The Summer 2012 issue of the Texas Association of School Administrators’ professional journal, INSIGHT, features one of our Standard-Bearer districts. This article gives the reader a picture of what a focus on engagement looks like in Alamo Heights ISD. “Rather than being test-driven, we’re trying to focus on curriculum and student engagement,” Dr. Kevin Brown, superintendent, said. “Fads come and go in education, but having a rich curriculum and getting students engaged in their learning are fundamental principles. The value in that never goes away.”
At the Schlechty Center we share a vision of a totally new and different kind of accountability system for our nation’s public schools, one that is based on transforming public education rather than reforming it, based on saving public education rather than destroying it.
- encourages a focus on engagement rather than compliance and a focus on being accountable for progress as opposed to simply accounting to government groups.
- strives to improve performance instead of punishing students, staff, and schools.
- fosters trust rather than blame, collaboration rather than competition, and flexibility rather than rigidity.
- encourages and promotes students’ learning at profound levels as opposed to their simply learning what is needed to pass standardized tests.
- fosters recognizing and rewarding creativity and innovation rather than limiting and regulating them.
The current national accountability system, while well-intended, does not support our vision. At the Schlechty Center we are opposed to accountability strategies that serve to discredit and undermine public education and those who teach our children and run our schools. But it is not enough to simply be against something without offering an alternative. We need a solution we can champion. It is for this reason that the Schlechty Center is developing a prototype to serve as a comprehensive systemic tool that can be used by advocates of public education to reframe accountability.
We don’t claim to have all of the answers but we do have a point of view and we are pretty good at asking the right questions. We will use this blog to share pieces of our work as we go. We will solicit suggestions and examples of artifacts that are being used to account for progress as opposed to simply account to state and federal agencies.
Our vision, and the strategy and frameworks that will follow, are based on some basic beliefs we share and invite others to consider:
- People perform better in organizations that build the capacity to perform.
- The primary purpose of evaluation is improvement, not punishment.
- Strategic thinking and design precede strategic planning.
- Customization is a more important value than standardization.
- A focus on engagement is more desirable than a focus on compliance.
- Public education needs to be redesigned and saved, not dismantled.
This first piece is titled “Are You Ready?” We invite you to use it with others to see if there are common beliefs and commitments. We invite your reactions and suggestions concerning how you might use this work.
By George Thompson
I seldom watch TV, but I make sure to tune in every two years when the Olympics are on. Then I become addicted. In fact, I have been grieving since the flame was extinguished on August 12th signaling the end of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
It was only when a friend asked why that I thought about it. Why do I become so enthralled with the games? Is it the competition? Not really. Is it love of a particular sport? Not for me. Then why?
As I thought about it, the answer became obvious, although I never had considered it previously: It’s the stories. The television producers, directors, and announcers do an amazing job of getting the audience to know these young people and their stories of hard work, desire, sacrifice, accomplishment, and sometimes failure. You get to know their families, sometimes their children, their coaches, and those others who have impacted their lives. I often find myself cheering for the athlete with the most compelling story.
I wonder how many people would watch if they only talked about the score, the rankings, the winners and losers? Perhaps some would, but not me.
What does this have to do with education?
In education we seldom tell our stories—including the stories of our students, our teachers, and the parents in our schools. We have stories, and we may share them with our colleagues—but not with the public. Instead, we often tell our score, our ranking, and whether or not we made acceptable or exemplary status. Educators have an arsenal of stories about how our efforts change the lives of children and families, yet we rarely tell them because we have been conditioned to believe that only the score matters.
What would happen if we purposely shared our stories as a strategy to save public education?
Becky Burch, literacy coach at Fairmount Elementary, shares her learning and insights about the power of design. Gordon County Schools, where Fairmount Elementary is located, is a member of the PAGE High School Redesign Initiative which is using the Working on the Work framework as a school transformation initiative in partnership with the Schlechty Center. Through these relationships Becky had the opportunity to attend the Schlechty Center’s Coaching for Design II session at our Louisville, Kentucky, office and to enroll in the PAGE Teacher Academy. The academy has three goals: to facilitate role transformation, to provide a catalyst for change, and to “publish” work. Here Becky has accomplished all three!
Congratulations to the G School on successfully completing their Design Challenge! This video documents the students’ use of design thinking to build classroom furniture. The G School is located in Dalton, Georgia–Whitfield County Schools.
AMY HURLOCK ZOCK, a teacher in the Whitfield County Leadership Program, created this unique “letter” to her superintendent as a summary of her experience because an actual letter didn’t feel dynamic enough.
Amy said, “So many great books, so many experiences, and I they are all very connected. I was having a really difficult time representing that. So I began pulling in all the documents and things I’d done during the year that related to my leadership experience. I felt like doing my letter this way allowed me that novelty and variety and was stronger than any letter I could write.”
Way to go, Amy! We were just so impressed that we had to share this summary with others doing the tough but rewarding work of transforming schools and classrooms.
Posted by George Thompson
In an article published in Educational Leadership, “The Threat of Accountabalism,” Phillip Schlechty offers that public education in the United States is slowly being overwhelmed by what David Weinberger, a highly regarded author in the field of business, calls accountabalism.
According to Weinberger, “accountabalism is the practice of eating sacrificial victims in an attempt to ward of evil.” He goes on to write, “because accountability suggests that there is a right and a wrong answer to every question, it flourishes where we can measure results exactly. It spread to our schools where it is eating our young - as a result of our recent irrational exuberance about testing, which forces education to become something that can be measured precisely.”
Daniel Pink, in Drive, cautions, “what science is revealing is that carrots and sticks can promote bad behavior, create addiction, and encourage short-term thinking at the expense of the long view.” At the Schlechy Center we have heard many stories from educators who are caught in a world of contradictions and dilemmas where accountability, while well intended, has become destructive, or just plain silly. We invite educators, parents and/or students to share examples of accountabalism, where short-term thinking and actions have trumped doing what is in the best interest of students over the long term.
Article: Whose Standards Are They?
Posted by George Thompson
We suspect that you and your staff have been dedicating time and energy to unravel and try to make sense of either the new Common Core Standards or newly revised state standards. At the Schlechty Center we have also been educating ourselves about the most recent standards, thinking hard about your challenges, and anticipating some of your current needs and interests. This article discusses the current issue of standards-both Common Core Standards and revised state standards-from the perspective of the Schlechty Center’s major concepts and frameworks. We know that you have state officials and others telling you what you need to know and how you need to proceed. You’ll find we take a different approach. We recommend questions for probing district discussion that might help strengthen your district’s direction while you and your staff think deeply about important content.
We are also offering a session (also entitled “Whose Standards Are They?”) at the 2011-2012 Working on the Work Conference in order to provide you and your districts additional support in this area.
We would love to have feedback on the article and this issue in general. Let us know what’s happening in your district with standards and how you imagine using this article.
President, Schlechty Center
I first heard about the idea of charter schools from Albert Shanker, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers. As he explained the notion, it sounded pretty good. Based on the idea of charters as developed by European monarchs during the “age of exploration,” a local school board might identify some problem, or set of problems, requiring a level of innovation beyond the school district’s present capacity to respond. Teachers and other educators-perhaps in partnership with parents, local businesses, and civic groups-would be invited to join together to develop an innovative solution to the problem or problems. Those who accepted the challenge would be provided a special charter much like Queen Elizabeth granted to Sir Walter Raleigh and James I granted to Henry Hudson. This charter would give the group a special license to explore innovative approaches to the problems identified and to act on their discoveries.
As a part of the charter, the chartered school group would be freed from most if not all of the policy restrictions, rules, and directives under which other schools in the district would be operating. In some cases, the group might also be provided some venture capital to support their efforts. In exchange, the chartered group would agree to document their efforts, make their work transparent to others, and, if the innovations proved to be successful, provide technical assistance and support to others who might want to use the innovation as a prototype for their own efforts to solve the same problem.
Shanker found the idea appealing, not only because it had the potential to release the creative capacities of teachers, but also because it had the potential to empower teachers to pursue ideas they believed worthy of pursing. It was not long, however, before the idea of the charter school was co-opted by those bent on introducing more choice and more competition into the American system of education-and, ironically, also as a tool to bring teacher unions “under control.” (Of course, those who use charter schools to promote choice and competition argue that these schools can also serve as models for public schools, but it is clear that choice and competition rather than systematic exploration of innovative solutions to persistent problems is the superordinate goal of the charter school movement. Indeed, some of the more popular charter school models operate more as franchises for an established innovation than as tools for exploring alternative models.)
As instruments to promote choice and competition, charter schools have become places that promise to do better (which is not to say, do differently) what traditional schools are intended to do. Indeed, some charter schools proudly proclaim that they are traditional schools. Rather than inventing the future, the goal of many charter schools seems to be to affirm the past.
If one assumes that schools as they have been designed to operate can meet the needs of the twenty-first century and that all that is needed is relief from onerous bureaucratic regulations, then the ideas underlying most present versions of charter schools will provide some relief to a few students in a few schools. The obvious question, of course, is, “If it is the regulations that are impeding performance, why not change policies and program restrictions for all schools and for all students, not just the lucky few who enroll in this or that charter school? Why insist that the formula of strong states and weak school districts is the preferred formula, when state intervention almost invariably leads to more regulation and more bureaucratic controls than would otherwise be found in any but the most highly bureaucratized big city school system?”
If one assumes, as I do, that what is needed are schools that encourage continuous innovation and the disciplined exploration of alternative solutions to persistent problems, charter schools such as those now being developed will do little to help us meet the challenges we must meet to ensure that every child will be provided a high-quality education. The charter schools Al Shanker described to me could, however, be valuable tools in our effort to transform our schools from government-based bureaucracies into the community-based learning organizations they must become if they are to serve twenty-first-century democracy and twenty-first-century economies well. (See my book Leading for Learning for a more extended discussion of this point.)
To properly use charter schools as such a tool, policymakers would have to renounce the idea that these schools are primarily a means of providing parents and students choice. More than that, they would need to be prepared to recognize that school improvement is not a stand-alone activity. In the long run schools only improve on a continuous basis when there is strong sense of community surrounding the school and a sense of ownership and pride attached to the school.
In the multicultural, multiethnic world in which we now live, democracy’s survival depends upon the building of a sense of community among the diverse populations from which children come. In addition to needing strong communities as a condition of their own improvement, public schools may be the only organizations positioned to systematically address the need to build community, just as the schools may be the only organizations that might help parents better fulfill their educational functions. The challenge confronting many schools, therefore, is to build a sense of community among diversity rather than to simply design schools that assume a unity of purpose that does not exist.
The fact is that many of the problems we locate in schools have their origins in the family and community. Rather than lamenting this fact and complaining about the lack of family support and community support, maybe schools should be encouraged to explore innovative solutions to these and other problems. Rather than seeking ways to help schools develop the capacity to do those things families and communities no longer can or will do, it might be worthwhile to charter a faculty to explore new ways for schools to build community in places where a clear sense of community does not exist and to help parents to better carry out their functions as educators?
Maybe a school that operated under a specific charter to build community rather than trying to serve a community that is fractured could also serve as a catalyst to solve many additional problems that are affecting community life in America-for example, the lack of honest communication across racial and ethnic boundaries. Maybe schools could once again serve as vital centers of community life and become the cultural institutions they must be if they are to serve our democracy well. Maybe schools could become places where the young and the old, the rich and the poor join together to ensure the continuation of our democratic way of life as well as to provide each child with a quality educational experience. Failing this I fear schools will continue to devolve into the government-dominated agencies present reform efforts are threatening to cause them to become.
If the initial concept of charter schools were adhered to and charter schools were seen as tools to explore ideas like transforming schools into community-building agencies, well-conceived charter school initiatives might address issues that have plagued our education system for many years. As things now stand, however, the charter school is as likely to further aggravate the problems that exist in some communities as it is to address those problems. The problem for educators committed to democracy is to create ways to educate children from diverse backgrounds and to do this in a way that embraces diversity rather than accepting Balkanization as a solution. Too many charter schools treat race as a variable to be controlled rather than a resource to be used. Indeed, as a group, charter schools are even more segregated than are public schools.
What we need are schools that build communities and reinforce a sense of unity among us rather than schools that are designed to support the divisions that exist between and among us. We need schools that are based on the understanding that a strong common bond that fosters pluralism and tolerance and that honors cultural diversity and democratic discourse is the only means we have to ensure that democracy will prevail and the further disintegration of community life will be avoided. Charter schools such as those once described to me by one of the nation’s foremost union leaders could well lead the way to the communities we need to support the schools all of our children deserve. However, charter schools such as those now being encouraged will, I fear, not only fail to solve the problems we have but might well exacerbate them.