process, but an emotive one (Garmston and Wellman in Levin) p. 107

  • Assessment and data do not tell people what to do next. It is important to review research and have teachers work together to plan instructional strategies.

  1. Early support with minimum disruption for students in need

  • Need to minimize labeling and paper work and pullouts for special ed students and other students with labels.

  • Need priority for early intervention in elementary

  • Need priority at hs level to make certain all students are on target with credits. Failure to achieve credits at 9th and 10th grade levels is high risk factors for not graduating.

  1. Strong positive relationships with parents

  • Empirical evidence of effects of parent involvement on student outcomes is not as strong as is sometimes made out.

  • Too often we have used parents around governance, not about student learning. We need to change that.

  • Parents want their students to succeed so we need to help them set expectations, navigate difficult relationship, provide a good learning environment, and advocate for their children.

  • Building relationships with parents takes a lot of time.

  • Maybe we should have a staff person for whom this is their responsibility so we can make it happen and not make more work for teachers. This might be a very cost effective strategy to improve education. P. 113

  • In our leadership development programs we should provide more training in conflict management so schools are able to manage the inevitable conflicts that will arise with parents and community groups

  1. Effective engagement with broader community
  • Any community has people in it who can be mentors and role models [Sugata Mitra’s “Grannies” is a great example. Check out his TED talk Note mine]

  • Community support may be most important in those areas where there is least community infrastructure and where schools most feel its lack.

  • Schools can make the most difference in communities where there is the greatest need.

  • We make a huge mistake thinking people who are working 2 jobs, immigrants, etc are not engaged in their child’s education. They ARE concerned and they want their child to learn.

Putting it All Together

  • The 9 areas of improvement are synergistic, not complementary

  • Where to start depends on the strengths of the system in conversation

  • Look for things that meet the 2 criteria—making the most impact and the most feasible.

  • Make a multi-element, multi-year strategy.

  • Keep the organization working at its full capacity for change

Chapter 6: Organizational Supports for an Education Agenda

The right reforms are not enough; it is also necessary to have the right political and org. strategy to support these reforms. P. 119

Four key org. supports for change
1 Engagement and commitment by the adults in the system

  • Psychological commitment is necessary because education is always a mindful matter.

  • Learning cannot be mandated from above, nor can good teaching. Creating commitment is in part a matter of setting a clear, compelling vision that engages people’s hearts and minds. Educators are overwhelmingly idealists. That idealism has to be tapped by leaders.

  • Ambitious goals in rhetoric are not enough. Goals have to be matched by real action.
  • First requirement is to build commitment and engagement in mutual respect and trust among all the partners in a school or system. The larger the org., the more likely it is to revert to depersonalized communication and reliance on orders and policies.

  • Sometimes the problem is simply one of time. But leaders need to remember that what saves a few minutes now could end up costing many hours later in dealing with the effects of resentment that could easily have been prevented.

  • Respectful practice not as common as we might want because it is hard to maintain.

  • The simple fact is that schools cannot succeed unless we have good teachers who want to be there. P. 123

  • Current push in US toward merit pay is a good example of the wrong policy solution in regard to teachers. It assumes that the only problem in education is one of motivation, whereas the argument in this book is that both will and skill matter. Doctors don’t earn more for being better diagnosticians. E.g.p. 124

Effective collective processes for educators to continue to improve their practices

  • Most important single support for all practices to improve education is ongoing training in the context of people’s real work settings. P. 125

  • We cannot continue to support PD activities that do not produce significant results.

  • Models of looking at actual classroom practice and involving groups of teachers working together make a difference. P. 126

  • Just creating learning communities is not enough. Teachers need facilitation skills training, training in effective data use, and training in changing instructional strategies. P. 127

  • Coaching can be very effective if done in a context of collegiality and openness, trust, and confidence in each other. P. 127

Aligned, coherent, and supportive system policies and practices

  • Vision statements and org. culture are important, but they are not enough.

  • Look at other system practices to see if they reinforce district goals

    • Do staff meetings focus on goals and priorities or are they administrative in nature

    • Is instructional time protected or constantly interrupted

    • Is conversation in hallways focused on priorities or on everything else

    • Are routine reporting requirements given more importance than time for teaching and learning discussions

    • Do school and district communications reinforce the school’s priorities and goals

    • Is hiring and placement of staff consistent with goals

    • Are evaluation practices for staff and students consistent with school’s goals and priorities? Or do they lead people to be defensive and to focus on avoiding mistakes rather than learning new skills.

  • All too often orgs. reward compliance rather than accomplishment. Large bureaucracies such as depts. of education are particularly susceptible to this problem. P 129

  • One mistake orgs make is to combine reform with major changes in the structure of the org. That is almost always a mistake because it becomes a distraction, not a time of focusing on real goals. P. 130


  • People in an org need to hear constantly from mgmt about the big picture in a way that allows them to understand what the org. is doing and how their particular work fits into the larger plan. P. 130

  • Communication requires repetition. And refinement and repetition.
  • Communication is not just one way it is also hearing from people so as to understand how they see their work, the org., and their place in it. P. 131

Allocating Resources

  • High quality ed requires money yet in 2007 Americans spent more on travel and the cost is about $11/hr what many people would pay for a babysitter

  • Because so much of the funding goes to staffing, there are ways to make more effective use of that money.

    • Improve teachers’ skills [with meaningful p.d. note mine]

    • Reallocating staff assignments—best teachers in neediest classrooms e.g.

    • Address imbalance in staffing--#s of assistants. Are they necessary?

    • Reducing failure and grade repetition—It’s costly to have someone fail and repeat classes

    • Reducing staff attrition and absence

    • Reconsider special ed practice

    • Improve “back office” administrative functions—use shared services, set service stds, etc. p. 136-7

Chapter 7: Building Public Confidence in Education

Why Citizens Matter more than Experts

  • People may hold strong views based on little or no knowledge. Educators may make the mistake of thinking that if we just explain what we are doing and why, people will support it. Not necessarily so. People’s core beliefs are highly resistant to change even in face of strong contrary evidence. E.g people don’t quit smoking even though we all know how bad it is. P. 141

  • Experts may have opinions but their judgment is regularly overridden by public opinion.

  • Reality—most of us have quite strong opinions on many issues about which we know relatively little.

  • Also experts have been and can be wrong because knowledge changes

  • Experts in education don’t even agree
  • Expertise is essential, but it is not everything. We need to operate out of current best practice and common sense. P. 143

  • Public polls seldom ask what people are willing to give up to get what they want. People want their own preference at the expense of someone else’s desires.

  • Difficult political calculations have to be made as to whether one can and should fight for any given issue as a matter of principle. P. 145

Who is the ‘Public”?

  • Broader than parents. Also community and business who form their views through social interactions as well as through their experience. Opinions are shaped by social forces

  • Challenge is to understand who is in the community and to find ways to reach out both to established groups and even more to people who do not already have the means to make their views know.

  • Can do asset mapping—map organizations, libraries, churches, etc, in the community and target communications to various groups.

What Level of Public Confidence do we have and need?

  • The more direct knowledge people have about schools, the more positive their views seem to be.

  • People seem to be more critical because we have a population who have higher education personally, and media who seem to need to have high interest stories.

What creates public confidence?

  • Primarily a matter of giving more REAL information.

  • Must remember that every interaction with a community member is important. Negative interactions get spread easily among the community.

  • Must pay attention to personal contacts and relationships just as any other org. does.

  • Negative interactions seem to have more power. [see book notes on Kahneman to understand the brain chemistry behind this. Note mine]

Media and Communications

  • Coverage is often superficial
  • Coverage not usually about issues that improve student outcomes

  • If people really read or watched more in-depth coverage, the media would be much more likely to provide it. P. 157

  • Important to build strong, positive daily interactions with students, parents, and community members. This is not only good public relations; it is also good education. P. 157

School Communications

  • Truthfully, school newsletters and websites (the most powerful of school communications) are rarely done well. They seldom give information about the bigger picture of the system’s goals, accomplishments, and challenges. P. 157

  • We need to use more social media. YouTube gets more hits than network news. We need a reasonable infrastructure and level of support.

  • We need to provide information on curriculum, effective teaching, student assessment, and other issues especially for parents and the public. P. 159

  • [Should we be on Facebook, Twitter, etc??? not just newsletters and websites??note mine]

Telling the real story—Challenge is how to position communications in a way that is fair and open without laying oneself open to unreasonable criticism, p. 161
How should the public judge the performance of education systems?

  • Everyone realizes one shot tests and scores are not effective in evaluating schools

  • More and more countries and provinces going away from so much testing –England, Finland, Manitoba, Ontario

  • However, in some places test scores are only information communicates get about system performance. P. 162
  • No single indicator, or even a set of indicators, will cover the whole range of goals people think are important for our schools to address. But the absence of perfect information cannot be a reason to have no information. P. 163

Public Debate

  • Education will always be a subject of public debate but there are many things schools and school systems can do to improve public knowledge and understanding of the work that schools do and the challenges with which educators struggle. P. 169

Chapter 8: Leadership for Improvement

Leadership hard to describe. This book will talk about instructional leadership and the managerial leadership in separate chapters.

  • Problem is to balance need for change with need to manage effectively. Both are critical, but they turn out to be conflicting

  • Leaders are exhorted to be change agents But then leaders go back to their districts and discover that the press of the immediate or routine seems to make the work of change impossible.

  • Unfortunately, it seems we need, or want, or expect our leaders to be perfect. What we expect from them, no real person could ever attain. P. 173

Leading Improvement

  • On pp. 174-5 ISLLC Standard 2 has expectations for a leader. No one could do or know all of that.

  • Fullan’s 6 Secrets of change

    • Love your employees

    • Connect peers with purpose

    • Capacity building prevails

    • Learning is the work

    • Transparency rules

    • Systems learn. P. 176

  • Levin’ s list

    • Establish a vision an goals

    • Build a strong team

    • Create and support the right culture

    • Communicate vision, direction, and accomplishment

    • Recruit, develop, and retain leaders
    • Build internal and external support

    • Maintain focus on teaching and learning. p. 177

  1. Establish Vision and Goals

    1. Goals few in #--no more than 3. “If everything is important, then nothing is really important.

    2. Quality of planning documents may be inversely related to success of plan.

    3. Should only devote a SHORT time to developing goals or this is merely a distracter, and not the real work, p. 179

    4. Need to focus on actions, not words.

    5. Keep it short. P. 180

  2. Build a strong team

    1. Don’t talk about distributed leadership because no one really knows what that is. Instead talk about effective teams

    2. Teams—share commitment to common goals, support one another in achieving goals, united in working toward good of whole organization, contribute in many different ways, making a contribution is not the same as having leadership role.

    3. Sharing leadership means inviting everyone to contribute in their best way.

    4. Teams are more than collections of individuals. Important to have diverse perspectives and opinions on team and create an atmosphere of open discussion and disagreement.

    5. Nobody is good at all things. Therefore, need diverse skills on the team

    6. Need new energy on teams but not all new people or that is a distracter. A mistake people make is to bring a whole team from previous position. That is destructive to the org and sends the wrong message that it does not value current expertise.

    7. Challenge is to match right people to right work. P. 185
    8. A leader has to feel responsibility to larger organization and to team. Can’t build competition among teams; must consider well-being of larger org.

    9. Important info. should be shared as widely as possible. Sharing budget information important so people understand the complexities.

Build the Right Culture: Want schools to:

  • Focus on making progress on key priorities

  • Evidence based

  • Open-minded and attuned to views and needs of students and community

  • Collegial

  • Supportive of people as they experiment, learn, etc.

  • Reliant on communication and persuasion to build commitment instead of authority. P. 188

Can create the culture by:

  1. Declaring values—declare publicly and frequently the values and qualities that the org is attempting to exemplify. Must be repeated regularly in various ways

  2. Model the qualities in practice by building them into systems and practices.

    1. Are communications inviting, not dictatorial?

    2. Are meetings conducted in ways that legitimize and invite diverse views to be expressed and debated

    3. Are people encouraged to be interested in the work of the org as a whole or is the sentiment that they are to mind their own business

    4. Is budget shared openly

    5. Are cross-org teams used regularly to develop and implement plans in important areas

    6. Does the org share research and data widely and invite people to discuss their import?

    7. Are staff at all levels encouraged to use their initiative consistent with the org’s goals

    8. Are people all across the org recognized and thanked regularly for their contributions? P. 190-1

  3. Monitor progress and make adjustments

    1. Conduct student and staff climate surveys regularly p. 191

Communicating strategy and Accomplishment

  • Communication is embedded in almost everything that leaders do. P. 192

  • Communication should build morale by constant reinforcement of positive elements—people’s hard work and successes.

  • Effective communications for leadership must be two-directional

  • Effective communications include having fewer meetings but making them more effective. P. 197


  • Important to have a climate to retain good people. More expensive and destructive to recruit, and train new people.

  • Ways to retain:

    • Don’t waste people’s time. Don’t send them endless requests for information when they could be teaching. Don’t ask them to put paperwork ahead of instruction.

    • Don’t call unnecessary meetings. Shorten the meetings by sending agendas ahead of time, conduct as much as possible electronically, shorten presentations to 5 minutes max.

    • Meetings should be a place to express and test one’s ideas and receive feedback. P. 199

    • Focus on things that help people do their job well.

Chapter 9: Managing the Distractions without Losing Focus

Keep focus around teaching and learning practices and community engagement and around the org practices needed to support them.

  • Unfortunately, we find ourselves where the truly important is driven out by the urgent.

Why it’s hard to stay focused:

  • Operational tasks keep occurring

  • Political forces keep changing and exerting pressure p. 203

Importance of the routine.

  • Reformers start excited but reform occurs in an environment where there is already a lot happening

  • A successful org must still have effective routines, e.g. bus schedules.

  • Change advocates often underestimate just how much time and energy these routines take

Surprise Dominates

  • Even well made plans are often undermined by completely unexpected developments. P. 206

  • Surprise is an inevitable part of the work of school improvement

Maintaining the focus despite distractions

  • Reality is that leaders have more to do than they have time. P. 207

  • Leaders need to spend time on 2 categories: 1. Those necessary to org’s success that only he or she can do and 2. Everything else. For most of us, the latter tends to drive out the former and the challenge is to reverse the situation. P. 208

  • Leaders start by asking what is vital and cannot be done by anyone else

  • May have to say that some things are “good enough” and move on.

  • Some suggestions:

    • Schedule the most important things first, and in ways that are more likely to bind you. (This way impromptu events don’t eat away at schedule

    • Reduce the # of meetings: Use hallway conversations instead of formal meetings, ask what can be done another way?

    • Budget your time—don’t have open door. Schedule time to be there but open doors allow drop-ins to eat away the time that needs to be spent elsewhere. Don’t have your timetable dictated by other people. P. 210

    • Delegate work to others—and trust them to do it. Easy to say and hard to do.
    • Don’t be too deferential to the demands of the larger org. e.g. if everyone responds to endless requests for information, requests will continue to be made. Speak up when time is not being used to promote district goal

    • Beware of the seduction of having more staff. More staff requires more communication and interaction time. Use judiciously. P. 212

Managing Org. Politics

  • Understand Interests: There are concentric circle of interest

    • Students

    • Parents

    • “public”

The viewpoints may be different and they won’t agree until they believe thy have been heard. There is a legitimate human need for significance, to be heard. P. 215

  • Role of parents—parents are more interactive, not just in education but medicine, law, etc.

    • Schools need to resist temptation to see demanding parents as problems and instead focus on ways to use conflict productively

    • We need to provide more training to principals on conflict resolution.

  • Teachers and their unions

    • Teaching, when done well, is hard work. Unions serve a function and it is very helpful to have a healthy relationship with the union. Important to have communication, and openness

  • Building Support while Managing Diverse Interests

    • Reformers are often completely convinced of their own good intentions. When others fail to sign on, change leaders can easily get frustrated. Yet that is just when it is most important to keep one’s sense of proportion and direction, and to remain calm and focus.

    • Keeping a positive orientation is important. Keep talking about the big picture and how all the various pieces of change fit together.

Structures and places for debate and dialogue
  • Important to create structures and processes for issues and concerns to be taken up in ways that are most likely to lead to constructive outcomes.

  • Win-win is the fundamental premise for bargaining.

  • Important to have formal structures that facilitate constructive dialogue.

Ontario’s approach to managing political pressures—Ways Ontario changed the political climate

  • Extensive informal discussions

  • Creation of a Partnership Table—open forum that brought together leaders from more than 20 key educational organization

  • Discussion papers—issued by the minister discussing major policy areas—6 papers over the first 2 ½ years

  • Providing more detailed input on key policy areas—Working Tables to discuss the policy papers

  • Involvement of teachers unions

None of these have worked perfectly but the net effect has to create a climate in which it is increasingly accepted that problems can be addressed and solved through collective action with a modicum of goodwill. P. 226

  • Sharing as much information as possible tends to be associated with lower conflict.

  • Principles of openness, shared ownership, and dialogue with external stakeholder groups are hard to put in place in most org. as they involve a fundamental reorientation of the typical tendency to see external relations primarily as a game in which the goal is to win.

  • Important to help the parties build capacity for constructive engagement. P. 227

  • Trust-building is rarely easy or simple work. P. 228

Chapter 10: What can and should be done?

Focus on 2 questions:

  1. What should school systems do to make the biggest positive differences for our students and
  2. What can individuals at any level of the system do to make the biggest positive difference for students?

Current limits to student achievement arise primarily from conditions outside the school and largely beyond the power of schools to change. The most important of these is growing up in poverty. P. 230
But educators must continue to bring more students than ever before to higher levels of accomplishment.
Lasting and sustainable improvement means improving student outcomes across a broad range of important areas, not just reading and mathematics, and not just as measured by test scores. P. 230
Strong program of improvement builds strong personal relationship with students, families, and communities and to improve core teaching and learning practices—not just in a few places, but broadly across entire systems.
All require effective leadership focused on school improvement, the ability to manage ongoing operations of the system, and the skill to negotiate the inevitable distractions and political challenges of managing a public enterprise such as schooling, p. 231
What should systems do to support improvement?


  1. Assume that a single change can create improvement in a short time frame

  2. Assume that a few strong leaders can force a school or system to improve all by themselves, simply through charisma or force of will. Lasting improvement requires ongoing effort from large numbers of people.

  3. Assume that simplistic application of incentives, such as paying people for higher achievement, will be a successful strategy

  4. Start with changes in governance and policy

  5. Assume that new curriculum and standards can by themselves foster betterment.

  6. Assume that an accountability system with data on relative school performance will create improvement.

  1. Focus on a few key student outcomes that matter most and are most understandable for the public and for educators.

  2. Put effort into building capacity for improvement (skill.)

  3. Build motivation (will) by taking a positive approach

  4. Work to increase public and political support for an effective, thoughtful, and sustained program of improvement. P. 235

What can one person do?

  1. Pick a few issues for focus—that give the most results for least effort

  2. Build a team and allies; look after yourself and other people

  3. Think long- and short-term p. 237

  4. Pay attention to public confidence and political environment

  5. Stay positive and optimistic. The time is right. There is a growing understanding that we can improve public education systems in ways that are positive and sustainable. The stakes are considerable. P. 239

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