Sunday, December 26, 2010

Riding into the Perfect Storm of Reform

NOTE:  This post is part of the December 26-January 1 "Blog 4 Real Education Reform - The (Action) Sequel." Blog links are being posted at Paula White's Cooperative Catalyst

It's here. We're in the middle of it. And when it ends, the landscape will look very, very different.

Not much changes in your neighborhood over time. If you don't believe me, step outside your door and look around. What you see for the most part is the same thing you would have seen yesterday, last week, and most likely last year. I live in an older neighborhood and with the exception of a few cosmetic changes to some of the homes, along with a couple of new ones built in vacant lots, it still resembles what it looked like fifty years ago. And I dare suggest that it will look the same fifty years from now. Unless nature has something to say about it. In my town, as in many others across the mid-west, straight-line winds and the occasional tornado can alter a neighborhood with suddenness and finality. In other regions, it might be fires, twisters, hurricanes, floods and other catastrophes that do the same. Often, when it's over, what gets built in the wake of the destruction looks and feels very different from the past. A new vision takes its place.

Economic storms quite often produce similar results. One only needs to look back to the progressive era born out of the growing gap between the super wealthy and poor at the turn of the 20th century. Thirty years later, the Great Depression spawned a move towards liberal socialism and eventual rise of the middle class. There are many other examples from the post-Civil War economic collapse to the oil embargo and double-digit inflation of the 1970's.

Public education is in the middle of a perfect storm and its giving us the opportunity to finally – and belatedly - re-vision and reshape our teaching and learning systems to meet the needs of 21st century students. Not just talking about change, but doing it! The landscape of education is being buffeted like never before by a combination of growing political forces, flat-world economic pressures, expanding technologies, public discontent, and declining financial resources. Resistance is futile (sorry, but I've always wanted to use that line), change is imminent, denial is a complete waste of time. And, we don't have time. The question then is, “will you be the change, or will you be changed?

Our system of public education – our curricula, teaching methods, and the tests we require students to take – were created in a different century for the needs of another era. They are hopelessly outdated.” ~ Wagner (2008, p. 9)

Indeed, most educators labor in bureaucratic, rule-driven school systems that owe more credit to the practices of early 20th century factory management than to any notion of how to foster great teaching and learning in the 21st century.” ~ Hess (2010, p. 1)

As superintendent, I see my primary role in the areas of budgeting and reform as helping to develop and guide a leadership core that can move us through this storm and use the powerful forces created to substantially alter our outdated, over-regulated, teacher-centric, control-oriented form of K-12 education. We have the opportunity to achieve a whole new vision for adult and student learning that capitalizes on a lean budget and emerging new technologies. By the end of 2011, our goal should be to have taken the steps necessary to move through and beyond these creatively destructive forces, emerging on the other side with a whole new design for learning.

Alison Zmuda (2010) talks about moving to action starting with the following reflective question: “How committed are we to actually doing something to realize our hopes?”

We cannot wait for the day when the stars align, when budgets are flush, or when colleagues are willing. We must begin with being the change we wish to see in our classrooms and our schools. … The largest obstacle to this process can be the shackles we place on our own thinking.” (p. 82-83)

Working our way through what is collectively one of public education's most significant budget challenges in recent history will certainly not be easy, but it can provide all of us with the unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine and redesign our entire system of administration, teaching, learning and support. To begin this new year, I propose ten essential questions that can help frame our conversations which form the basis for ours action on a 2011-12 budget and beyond:
  • How should we redesign our district and building administrations to maximize efficiency and economy while providing sufficient leadership and support for a 21st century learning system? What new leadership structure based on a 21st century organizational model could effectively replace the costly industrial hierarchical structure employed in most school districts today?
  • From a point of view of each student, how should we redesign our teaching and learning environments to move away from19th and 20th century industrial models of education to one that goes beyond the basic accumulation of knowledge and skills, incorporating 21st century learning styles and goals? (One note here: putting lipstick on a pig doesn't change it from being a pig. Many schools that call themselves 21st century learning environments mainly have resorted to wearing lipstick. The basic out-dated model of schooling is still prevalent.)
  • What should a team of adult and student learners look like in a 21st century school house? How should the team strive to replicate the environmental, political, and economical changes currently being experienced world-wide while anticipating the unknown future?
  • How do we move away from a costly educational model “that prizes efficiency over development of learners' intelligence?” (Zmuda, p. 10)
  • What evidence can we produce or have we explored that supports the continuation of any instructional, administrative, and support programs we currently employ now in our district, in our schools, and in our individual classrooms? How does the evidence connect with our vision, mission and goals, and what might it suggest regarding the continuation, expansion, reduction or elimination of these programs?
  • What student supports (remedial and accelerated) are absolutely necessary given the goal for all students to graduate college- and career-ready despite the changing structures of the family and surrounding communities? How do we efficiently and economically incorporate those supports into a new 21st century learning system?
  • How do we redesign our personnel contracts, compensation, and instructional staffing models to move our educational profession out of the current industrial labor era based primarily on seniority and protectionism, into a 21st century model that values and rewards pre-teacher preparation, creativity, innovation, collaboration, leadership, life-long learning, results, and new ideas free from the constraints of current practice?
  • How do we convince our legislative leaders that less is more when it comes to the growing and costly administrative burden of state and federal regulations and statutes? What evidence will we need to produce to support our contention that we can be successful at significantly raising student achievement for every child if they acquiesce to our requests?
  • How can we utilize limited and declining resources most efficiently to redesign our traditional school houses into spaces that are more flexible and supportive of 21st century learning, as well as cost-efficient and economical to maintain?

Hess, Frederick M., Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling. ASCD, 2010
Wagner, Tony, The Global Achievement Gap. Basic Books, 2008
Zmuda, Allison, breaking free from myths about teaching and learning. ASCD, 2010


  1. David, thanks for this. This is the first blog post that I've read this year. Heck, I've only been up for a couple of hours!

    I always find it interesting to talk to those that are in more formal leadership positions, like yourself. Your strategic questions are vital to the change enterprise, I believe, and they give me a great deal of hope.

    I have a question for you. As an innovator that finds himself in a position of power and responsibity (you may not feel very powerful some days), what are the barriers and challenges that you face in moving these questions forward? In your day-to-day, who are the folks that you need to convince, motivate and inspire?

    As a Canadian teacher, I'm aware of my own local decision-making dynamic, but I would love to know more about how you move this type of thinking forward in your own system.

    Best for 2011!

  2. Thanks, Stephen. There are always barriers to change but I follow the late Randy Pausch's philosophy: The brick walls are not there to keep you out; they are there to keep those who don't want it bad enough out.

    I practice transparent leadership, communicating virtually everything in real-time to everyone unless there's a legal issue. With that, I feel I've built a high level of trust. At the same time, I am a partner with my teacher and support staff union leaders, with the president sitting on my administrative leadership cabinet. He also sits at the table during our board/administrator work sessions.

    We've already accomplished some unique collaborative agreements directed at helping our high school become healthy again. At the same time, I'm looking out for our staff and trying to elevate the professionalism as well as the compensation.

    It will be a difficult challenge this year, but I feel we have the mechanisms in place to accomplish much of this right out of the gate.


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